When, as was the case with guitarist/ band leader/ songwriter Derek Trucks, you turn pro not long after hitting double figures in years, you're destined to get the "he's got an old soul" tag at some point. Trucks, now 30, has always seemed to wear it more comfortably than most, though, and justified it by dodging precocity's pitfalls. From hitting the road with The Allman Brothers Band at 11 on through, he's carried himself—on stage, on record, in interviews—in a way that belies his youth, and his interests and thoughts run deep.
It fits, then, that the centerpiece of Already Free, the latest release from the Derek Trucks Band, is old soul—specifically, the Dan Penn-Spooner Oldham cowrite "Sweet Inspiration," a gospel-soul gem originally taken to the charts by, appropriately enough, The Sweet Inspirations (a group led by Cissy Houston, mother of Whitney). The song has also been recorded by The Supremes, Rita Coolidge and Wilson Pickett, among others, and you can find a particularly handsome version by the authors on the live album Moments From This Theatre. And, in at least one case, it's proven to be an enduring wedding song.
The Independent Weekly talked with Trucks about his take on "Sweet Inspiration" and his approach to honoring the works and memories of others.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: What elements do you look for in a song that you didn't write but want to record?
DEREK TRUCKS: You know, a lot of times, just like any fan of music, it's a song that gets stuck in your head and a song that you feel—well, not necessarily that you can add to it because sometimes songs are perfect as-is and you just want to play them—but something you feel you can interpret well. Maybe take a different angle on it. Or maybe just a song that's laid dormant for a while and people don't know as well as they should, kind of bring it out to see the light of day for a little while.
What was it about "Sweet Inspiration," specifically?
The song "Sweet Inspiration" was actually recommended to the band. We were on tour with Santana, opening two or three weeks of shows. He was really great to the band and me, always have us in his dressing room and play music for us and be excited about what we were doing. Really positive. He kept playing that track and saying, "I hear you guys playing this song. I hear you guys recording this song. Maybe have your wife [blues/soul artist Susan Tedeschi] on it." We had just finished our record, but maybe had two or three days left before we hit the road again. We just got off the Santana tour, so I figured the least we could do when Carlos recommends a tune is hack away at it. [Laughs.] So we went in there and recorded the track, and it felt great. It was one of the easiest songs to record, and it was just a really natural fit with the band. Our first record on Columbia, Joyful Noise, has that great gospel tune, and "I Wish I Knew (How It Would Feel to be Free)," the song we did on Songlines—we really didn't have anything like that on this record. So "Sweet Inspiration" was kind of a perfect fit. It really just fell in. But I wasn't familiar with that song until he [Santana] played it.
Which recording of the song did he play?
The Sweet Inspirations version. The version we did isn't too different from that. I've heard a bunch of versions since, but something about that one really felt right, and it has that spirit, you know?
That offers a nice segue: After you've decided on a song you want to cover, how do you approach the arrangement and the balance between staying true to what you feel is the spirit of the song and at the same time putting your stamp on it?
With this tune—with a lot of tunes—you figure out what is the essential element, what is the whole song going to be tethered to. With this song, I felt like it was that guitar riff; that intro and that Pops Staples-sounding guitar was kind of the body of it. So I had Yonrico [Scott], our drummer, and Count M'Butu, the percussionist, just play rhythm with me on shakers, and I just went out and played my guitar track from top to bottom, just percussion and guitar. And then we built the rest of the track on top of it, so it had a nice base, you know? I ended up playing drum kit on this song, the only time I've ever played drums on a record. [Laughs.] It was feeling good to me, so I jumped on there, and Todd [Smallie] played bass with me. We really built this one from the ground up, which we don't often. It's a lot of fun.
In a live setting, the hierarchy of what you hear is pretty static: The drums are going to be where they are, the bass is going to be where it is, the guitar is going to be where it is. In the studio, you can really drive a track with a shaker, something that generally just gets lost in the mix. It's fun in the studio sometimes to build a song inside out or bottom up. You can really alter the feel of a track. I think when you listen to some of those great Motown records, you start noticing that sometimes it's a tambourine that kind of drives the whole song, and that would never happen in a live setting. It's a different beast. With a soul song like this, we really tried to approach it like some of the old studios would approach it. That one was a lot of fun to do that way.
I really like the arrangement, and I know exactly what you mean about the Pops Staples guitar.
When you hear a track of him playing in that realm, it's just so instantly him.
On the Staple Singers version of "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall," it's that guitar for seven and a half minutes, and not a wasted second.
Yeah, they were on fire for a while. I've heard some great stories about Bob Dylan being absolutely in love with Mavis. I think he actually asked her to marry him. [Laughs.] He was gung ho, and she was like, "Bob, this ain't going to work. It'll ruin your career and mine." [Laughs.] He wanted him a soul singer. I understand.
Anything more to add about your drumming?
This record, having a studio in the backyard and doing it at home and producing myself and ourselves as a band, we just felt a lot freer to experiment. I was hearing a drum part, and instead of trying to explain it, I just—I think Susan and Bobby Tis, who was engineering, and Yonrico were in the control room—and I said, "Just roll the tape. I'll play it down," not realizing they were tracking it. It was, "That's it. We're done!" So it was kind of spur of the moment. Originally, I thought I was just showing them the part I was hearing, but as they let the track continue to play, I thought maybe they were recording it. So it was a low-pressure situation. I am proud to say it was one take. [Laughs.]
So you've got that to fall back on if the whole guitar thing doesn't work out.
Yeah, as long as there are no drum fills involved.
Have you ever heard from an artist whose song you covered, either live or on record, and had a conversation about your take on the song?
You know, most of the songs we've covered—there are some exceptions—but a lot of them are songwriters that are long gone. When we did "Volunteer Slavery," the Rahsaan Roland Kirk tune, Rahsaan's widow, Dorthaan, who has a great radio show at WBGO, the great jazz station up in New York, she sought the band out and was really happy that a younger band was recording Rahsaan's music. She gave us a lot of positive feedback, so that was nice. We've had people from the estates come out. When we did the Son House tune "Preachin' Blues" on our first or second record, Dick Waterman, who was Son House's manager and the guy who kind of rediscovered him, he came out and shared some pretty good words. He reminded us that when you do cover tunes, it's important to think about who you're covering, and that it does help out the widows of underappreciated artists. Like when Clapton did "I'm So Glad," the Skip James tune, I think it was the biggest payday his widow ever got. When she heard it, it was like, "That's not Skip's tune. What did you do to it? But thanks for the check." [Laughs.] It hit me. Occasionally, we do songs from people who are known. Like when you do a Dylan tune, he doesn't need the favor. But when you do a song like a Rahsaan Roland Kirk tune or a Son House tune, something kind of underground, it's out of a sense of this is an artist we love who we think is underappreciated. When we did the Paul Pena tune, it was very much that. We became friends with him and love the guy and thought they were great songs that no one knew.
Which one of your songs would you love to hear someone cover, and who would that person be?
You know, one of my favorite tunes on the record is "Back Where I Started," the one that me and Warren [Haynes] wrote and that Susan sang. She did such a good job on it. I think she kind of closed the book on that one. It would be great to hear someone else do it, but I'm happy with that version. I'd have to think about that. There are a few songs on the record that I really dug. "Don't Miss Me," I like that tune. I could almost hear Little Feat or somebody covering a tune like that.
I sort of had an extra reason for wanting to talk about your cover of "Sweet Inspiration": Friends of friends in New Orleans lost most everything during Katrina and their wedding song was "Sweet Inspiration." They lost their copy of the record in the flood. Ever since, my friends have been finding versions of the song for them. And now we have yours to pass along...
That's very cool. They've recovered pretty well?
Yes, I think they have, thanks.
The amount of crazy stories I've heard from my people I've known. Gatemouth Brown, the way he went out was just tragic. He had basically a museum in New Orleans, all of his old memorabilia. He was sick at the time and pretty much on his deathbed, and one of those last days he heard that all of his shit was gone, wiped out. And within a day or two, he passed. Such a sad, sad story. He'd been there forever. Like Professor Longhair before him and Fats Domino, who's still around, those guys encompass the spirit of that place.
The Derek Trucks Band is at the Carolina Theatre on Friday, Oct. 30. The show starts at 8 p.m., and tickets range from $34-$39.