“Forget what we said last December, cuz it’s been a hell of a year.” Susan Tedeschi belts those words out on “Let Me Get By” a Tedeschi Trucks Band song from an album of the same name. It’s hard to know what was going through her mind when she wrote the tune with her husband, guitarist Derek Trucks, but as 2017 comes to a close, you can’t hear that song without thinking about the hell of a year they’ve had.
Although TTB had another successful incarnation of their Wheels of Soul tour, and capped the year off with a Grammy nomination, their 2017 is going to be remembered in large part by illness and loss. Keyboardist Kofi Burbridge survived a cardiac arrest, and although he needed to be replaced temporarily, he was back on the road with TTB in time for their six-night residency at the Beacon Theater in New York City.
Other members of the group’s musical community weren’t so lucky. Trucks came of age as a member of The Allman Brothers Band and Gregg Allman died in May from liver cancer. Derek’s uncle, drummer Butch Trucks, was also a founding member of ABB and in late January he committed suicide at his home in West Palm Beach, Florida. As if cancer and suicide weren’t enough to face, both Derek and Susan were playing at the 70th Birthday Celebration concert for Col. Bruce Hampton, when the Colonel suddenly collapsed onstage and died shortly thereafter. Hampton was another jam scene patriarch who mentored Derek since he was a child.
Prior to their second of three sold out shows in Boston, Derek sat down in his dressing room with Glide to talk about the year he’s had. He didn’t hold back when talking about the losses of Gregg and the Colonel but when it came to his Uncle Butch, it was clearly a more sensitive subject he wasn’t as comfortable delving into with a recorder rolling on the coffee table.
For a guy who never says a word on stage, he’s incredibly talkative and articulate in person. At different points during our time together, he repeatedly went from holding back tears to laughing out loud. Even when the conversation went to a dark place, he always found a way to bring some sunshine into the fold. While the press focused on loss, Trucks tells a story of going through the ringer and coming out stronger on the other side.
With 2017 coming to a close, I wanted this interview to be a State of the Union for Tedeschi Trucks Band. How do you feel about 2017 and where do you see the band going next year?
Derek Trucks: It’s been an interesting year. The band is in a better place than its ever been in a lot of ways, but 2017 was kind of shit [laughs], for a lot of reasons. It was a long year. I think everyone dealt with a lot. Some things are obvious, some aren’t. It’s kind of nice coming to the end of it and doing some spiritual inventory. I’m glad it’s the end of the year and we have a few weeks after these Boston shows to reset. But the band’s in a good spot. We’ve had some amazing shows and audiences this year and we’re getting ready to head into the studio. Having Kofi back is one really big bit of good news.
He Looks good.
He does! Just from [his first shows back at] the Beacon to now, he looks younger and more like himself every day. It’s been a long, crazy year but we realize there’s a lot to be thankful for so we’re leaning on that.
I have a saying that you’re not getting stronger drinking Pina Coladas on the beach. It’s the tough times that build character.
That’s for sure.
How do you feel that the events of the past year have changed you?
They steal you in a way and makes you closer to the people you’re close with and the people you share those connections with. Colonel was kind of a father to a lot of us so that’s brought a certain group of people closer together… especially people who were there [when he passed]. It’s just not something you ever imagine happening, especially to someone you’re so close with. So there’s been a lot of soul searching. And I can tell that a lot of people that are close to him that were around for [his death] are dealing with it in their own time and their own way, but for me, dealing with it happened quick. It was pretty immediate.
Then you go on to the things you’ve learned from those guys: Colonel, Gregg, Butch, and try and keep it out there and up front, making sure the musical and personal lessons are still rolling. In some way, you feel a bit of weight to keep that going, but it’s a fortunate thing that we got to spend as much time as we did with them. All three of them changed things for a lot of people in a lot of ways and I think those ripples are going to go on for a long time.
We want to keep shaking stuff up for them. But I agree with you… Shit, you read Gregg’s autobiography; he was who he was because of all the things he went through. It adds character, that’s for sure [laughs] and nobody is immune to it.
Those three losses were all incredibly different with regards to how they transpired.
I think a lot about that too…
With Gregg, you had an idea what was coming, that tends to be the case when people are sick. I’m sure what happened with your uncle was a surprise. And then what happened with the Colonel was entirely unprecedented in every way possible. Was any particular loss harder for you to get past?
Well, yeah… I mean, certainly. Obviously one of them leaves everything unresolved.
With Gregg, I had time to visit and have a sense that this is the last time I’ll see you. You have those moments, which is a blessing, to have that closure and hang out and laugh and tell stories. But when you’re walking out, you have a very real sense that it’s a goodbye.
With Bruce it’s strange because it was such a shocking thing, but there was something that felt very resolved about it. He was in such a good place that day and he was as open if not more open than I’ve ever seen him. He was never one to hug people. It was always about no eye contact, the pinky finger shake, he had this whole thing. But he was open that day. He was emotive that day. You could feel it. There was a strange sense of closure there. But those are three different views of going out and the fact that it all happened in a row that way…. Yeah… As a person it makes you think about wanting to keep communication clean with people and not leaving shit unresolved. Sometimes you won’t get a chance to do that and I feel really fortunate in most of those situations that it was a good release.
I think about the Colonels thing and [him] looking up at the stage at like twenty of his disciples and closest friends, like children actually, and it was pure love coming at him. Everyone who was there was there because they wanted to be there for him. Nobody was there because it was a career move or they were getting paid. It was a pure thing and everyone who was there was supposed to be there. It’s a special thing. But like you said, it’s unprecedented. I can’t think of anything else like that. It took me four or five days of shock and grief… he was family. He was someone you thought about every single day. You still do.
One time he told me he considered himself to be like the minor league affiliate of the Allman Brothers Band.
[Laughs] He used to say that to me all the time! He’d say, “I’m just a minor league baseball coach, getting them ready for the big leagues.” [Laughs]
Send Oteil up.
Oh yeah all those guys: Oteil [Burbridge], Jimmy [Herring], all those guys.
He loved his Braves.
He was a baseball nut! When I was on the road with him playing in the Fiji Mariners for a while, I had a baseball almanac. I’d flip to random year and ask him, “Who was the strikeout leader in 1963?” and he’d give you the top three! It was fun stuff.
He was telling me you’ve got a great uncle who played with the Yankees.
He was in Detroit for a long time, He was in New York too.
As a Red Sox fan I’ll try to forgive that
[Laughs] Well he no-hit the Yankees at Yankee Stadium. He was the last one to do it. Virgil was a badass. When I first met Colonel he was wearing an Aquarium Rescue Unit t-shirt with artwork on the front and on the back with random Colonel sayings and names and one of them was Virgil Trucks. When I was 12 and met the Colonel I was like, “What’s going on here!? Why are my relatives’ names on the back of this guys shirt!?”
When I think about the good and bad you guys faced this year, although you faced several losses, Kofi made a really miraculous recovery. That case got a happy ending.
Man, no doubt about it.
How do you feel all this turmoil impacts you on stage? Does it change where you go when you close your eyes and synch into the pocket?
It does. There are certain moments on certain tunes where you get to a place where you think about these people and you feel ‘em. Music is a great release and it affects those things. Certain songs are tougher to play, but it’s the songs you want to play [that are tough] because they remind you of the people you lost in the best way. It’s been a tough year but we meet people all the time, long before this year, people coming out to shows…. A lot of people are dealing with a lot of shit. Nobody has a monopoly on loss. If anything, it reminds you of your place in things, that you’re in it, we’re all in it, and you do what you’ve always tried to do which is lift people up a little bit. It does that for us too.
Are there any tunes that you still don’t feel like you can get to.
Not really. When Gregg passed, the first thing I listened to was “Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More.” That’s when it hit me. The first time I heard his voice it really hit me. But I run right at things, so I listened to the shit that hit me the hardest first and it was the same with the Colonel. The song we were playing when he passed was “Turn On Your Love Light” which was his favorite song. My brother and a few people were apprehensive about playing it, but we were on the road together with Hard Working Americans and he was like, “I think we should do ‘Love Light.’ We’re here, Dave Schools is here, [Tyler] Falcon [Greenwell] is here,” and I was all for it. If the spirit is right and you’re in the right headspace, it should be done. The last thing he’d want is people to not play that song. That was his favorite tune [laughs]. I feel like every time I play it, a certain amount of respect and reverence has to be there, but I don’t think I need to be afraid of it. I just want to hit it with the right intention.
We never played many ABB tunes but this last year we played more than we ever have because I felt like we need to play them. But there were times where we had it on the setlist and we got there and I’m like, “It doesn’t feel right.” We’re not going to play it just to be a cheap thrill or to pander to the audience. If we’re going to play it, we need to feel it and mean it. We’ve come up to songs on a setlist and I’ll say to Falcon or Sue, “Lets wait.” That’s about as close as I get to avoiding those things. If it doesn’t feel right and isn’t in the right spirit, I don’t do it. But that music is supposed to be played! People need to hear it! When it’s done right, you can feel the release from the audience and from the stage. It’s a good thing.
The hardest thing was going back to the Fox Theater [in Atlanta] where we did the 70th birthday show with the Colonel. We came back to the Fox with The Wood Brothers who were also there that night. The Colonel married Oliver [Wood] and his wife. Walking back into that room, playing with those guys…. And one of the last times I played with Gregg was on that stage. The last time I was at the Fox before the Colonel was the Gregg Tribute. There was a lot of stuff in the air [coming back to the Fox]. But that was probably the best show we played all year.
It was the first time the whole band went to see Kofi [after his heart attack]. He was still at home and we talked him out of going to the show. He just wasn’t in good enough health, but was gung-ho so we told him we’d get a van and come out to him. That was a long emotional day but that was the best feeling show of the year. That and maybe the second Red Rocks show. There were maybe one or two [shows] where it felt like everything lined up. The tunes that we played, some [were] new tunes, some that were for the Colonel or Butch and Gregg or Leon Russell, that was one of the nights where it all happened and I left there feeling like we’d smudged the room a little bit. We’d cleaned it out.
Exorcised some demons.
Absolutely. Just walking in that day, walking up to that stage, it took Sue a long time to walk out on it because that was a heavy night [when Colonel passed], you know? But yeah, again, I’m always of the mindset that as soon as you can face something and deal with it, that’s the best time to do it. I understand that it takes some people different amounts of time to confront things and everyone does things on their own time, but you have to at some point deal with it and you’re always better off for it. So there was a lot of that this year, internally with the band, the obvious shit with deaths, but if there’s some unspoken thing, we’ve just been trying to air it out. Coming to the end of this year, I feel lighter because of that. Personally, I feel in a good place and I think the band in a good place too.
It’s like you said earlier with the Kofi thing…. I remember it was touch and go, man. I was almost certain he wasn’t going to make it, but when I knew he was going to make it, I thought, “It’s been a fucking crazy year but that’s a big piece of good news.” [Laughs] We’re on the right track. I remember one of my thoughts that night was that the world needs Kofi Burbridge in it. He’s got a lot to do and say and he needs to be around. Having him back for the end of the year has been a nice way to charge into starting a record next month.
How do you feel about 2018? You mentioned an album in the works. Is there a summer tour being planned?
Yeah, the Wheels of Soul tour has been a lot of fun the past few years so we already have a lineup in mind that’s pretty close to being nailed down. I’m excited for that but the first part of the year is writing, recording and mixing.
Where are you recording?
We’ll do it at our studio in Jacksonville. We might do some recording elsewhere but that’s where we’ll do the bulk of it. I think there’s a sense that it’s kind of a changing of the guard. It’s a new chapter for us. I think everyone is excited about next year. We’re all excited about this one ending [laughs].
When Jerry Garcia died there was a lot of talk about Trey Anastasio being “The Next Guy” and a lot of that being put on him. You’re talking about the changing of the guard and as some of the last generation have been making their exit do you feel more responsibility? Is more expected of you?
You definitely feel it a little bit, but I feel really lucky that it’s been a long slow build for me. I’ve been on the road since I was nine years old. It was a long, steady build and you meet a lot of people along the way that help you stay on the right track.
When I met Colonel, it was a life changer. Then when you start losing those people, there’s a sense that we’ve gotta get down to business. There’s no time to waste. But I feel like we’re doing that and we’ve gotta keep doing it. You need to keep chopping wood and doing what you’re doing the right way without letting your intentions change. Sometimes you’ve gotta relight certain fires and figure out what keeps you inspired and think about those things, but as long as you don’t get off track and get overwhelmed, I don’t worry about it much.
I see people… You can see people making that mental shift, where ego takes over and it’s about how many people are out front or where you’re playing and that [thinking is] a dangerous thing, so we try to be conscious of that and not to keep coming back to it. That’s something we learned from the Colonel a long time ago, that your intentions have to stay the same. You grow and change but you can’t let the reason why you’re doing it change. So as long as you’re focused on that it, doesn’t worry me. I welcome the challenge and the added weight. If you can carry it then carry it. It’s a positive and keeps some edge on. You can’t get complacent because there’s a hell of a lot to do with a 12-piece band.
While I’ve got you, is there anything you wanted to talk about that I didn’t give you the chance to discuss? Anything you want to say to the readers?
You hit on a lot, but I feel lucky we’re doing what we do. I know a lot of the narrative this year has been the bumps in the road and all of that shit but I know me and Susan and the band, there’s an incredible gratitude to be able to do what we do. It’s been such a slow build that we don’t often step back and go, “Wow, we just did two nights at Red Rocks,” [laughs]. We don’t operate like that too often but we feel incredibly grateful to be able to do what we do and we’re grateful to everyone that makes that happen.
Photos by Andrew Bruss