By the time he was 13, Derek Trucks was already a virtuoso, a guitarist whose deep immersion in blues and rock forms had yielded a startlingly unique slide guitar style that paid tribute to the groundbreaking work of Duane Allman, and pointed the way toward new possibilities for blues-based guitar playing.
By 19, Trucks found himself, in essence, filling the shoes of the late Allman, when he was asked to join the Allman Brothers Band, whose drummer, Butch Trucks, is his uncle.
Now, after 15 years with the Allmans, Trucks has officially offered his resignation from the Allman Brothers, and is preparing for the revered group’s final shows in the fall, while simultaneously forging new ground with his primary focus - the Tedeschi Trucks Band, the 11-piece group he leads along with his wife, blues singer and guitarist Susan Tedeschi. (That band plays Canalside today, beginning at 6 p.m.)
With his own Derek Trucks Band, with the Allmans, and with the Tedeschi Trucks Band, Trucks has proven himself the most sophisticated, ambitious and soulful rock-based musician of his generation. He has won the praise of his peers and heroes, grabbed Grammy Awards, and earned a deeply dedicated fan-base that bridges the gap between jam-band fans and devotees of American roots music.
But more significantly, he has done all of this while maintaining dignity and integrity, and a humility built upon the unshakable belief that it’s all about the music. Like his guitar playing, Trucks the man is warm, soulful and eloquent. He is that rarest of rare “rock star” – a down to earth, grounded and kind human being.
As any musician who is in it for the right reasons will tell you, the only true “master” musician is the one who realizes he is always at the beginning. Revered around the world as one of the greatest guitarists extant, Trucks has refused to be distracted by plaudits, instead focusing with ever more intensity on his path. That makes him a master musician.
I’ve spoken to Trucks many times over the years – he has graced Buffalo stages on virtually every single tour throughout his 30-year career, after all – and have always come away from the experience deeply moved and, perhaps, even a little bit enlightened. Earlier this week, we spoke again by phone. When I hung up, the same feeling returned. It struck me that I’ve learned a lot from Trucks over the years, through the transcendent language of his music, from his words, and by his example. Here are a few of those lessons learned.
1. It’s about the music.
I asked Trucks how he has managed to stay grounded while touring almost incessantly, much of the time with a band – the Allman Brothers – infamous for its struggles, for its highly flammable interpersonal relationships, and, to be blunt, for its drug problems. His answer was simple and direct.
“For me, it’s always about the music. By focusing on that, and by surrounding myself with good people, I’ve been able to avoid the distractions.”
2. You can’t go home again.
I told Trucks that his work with the Derek Trucks Band had been a game-changer for me and so many others, that the manner in which he blended Indian classical music with the blues, jazz and Southern soul had been an exhilarating eye-opener. Would he consider revisiting the Derek Trucks Band, or would Tedeschi Trucks be his main concern going forward?
“That style that you’re talking about, yes, it’s something I think we can explore in this new band as we continue to grow together, and I’m sure it will happen. But I have to say – circling back to revisit the past doesn’t work. It’s never the same. I started with that band when I was 14. And what we did represented where we were in our lives. That’s what a musician has to do – reflect their lives at the point in time where they are making music.“
3. Capture the moment you’re in.
When we spoke, social media was ablaze with reports of the Tedeschi Trucks fiery, star-studded “Super Jam” performance at the previous week’s Bonaroo Festival. Audio and video of the performance – which featured Trucks and the band with a jaw-dropping list of guests including Chaka Kahn, Ben Folds, Willie Weeks, Taj Mahal and Eric Krasno, among many others – was being circulated, and the reactions were typically effusive in their praise. How did Trucks, Tedeschi and the band manage to pull off such a daunting feat in real-time, before a massive audience?
“The reason it worked is that there was no ego at all involved in the making of the music, from any of those incredible guests involved,” Trucks insisted. “We literally rehearsed together in the Holiday Inn lobby before driving to the festival, and then it was just a case of, ‘Let’s get in the moment, give in to it, and let the magic flow.’ And it did.”
4. Luck has nothing to do with it.
The level of musical interaction exhibited by a typical Tedeschi Trucks Band performance is an incredibly high one, and suggests that the band members have spent considerable time listening to each other, learning when to contribute, and when to pass the baton to another member of the 11-piece band. “Yes, that’s what we’re going for, and you know what? The band really regulates itself. Everyone is truly digging to get deeper into the music. We are honest with each other, and it’s almost like a sports team – it’s love, but it’s tough love, and we all know what we expect from ourselves and what we need to expect from each other. We have a living, breathing bond, and by playing a lot, we have allowed the band to dictate where it wants to go in a really organic way. There’s a lot of hard work involved. You know, I still listen to those early Allman Brothers albums that I worshipped as a kid, and man, there is so much magic in them. But during all of that time when they were creating magic, man, Duane was just whupping their asses into shape! (laughs) They were working hard. Things don’t get good by dumb luck.”
5. Family comes first.
I asked Trucks if a desire to be with his family – he and Tedeschi have two children – was a factor in his decision to leave the Allman Brothers Band. “Yeah, it really was a big part of it,” he said. “It was not the first time I tried to leave, either. (laughs) Not for negative reasons, but because I felt that, between the Allman Brothers dates and my own tours outside the band, I’d end up working 300 nights a year. But now, my kids are getting older, and soon it will be too late. So I had to say, ‘That’s it. The window is closing. I need to do this.’ Eventually, you either have to be there, or not. Having good intentions isn’t enough. I did not want to miss this time with them. It doesn’t come back. We really feel pretty fortunate to have a band where family and music can be so intertwined.”