Derek Trucks and the Difference Between Discipline & Obsession

Tedeschi Trucks Band
Tedeschi Trucks Band

Every day for more than six decades, 85-year-old Jiro Ono has walked into his 10-seat restaurant in a Tokyo subway station to make his specialty, sushi. It is, in fact, the only food on the menu, and in spite of its humble location, the restaurant is the first of its kind to be awarded a prestigious three-star Michelin Guide rating, and sushi lovers from around the globe make repeated pilgrimages, calling months in advance for a coveted seat at Jiro’s sushi bar. The documentary film about him, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, has inspired slide guitarist Derek Trucks.

“(Jiro) has gone to work the same way for 60 years and just perfecting his craft and just watching him go through every day and even at his age just uncompromising. That’s the stuff that’s inspiring,” says Trucks who himself enjoys a similar status with guitarists and roots music fans, unequalled since the death of Stevie Ray Vaughan more than two decades ago. It’s all about discipline. He told one newspaper reporter that the first 90% of learning your craft is really the easy part. The next five is harder, and the next five is what separates everybody else.

“I’m not sure I’m out of the first 90% yet,” he told me with a nervous laugh, “but the beauty of music – especially when you’re listening to the greats – is that your heroes are great enough that you always come after ’em. You never fully get there and surpass them. So if I ever get to the point where I’m feeling that I’ve got it under control, I can put on an Ali Akbar record or a John Coltrane record or great western classical album and it’s pretty humbling. I feel, especially as a guitar player, there’s plenty of meat on the bone. There’s plenty to learn.”

At age 32 Trucks has become one of the youngest recipients of the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award as a 13-year member of the Allman Brothers Band. He is also the youngest person on Rolling Stone Magazine’s poll of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time and the only person under the age of 50 in the top 20 on that list. He came in at number 16. Unlike most axe wielders his age, he is extremely focused on discipline, and sees himself as a younger version of Jiro Ono.

With wife/singer/guitarist/songwriter Susan Tedeschi, Trucks has written 16 songs for the Tedeschi Trucks Band’s third album, due out later next year. They are currently finishing a national tour with their 11-piece group. The tour has included eight co-headliners with B.B. King, a three-night stand at New York’s Beacon Theater, and a closing set at this year’s Newport Jazz Festival. The group has two albums, Everybody’s Talkin’ and Revelator, the latter a Grammy winner. He and his wife took so many awards at this year’s Blues Music Awards, they prompted one other winner to quip, “Thank God Derek Trucks wasn’t nominated in my category.”

Veteran rock journalist David Fricke called The Tedeschi Trucks Band the best Dixie-fried group since Delaney and Bonnie more than 40 years ago. Eric Clapton was the guitarist in that large super group. Derek, in fact, was named after Clapton’s Derek and the Dominoes band and toured with the British guitarist in 2006, but he says it was his wife who turned him onto Delaney and Bonnie.

“You know I came to Delaney and Bonnie a little later, certainly before we started this band. The idea for this group was certainly influenced by the Dominoes, Delaney and Bonnie, Sly and the Family Stone, Mad Dogs and Englishmen and the Allman Brothers. Those were the kind of communal big bands just rolling down the road. That whole family vibe was a huge part of Susan deciding to try this. It was kind of a crazy thing to throw together an 11-piece band in 2010 or whenever we decided to do it, but that template was certainly big in our minds when we put this together.”

The biggest difference between the seminal big rock bands and TTB is discipline. Watching Delaney and Bonnie perform live in 1970 was like trying to balance on a tight wire — at any time they could turn the whole concert into a train wreck. “I think we’ve taken the train wreck element out of it for the most part,” says Trucks. “On the rare occasion you’ll feel it coming off the tracks, but I definitely think that’s the difference. That’s kind of the evolution of the thing. I mean those guys were experimenting with the whole format, with their bodies, with their music. The traveling rock band, that whole concept had just been invented when those guys were doing that.

“So I think we have a lot of time and experience to learn from, and I feel we’ve definitely taken it in a different direction. I mean, part of the idea of putting this band together was to actually help our family, to be with our kids more, to be together more. So I think that’s maybe a little different concept than what put those bands on the road (chuckles).

“I think the impulse is a little different, but the core, the idea, is the same. You want to be surrounded with people you love being around, people that you respect musically, and you wanna go from town to town and bring the church with ya. You want to bring that thing. You want people to feel better when they leave. I feel like that sentiment is very much the same.”

Both Susan and Derek have impressive track records with their own bands, not to mention Derek’s credit, along with Warren Haynes, for having resurrected the old Allman Brothers war horse. That said, TTB is more than the sum of its parts, and discipline trumps obsession when it comes to the group updating their rock, jazz, and blues influences. Trucks takes seriously his obligation to educate young people to the historical wonder of American music.

“As much as I love being home and having somewhat of a routine, you feel like being on the road and taking it to people is kind of your duty. We gotta be out there doing it because there’s not enough real bands doing it, real musicians, and American music really is one of our gifts to the world. I remember just a few nights ago flipping through and seeing the American Music Awards, and I was like there’s not one ounce of American music. All this shit is just depressing, you know?

“And I think about my kids and their friends and the stuff they’re being constantly exposed to, and it’s kind of across the board now. It’s the food you eat, it’s the music you hear, it’s the news you get, the television being thrown at you. There’s not a lot of substance there, so I feel like I was fortunate enough to grow up in a situation where there was a lot of good music around, and it was important the way my dad and mom would talk about music and listen to music. You could tell it was their religion in a way. It meant something, and it wasn’t background noise, and it wasn’t – yeah, it just wasn’t something to party to.

“It was (like) it actually mattered, and I feel like if you’re lucky enough to be doing that and able to bring that to people, it’s your duty to do it so even on the road when you get worn down, you think about that, and then you think about people like B. B. King or Willie Nelson at their age just beatin’ the road. Then you shut up and stop your bitchin.’ You go to the next town.

“I think with anything you do you just have to keep your nose to the grind. I think once you start buying the hype, that’s when you’re in trouble of heading in the other direction. I think sadly we’ve all seen it many times. I know a dozen musicians that I’ve seen in the last five or 10 years kinda come and go. You see all this potential, and you see this fire, and then you see everybody kissing their ass, and then you see them a few years later, and then you hear them, and it’s like that’s not as good as it was two years ago. You’re like what happened? It’s all mental, man. It’s all a mental game. You have to realize you can never really let up.

“I guess it comes down to you have to enjoy this work. You have to enjoy the grind in some way or at least get some satisfaction out of it, even if you don’t enjoy it all the time. You gotta keep going back to it.”

Susan Tedeschi graduated from Berklee College of Music at age 20 with a bachelor’s degree in music composition. Husband Derek, on the other hand, is 10 years younger, was on the road at age 11, and most of the musicians he’s played with are “roads” scholars. Those disparities, he says have caused no conflicts. “Yeah, you know, it’s funny. She went to school for a lot of that, but with her it’s straight intuitive. Her thing is just musical guts. She knows what feels right, and she has the ability to just unleash at will.

“With (band keyboardist) Kofi (Burbridge) he was a child prodigy. I think he was on stage with Duke Ellington when he was just a kid in D.C. I mean those pictures of Kofi with the masters when he was really, really young. So he went to school in his teens for music. I mean he knows it inside and out, but with him it’s his ears, you know. For me you learn whatever somebody has to give. If it’s something you’re unfamiliar with or something that moves you, I feel like you can really take it from anywhere.”

As disciplined as he is, Derek Trucks is also versatile, having established himself in genres as varied as blues, rock, jazz and jam band. “I feel like with my solo group and with this band, too, but definitely when I was on the road with my guys, we always had the sense we were kind of one toe in all the different scenes, but never fully embraced by any of them.

“We were kind of a blues band but not blues enough for the hard core blues crowd. It was kind of too adventurous at times. We were not a jazz band, but just enough to get on the jazz festivals. We were kind of not a jam band but enough to play the jam band festivals. I kind of like the band orphan vibes. Nobody would fully take us in, and in the beginning it was a little difficult because it was hard to get a label to record you.

“It was hard to do that, but I mean for me it was fuel for the fire. I was glad we didn’t get stuck in any of those worlds where you have to – uh – I don’t know if I have that personality anyways, but I think once you’re in a world like that you start catering to it in a way, and I feel like by not being fully embraced early on it just gave us free reign, and then you kind of use that as propellant.”

The last year for Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi has been a Cinderella adventure. They’ve rubbed shoulders with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards at the White House blues concert, and the Apollo Theater Hubert Sumlin Tribute respectively. They inducted Freddie King into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; and played with Herbie Hancock, Wynton Marsalis, Tony Bennett, and Stevie Wonder on the first annual International Jazz Day at the United Nations General Assembly. And they got to compare notes while touring with B. B. King. They’ve broken through several ceilings as a blues couple who also are parents of two school-age children and crossed over into several genres that promise to give blues a higher visibility — a role Derek takes very seriously.

“I feel a sense of wanting to turn people onto this music and wanting to just keep the level of it up. You wanna always make sure anything you retain, anything you play, is to a certain level, and hopefully that brings people along, but I don’t know if setting out on a mission like that makes it false. I think you just have to do what you do. You just have to dig in and play music, and a lot of that, whether it was Duane (Allman) or Stevie Ray (Vaughan) or anybody, a lot of it is just time and place. You were the right guy at the right time doing the right thing. You know, those guys were students and lovers of music, and they gave their life to it.”