Of all the guitar slingers in the world, living, dead, or otherwise, Sonny Landreth stands alone. Landreth's playing style is as unique as it is stunningly hypnotic. With merely the 10 fingers God gave him, Landreth blends deft finger-style picking with slippery slide in a sea of reverb and bluesy redemption.
Landreth was born 53 years ago in Mississippi, and moved to Lafayette, Louisiana, as a small child. Growing up in a culturally and musically rich region, he was immersed in all types of music early on. Elvis Presley's guitarist, Scotty Moore, was his first inspiration. As a child, Landreth would entertain relatives at get-togethers with an Elvis Presley toy guitar.
He graduated to his first real guitar at age 13 and immediately formed a surf band, The Electras. Playing gave him a deeper perspective and appreciation for music. By the time Landreth was 16, he began to venture out, searching for more.
"I met and heard for the first time both B.B. King and Clifton Chenier," he says from his home in Lafayette, Louisiana. "B.B. was playing this little black club --- this was before he became a superstar, obviously --- in New Iberia, Louisiana. I went and talked to him during the break. He just blew my mind."
But King, though extraordinary, was playing fairly standard blues. Then Landreth heard Chenier.
"I heard about this guy that played blues on the accordion," he says. "Just the thought of that, I couldn't get my head around. Because when I thought of the accordion, other things came to mind."
But it was the wail of the slide guitar that snatched him up. Landreth was introduced to it by "the old Delta guys," he says, "particularly Robert Johnson."
He quickly slid right in to the style, approaching it from a point of reference he already knew.
"The thing that helped me was learning Chet Atkins' approach. It involves an element of finger guarding --- where you actually use the fingers on your right hand to mute the strings you're not playing on at the time. It cleans up the sound a lot." By the unlikely marriage of this country style with bottleneck slide, Landreth slowly began to develop what is now a signature sound. But not everyone was pleased.
"Finger-style served me well with the slide," he says. "Though you couldn't convince my family or my dog at the time. It tortured all of them. It was a horrific sound at first. So it took a while."
What finally came out was Landreth's own. It's not that he's the best --- he's the only. No one sounds quite like Sonny Landreth. Period. Well, maybe Ry Cooder --- a little bit --- but he's busy rolling tape with the Cuban cats now.
Louisiana's rich, complex music history has clearly led to Landreth's distinctive refrain.
"I hope some of the uniqueness has rubbed off on me enough that it makes what I do unique enough that people sit up and notice," he says in a quiet Louisiana accent that's more like a stroll than a drawl. "Because otherwise: Let's face it, there's a million others out there. It's hard to tell sometimes, one from the other."
On stage, Landreth effortlessly lets fly with a blurred flurry of soaring notes. And whereas this might sound like a barrage, his honeyed tone and ultra-smooth attack re-create the tingling exhilaration of free fall. Between the dizzying note-storms are exquisite calms; Landreth's phrasing capitalizes on these brief silences that, at times, come off louder than the notes they surround. His technique is flawless and still beautifully human --- you can hear the man's fingers on the strings --- strings that sport a multitude of open tunings.
But the sound's true source is Sonny's soul: a soul borne of the blues.
"It's always been at the core of everything I've done," he says. "Even the ballads. When blues is in your heart and soul, you grow up listening and learning it, there's something about it that you take to anything else you work on."
This is blues more in the spiritual sense. Though Landreth got turned on by the old masters, you'll rarely hear him break into a standard shuffle or 12-bar. When he does, it's with a twist, and individual insight.
"The thing is, you hope at one point that those influences turn into your own sound," he says.
"I've always been fascinated by trying to emulate the human voice," he says. "Because I've noticed that in both my jazz heroes and my blues heroes. In learning to develop your own style, the sound is of utmost importance. It's about tone and phrasing."
Landreth has released eight solo albums and has heated up the strings as a session man for artists like John Mayall, Dr. John, Dolly Parton, and with John Hiatt on his two legendary releases Bring The Family and Slow Turning. It's the band on those two albums, The Goners, who now tour with Landreth and who played on his latest LP, The Road We're On.
The Road We're On was nominated for a Grammy this year in the contemporary blues category.
"We didn't win the Grammy," he says. "But we had a ball."
Landreth lost out to Etta James.
"I can live with that," he says.
Sonny Landreth and The Goners play on Fat Tuesday, February 24, at The Montage Grille, 50 Chestnut Street, at 8 p.m. Tix: $20-$22. 232-8380
The band is the pistol-packin' ruler of Western swing and all the genres that lead up to it.