Derek Trucks Reaches for the Moon

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​“My dad saw Hendrix open for the Monkees here in Jacksonville, and he told me it was the first time he had ever dropped acid. Pretty intense,” Trucks said,

(Photo: David McClister)

It is hard to fathom the depth of loss that Derek Trucks must have felt in 2017. First, his uncle Butch Trucks, a founding member of the Allman Brothers Band, died on Jan. 24 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Three months later, on May 1, Trucks’ longtime friend and mentor Col. Bruce Hampton suffered a massive heart attack and collapsed onstage at Atlanta’s Fox Theater at his own 70th birthday party. Given his well known penchant for theatricality and practical jokes, including routinely falling down onstage, the band played on for several minutes before Hampton was taken to a hospital, where he passed away.

And, yes, bad things come in threes. Gregg Allman — who Trucks sat in with as a 10-year-old guitar prodigy and later played alongside for 15 years after joining the Allman Brothers Band in 1999 — died that May due to liver cancer.

But perhaps the biggest hit came when Trucks’ longtime friend and bandmate Kofi Burbridge passed away in 2019. A member of the Derek Trucks Band from 1999 and a key member of the Grammy-winning Tedeschi Trucks Band since its inception in 2010, Burbridge passed from an ongoing cardiac issue on the very day that the band’s fourth album, Signs, was released. It’s enough to trigger an existential crisis. What Trucks and his wife, guitarist-
singer Susan Tedeschi, did instead was play through the pain.

COVID slowed them down, but couldn’t stop them. Yes, it resulted in the immediate cancellation of tour dates — as in 20 months without a paid gig — but they retreated to their home in Jacksonville, Florida, and their band members followed, engaging in creative brainstorming as the collective delved into Layla & Majnun, a 1,000-year-old epic written in the 12th century by Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi. That same poem was the source material for Derek and the Dominos’ classic 1970 album Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs, which served as a guitar summit between Eric Clapton and Trucks’ slide guitar idol, Duane Allman.

Over a six-month period of remarkable productivity, the band (Trucks, Tedeschi, keyboardist-singer Gabe Dixon, singer Mike Mattison, bassist Brandon Boone, drummer Tyler Greenwell and others) wrote so much new music inspired by Layla & Majnun, an enduring tale of star-crossed lovers, that they started recording at Tedeschi Trucks’ home studio, Swamp Raga, with Trucks behind the soundboard as producer and longtime studio engineer Bobby Tis recording and mixing the work. The resulting project, I Am The Moon, consists of four CDs, each released individually in successive months beginning in June. Vinyl configurations, including individual LPs and the four-LP I Am The Moon Deluxe Box, will be available Sept. 9. Corresponding immersive visual companions created by filmmaker Alix Lambert debut three days prior to each audio release.

It’s no small coincidence that four album titles — Crescent, Ascension, The Fall, Farewell — bear some resemblance to the four parts of the suite in John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme (“Acknowledgement,” “Resolution,” “Pursuance” and “Psalm”). As Trucks noted, “The two albums that we were listening to a lot in our downtime were Jimi Hendrix’s Axis: Bold As Love and John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. And I remember looking at the running time of each and being shocked that Axis was just 36 minutes and A Love Supreme was only 32 minutes. These perfect pieces of music were really not that long. So that triggered the whole idea of us doing four separate albums, each around 32 to 34 minutes. And the way A Love Supreme is laid out definitely influenced our idea here.”

The spirits of Trane and Jimi, Butch Trucks, Gregg Allman, Col. Bruce Hampton and Kofi Burbridge hovered over TTB’s fifth studio release, which stands as the group’s most ambitious project to date.

Was this prodigious output that resulted in I Am The Moon a function of not being on the road and having your own home studio at your disposal?

That was one of the silver linings of the lockdown for us. We had never had time before lockdown to just write and create and hang together. And honestly, we were talking about taking three months off in the beginning of that year, anyway, kind of to lick our wounds after losing Kofi.

There had been a lot of loss in a short time, and we just wanted to make sure that our heads were clear, and we were doing what we were supposed to be doing as a group. I just felt like after Kofi’s passing we needed time without just running down the road. As a band, we just needed time to think and take a deep breath.

And it was Mike Mattison, who’s been with me for maybe 15 years now, who had the great idea two months into lockdown, in May, of everyone reading Nizami’s Layla & Majnun, just so everyone was digging into the same source material and had some common thing to talk about when we did get back together as a band. Mike had dug into the lyrical content of Layla, which we had already performed at a show in Virginia [on Aug. 24, 2019, as part of the Lockn’ Festival with guest guitarist Trey Anastasio, later released as Layla Revisited: Live At Lockn’ (Fantasy)].

So we were familiar with Layla’s connection to the Nizami poem, which is coming out of the Sufi tradition. There’s been operas written about it, and some people think Romeo and Juliet was inspired by Layla & Majnun. The Layla record maybe only hit on one note of that story, which was the idea of this man being in love with somebody he can’t have. And Mike’s first thought was, “Well, what was Layla’s take on this? What did she think about that?” That’s when the light bulb kind of went off. And especially with Sue being the voice of this band, it made perfect sense. And then when I found out that Derek & The Dominos’ Layla was released on Nov. 9, 1970, which is the day that Sue was born, I got chills.

How quickly did things develop at your place in Jacksonville?

When we finally were able to get people tested and get them to the house, all these song ideas started floating around. We weren’t planning on making a record, we just needed to play. It had been too long and there were no gigs in sight. Everything was still shut down, so it was just an excuse to keep moving the boulder up the hill.

There were a few songs early on that Mike Mattison brought in, and then when Gabe Dixon brought in the tune “I Am The Moon,” that’s kind of when it all crystallized. His idea for that tune and some of the lyrics gave me the feeling that I had when I was reading the Nizami poem. And Sue fell in love with it. She’d walk around the house with an acoustic guitar playing it all the time. So then everyone just kept writing towards that, and it kind of took on a life of its own.

We had 20-some tunes and hours of material, so then it became a question of what to do with it all. It was obviously too much for one record, so we started thinking about episodes. I think that approach gives people time to digest each part and then maybe look forward to the next one. And the label was great about it. When we finally came to them with, “We have a project. It’s four records. We don’t want you to put out any singles. We want to release them once a month,” we were just waiting to hear all the “no”s. But we were actually kind of shocked at how receptive they were.

“Pasaquan” sounds like Jimi Hendrix’s “One Rainy Wish” meets “Whipping Post.”

Totally, and maybe a little bit of the Allman Brothers’ “Mountain Jam” in there, too. When we first started playing that groove, I immediately thought of Uncle Butch and Jaimoe. And instead of trying to pull away from that, we just leaned all the way into it.

Pasaquan is this compound in Buena Vista, Georgia, out in the middle of nowhere that was created by this great visionary outsider artist who lived there named St. EOM, Eddie Owens Martin. I almost think of him as like the white, visual Sun Ra. He turned his house and property into a safe place for all the hippies and freaks in the ’60s to go hide away, and he just painted and sculptured everything on his property. But he’s also a kind of philosopher. There’s interviews with him where he says, “I’m just a poor man’s psychiatrist. People come for the head work, they don’t come for the arts.” And his whole philosophy just really felt like home to me.

Our good friend Col. Bruce Hampton was friends with St. EOM, so I’d heard about this sort of magical place in Buena Vista, Georgia, forever. And we finally snuck over there right out of the lockdown. So that place and those stories kind of felt like part of our thing too. There’s just something about this outsider artist in Georgia in the ’60s that resonates with me. These were brave things to think and feel and do at that time in that place.

You mentioned that Col. Bruce Hampton was an important mentor for you.

Yeah, I miss Colonel, man. He was the one that cracked my head open about music. I met Colonel when I was 12 years old. Actually, one of the first times I was at his house in Atlanta, he was playing me a VHS tape of a 10-minute documentary on St. EOM and Pasaquan. That was one of the first times I hung with Colonel.

He took me record shopping around the same time, and he bought me a vinyl copy of Hampton Grease Band’s Music To Eat. Later on, he bought me A Love Supreme and Sun Ra’s Live At The Village Vanguard. That was life-changing shit for me in my early teens. I remember after listening to A Love Supreme with Colonel, I just kind of sat there trying to figure out what just happened. I don’t think it hit me until about an hour later. There was this delayed reaction with that record.

But, yeah, it was never the same after hanging with Colonel. He really changed the trajectory of a lot of musicians’ lives and careers. He turned you on to what was important and tried to kill the ego side of what people were doing. He would break you down into a thousand little pieces, and you try to grow back up better for it … or you just stop playing, which is maybe what you were supposed to do, anyway.

Did your father also spark your interest in music early on?

Definitely. He was the one who took me to the Metropolitan Park in Jacksonville to see Miles Davis and Ray Charles, and all the music I saw before I was playing. He was moved by the right stuff. My dad saw Hendrix open for the Monkees here in Jacksonville, and he told me it was the first time he had ever dropped acid. Pretty intense.

I can hear a little bit of B.B. King’s “Thrill Is Gone” on “Yes We Will.”

Oh, 100%. That was Sue’s song. And when she started playing the riff, that’s immediately what I thought of, and our band just kind of naturally fell into that groove so we didn’t even have to say anything. It was one of those where you just kind of look and nod and you’re like, “Yeah, this is where it should be.” We became pretty close with B.B. the last three or four years of his life when we toured with him and the TTB. We would sit in with him occasionally and had some really incredible hangs. He’s one of those heroic figures, that kind of spirit. You don’t meet many like that in your lifetime. Actually, you don’t meet any. You meet one — B.B.

Sue knew him pretty well?

Yeah, even before I joined the Allman Brothers in ’96 or ’97, Sue started doing that B.B. King Blues tour. She did a lot of tours with him, and he was just always really sweet to her and really great, even to the point where Sue was dating somebody early on who maybe wasn’t so great to her and B.B. kind of knew that.

And when I first started dating Sue, he was very protective of her until he got to know us together, and then he opened up. I really appreciated that. He really loved her and wasn’t going to let me just come on in there without … let’s just say, I got side-eyed once or twice. I love that. He was being protective of her.

Actually, the first performance that me and Sue did coming out of the lockdown was at a memorial for B.B. They re-did B.B.’s grave the way he wanted it done and they had a show at his museum in Indianola, Mississippi. They asked me and Sue to be there, so we showed up for that.

It was really incredible being there. I got to play Lucille and clean B.B.’s headstone. Robert, who runs the B.B. museum, was telling us before the show we did that night that one of B.B.’s only requests was just the Blind Lemon Jefferson tune, “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean.” During the encore there were probably 30 guitar players on stage, and there was no one at his grave at that moment. So I was like, “I’m just going to go have a moment with B.” I went over there and there were footprints on his grave. And I was like, “Nope. That’s not gonna happen.” And I was holding Lucille while I was cleaning his grave. So we had a moment. It felt like the right way to come out of lockdown.

Every guitar player who ever bent a string owes a debt of gratitude to B.B. King.

Absolutely. I was thinking about how none of us ever knew life before B.B. King. And I was also thinking about all my guitar heroes like Hendrix and Duane; B.B. was their guitar hero. I definitely felt like there was guitar before and after B.B. When he passed away, we were on the tour bus heading to Jackson, Mississippi, and I remember waking up in my bunk and hearing a B.B. King record playing on the stereo in the front of the bus. And I’m wondering, “Who is cranking B.B. at 7 a.m.?” So I walked to the front of the bus and there was Sue, playing B.B. King records. And I could just see in her face what it was.

I guess she had gotten a call in the middle of the night that B.B. had passed. And at that very moment, we were passing the exist for Indianola, which was B.B.’s hometown. It was really intense. I have this photo that was taken at Newport of B.B. and our son Charlie when he was 3 or 4. B.B.’s in a golf cart leaning over and handing Charlie a guitar pick. My son is 20 now and I tell him, “I just want you to know how incredible this moment that was captured is.”

Then maybe a year before that picture was taken, B.B. was in Jacksonville, and we went to see him. After the concert, we walked to the back of his tour bus, and our son bounces in, and B.B. goes, “Young man, you know who I am?” And Charlie goes, “Yes, sir, you’re B.B. King.” And B.B. pulls out a $100 bill and gives it to him. When we walked off the bus I was like, “Charlie, give me that. That’s going in a frame. I’ll give you a different hundred dollar bill. You ain’t spendin’ that one.” Yeah, B.B. was family.

Your daughter Sophia’s middle name is Naima. You also recorded that John Coltrane tune on your debut album in 1997, along with Trane’s “Mr. P.C.” And now the A Love Supreme connections are evident on I Am The Moon. Clearly, he’s had a huge influence on you.

Yeah, his records — Giant Steps, A Love Supreme and Live At Birdland — were game-changers for me. I stopped listening to guitar players for a while after hearing Live At Birdland. There’s this moment coming out of a McCoy Tyner solo where Elvin is just ramping this thing up until it’s just about to explode, then Trane comes in with this repeating pattern. It reminded me of just the feeling I got when I first heard the Allman Brothers’ At Fillmore East, where it felt like the stereo was about to explode.

Those are those moments where when you first hear them — probably mid-to-late teens — you just rewind it a thousand times trying to find out how do you get to that place? How do you tap into that power? So, yes, Trane was certainly game-changing.

I have this famous Jim Marshall photo that he took of John Coltrane in 1960. Sue got it for my 30th birthday, and it’s just beautiful black-and-white profile of Trane. And then during the Obama years, we were invited to go play at the White House [an all-star event titled “In Performance at the White House: Red, White and Blues,” which took place on Feb. 21, 2012, and featured appearances by B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Gary Clark Jr., Shemekia Copeland, Mick Jagger, Jeff Beck and Keb Mo]. And I brought that framed Jim Marshall photo of Trane and gave it to President Obama. There’s this amazing photo of the president hanging up this John Coltrane photo in the West Wing. And in that moment I was thinking, “You know what? We got a picture of Coltrane hung in the fucking White House. This is a good day.”

You must have been similarly affected when you first heard qawwali singer Nusrat Ali Khan.

Without a doubt. That was probably the other leg of the stool, for me. It was actually Colonel’s drummer, Jeff Sipe from the Aquarian Rescue Unit, who turned me on to Nusrat. And then Ali Akbar Khan was a Colonel recommendation. Those two — Nusrat and Ali Akbar Khan — opened up a whole different world for me. And especially with the slide guitar, I felt like you could explore some of those nuances and the microtones, just the way you get in and out of a note.

You can hear that influence on “Rainy Day” and “Hold That Line.”

Yeah. And because of the underlying story coming from Layla & Majnun, it felt appropriate to go to those places musically. It felt like the story was asking for it, and it didn’t feel like you were trying to shoehorn something in. It felt comfortable there. And those are some of my favorite moments, [when] you can get into those places.

Along with B.B. King’s Live In Cook County Jail, which is my all-time favorite, and the one I go to to this day if I’m ever feeling uninspired with my own playing. There’s also Ali Akbar Khan’s album Signature Series, Volume Two, another one where if I feel out of gas creatively, I can go back to that. It just reminds you of the source.

You’ve been soaking up all this powerful music since you were a kid.

Yeah, it’s been a surreal ride. Looking back on some of the people I was able to play with as a kid of 9, 10 years old, I got to meet a lot of my heroes. And I feel really lucky that I was born when I was and not earlier or later. I didn’t get to see all of my heroes, but I definitely got to feel connected with some of them in a way that I don’t think young musicians can now. At 9, I started sitting in with my guitar teacher at this little blues club in Jacksonville called Applejack’s.

I remember sitting in with Koko Taylor at 9 years old and just meeting all these Chicago blues heroes. I remember playing with this lady named Diamond Tooth Mary, a Florida blues singer. This was in 1989 and the gig was billed as the youngest and oldest living blues artists. She was 93 and I was 9.

Later on, you look back and you just realize how impossible it was that you got to connect with these people. In fact, I was just thinking, “How the hell did that happen?” Really incredible. So I feel like Forrest Gump sometimes, where you just kind of end up in places and you just kind of take it all in. DB



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