Every August at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, many of the main stage, night-time performers are also asked to perform at afternoon workshops on smaller stages, where three or four musicians will sit around and play and discuss various themes, for example, political songs, women’s songs, work songs, or blues and spirituals. Inevitably, the phrase “folk process” gets bandied about. It refers to how musicians like Tom Paxton, Peggy Seeger, Del McCoury, Tony Trischka, Tom Rush, or even up-and-comers like Justin Townes Earle learned their craft, be it songwriting, singing, finger-picking guitar styles, or claw-hammer banjo playing.
For guitarist and singer/songwriter Sonny Landreth, who appears at the festival this year, his own folk process began when he was 13, in his native Lafayette, Louisiana, when he got his first guitar. Two years later, working in a music store in his hometown, he rapidly began expanding his knowledge of popular music as well as his repertoire on guitar. A child of the 1960s, Landreth was keenly influenced by acoustic performers like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, at least as far as gaining the notion he could write and perform his own songs. But he was even more indebted to the acoustic bluesmen who were getting attention through the folk music revival of those years, musicians like Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, Son House, and Rev. Gary Davis.
Before picking up the guitar, Landreth began playing trumpet as a 10-year-old and continued playing trumpet in high school bands and into college for a time (he attended the University of Lafayette), all the while honing his craft as a slide blues and rock guitarist and singer-songwriter.
He is the author of “Congo Square,” “Bayou Teche,” and many other songs that have a keen sense of place to them. As a songwriter, his themes are mostly places he knows well, like Lafayette in southwest Louisiana and New Orleans, where he’s performed hundreds of shows through the years.
At the Philadelphia Folk Festival, Landreth will be backed by Brian Britnack on drums and David Ranson on bass in the trio format he has preferred since his earliest days as a professional musician in college.
Landreth was born February 1, 1951, in Mississippi, and his family moved to the Lafayette area when he was seven. “My family is from Mississippi, so Elvis was hard to ignore,” Landreth says in a phone interview from his home in Breaux Bridge, which is not far from Lafayette. “The great thing for me once we moved to Lafayette was the music that was there, the culture there — the music and food and dance and the outlook on life is all a part of that. And of course we weren’t far from New Orleans, so that was the first time I heard jazz and classic rhythm and blues.” Landreth says his family often took trips into the Crescent City.
Landreth says he also got classical and jazz exposure while playing the trumpet in school. He dropped out of the University of Lafayette after two years. “I was taking classes at the University of Lafayette and doing gigs on weekends. Once I realized I couldn’t book any more gigs with a degree than without one, I was gone,” he says. “I figured the way to do it was get out there and play shows.”
Shortly after leaving college, he caught his first big break by joining the band of legendary zydeco musician Clifton Chenier. “He was a terrific player and a terrific guy,” Landreth says of the late accordionist, “and there’s been no musician like him since he was around.”
Certainly Chenier was a mentor, but he was a bandleader and an accordion player — did Landreth have any other mentors? He admits after one guitar teacher didn’t work out so well, he mostly taught himself, nights and weekends while working at the music store in Lafayette. “I began making my way through the forest on my own, and around the same time I began listening to the blues of Mississippi John Hurt, Fred MacDowell, Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, all the Delta players. And that’s when I began using the slide too, the Chet Atkins technique and the slide on the left hand.”
Landreth’s father was a lawyer who ended up working in the claims department at State Farm Insurance in Lafayette, and his mother also took a job at a State Farm agency. He has an older brother, Steve, who he credits with making sure there was good rock ‘n’ roll music around the house. “Back in the day, people were still buying albums and 45s, and there was also this great jazz and classical and pop music and all the band directors would come in to the store I worked at to get their sheet music,” he says, so working in a store that not only sold records but also musical instruments and equipment was a huge step in his education, or “folk process.”
‘We sold reel to reel tapes and I played my first Echoplex amp in that store, so I had the chance to experiment with all kinds of sounds, getting a better grasp of how to work with all the developing technology,” he says. Hearing Landreth play guitar is akin to hearing Louis Armstrong play trumpet: it only takes a few lines to know it’s him. In a way, it’s a blessing that his local guitar teacher didn’t work out and he took on the burden of educating himself on guitar, otherwise he might not have come up with his own economical, distinctive style.
“The folk process for me started in the music store, and the folk thing was big, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan were huge, and Peter, Paul and Mary,” he says. “The folk thing was a really big influence on rock ‘n’ roll, too, from the early to the late ‘60s, and I saw all of that happen working in the store. My first guitar was an acoustic and that folk music exposure was important in getting me grounded, and got me thinking about writing my own songs.”
FM radio was just developing in the late 1960s and early ’70s as well, free of focus groups and research and heavy formats and play lists of any kind, so that also opened up his mind to the possibilities of pursuing a career as a performer.
“Radio just did not have the kind of exclusivity it does now,” he argues, “so you could hear Jeff Beck, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Joan Baez, all in the same hour or so, and you never knew what to expect on FM radio back in those days.”
Later on, he admits, having the real world experience of driving a delivery truck around proved more helpful than any college degree, and both his parents lived to see his international success as a blues and blues-rock guitarist and bandleader.
Interestingly, Landreth has become such an accomplished guitarist that he has drawn the respect and admiration of dozens of prominent musicians around the world, including John Hiatt, the aforementioned “King of Zydeco” Chenier, and, in the early 1990s, Clapton himself.
“I remember hearing Clapton on the radio in high school,” Landreth says, “and later, when I got to meet him, I told him about those days in the music store.”
Landreth has shared the stage with Clapton at both of his Crossroads Guitar Festivals in recent years, one held in Dallas, the second in Chicago. “He’s a very gracious and humble person,” Landreth says, “and his enthusiasm has been really great for me. It’s probably the greatest affirmation for me. It’s happened a lot with recording sessions with some of my heroes from over the years, but to be able to meet and play with one of my greatest guitar heroes of all time, it’s really what gets you out of bed in the morning, and great things do happen.”
Indeed, the frequent repeats of the Crossroads Guitar Festivals on public television stations around the country has sent Landreth’s career into the stratosphere. Whereas in the mid-1990s he might have been playing small but prominent clubs like New York’s Bottom Line, now he’s playing larger clubs, theaters, and festivals.
Although his typical summer itineraries are busier now than they were 15 years ago, Landreth says his band has been “busy for years, but to be honest, the difference now is we have a real organization behind — an agency, a manager — with a purpose and a direction, and as time goes on, you establish yourself in different parts of the country.”
Landreth’s current release, “From The Reach,” includes the radio-friendly “Blue Tarp Blues,” about the Hurricane Katrina, as well as other gems with a real sense of place that tell stories about his part of southwest Louisiana and east Texas. An earlier release, “Levee Town,” released in 2000 on Sugar Hill Records, was re-released in mid-April with bonus tracks on his own Landfall Records. Along with the two records that preceded it, 1992’s “Outward Bound,” and 1995’s “South of I-10,” Landreth says he always felt that “Levee Town” was part of a trilogy.
Landreth says about “Levee Town”: “I wanted to dig even deeper into the built-in mythology and mystery of the Deep South. It’s really inspirational to live here. And the deeper I go, the more inspired I get.”
48th Annual Philadelphia Folk Festival, Old Pool Farm, Upper Salford Township, PA. Friday through Sunday, August 14 to 16. Performers include the Decemberists, the Derek Trucks Band, Tom Rush, Sonny Landreth, Tony Trischka, Heartless Bastards, Buskin and Batteau, Ellis Paul, Justin Townes Earle, Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer, Sara Hickman, Boris Garcia, Works Progress Administration, the Del McCoury Band, Ellis Paul, and others. 215-247-1300 or www.folkfest.org.