Armed with an elegant new collection of Southern soul ballads and blues-rock rompers titled “Made Up Mind,” veteran guitarist Derek Trucks and his bandmate and wife, singer-guitarist Susan Tedeschi, can’t wait to hit the road.
The co-leaders of the 11-piece, Jacksonville, Fla.-based Tedeschi Trucks Band look forward to plenty of globetrotting, massive festivals and old favorite music hall shows throughout 2014. And it marks a pivotal moment for Trucks, in particular, as he eases away from his long-running duties with legendary Southern rock group the Allman Brothers Band.
“This is really going to be a big year,” Trucks says. “Touring behind ‘Made Up Mind,’ I’ve never felt better about a musical project. There’s a lot of work to be done, and everyone’s pumped to get out there and see what we can make happen. I think 2014 is going to be about keeping the bar raised and the musicality at a certain level.”
Barely in his mid-30s, Trucks is already one of the most seasoned veterans on the Southern jam band circuit.
As a young teen, he quickly earned a reputation as a prodigy guitarist with terrific chops and a penchant for slide solos.
Known best in the early 1990s as the nephew of Allman Brothers drummer Butch Trucks, he landed great sit-in gigs with such blues and rock greats as Buddy Guy, Bob Dylan, Stephen Stills, Widespread Panic and Joe Walsh.
By the time he hit his early 20s, he was headlining his own shows and fronting his own bands.
“When I first started touring, it was across the Southeast almost constantly,” Trucks says. “All of the musicians you meet and all of the bands you open for, their sound really seeps into your own musical DNA. We’ve spent as much time in the Carolinas as anywhere else. In my teens, Georgia, Florida and the Carolinas were my chitlin’ circuit.”
Leading the Derek Trucks Band, he explored various roots-based styles of music on his 1997 self-titled debut album and the five additional studio and concert collections. A heavy dose of Southern-fried soul and electric blues was ever-present in Trucks’ music, from the lyrics and harmonies to the rowdy riffs and funky rhythms.
In 2010, the Derek Trucks Band started to morph into something new. Trucks and his crew released a live album titled “Roadsongs,” recorded in Chicago during their 2009 Already Free world tour, around the time Trucks started seriously collaborating musically with his wife, Susan Tedeschi, an accomplished guitarist and songwriter in her own right.
By 2011, Trucks and Tedeschi had assembled a new recording and touring band dubbed the Tedeschi Trucks Band that eventually filled out as an 11-piece soul-rock ensemble.
Bassist Oteil Burbridge, keyboardist-flutist Kofi Burbridge and drummers J.J. Johnson and Tyler Greenwell were among the core members.
They signed with Sony and released a debut titled “Revelator” on the Masterworks label that summer.
“I started developing a personality and individual sound as a guitarist early on,” Trucks says. “But the main growth for me lately has been in learning how to be a bandleader and how to appreciate songwriting and making albums. I’m thinking more ‘big picture.’
“During my early years, I was more about how far we could take a performance. I was always kind of waiting for a solo section to see how explosive we could make it. It hit me later that I wanted to start making good records that could age well and stand up years later.”
When the Tedeschi Trucks Band recorded “Revelator,” there was a fantastic musical chemistry within the band, but things were a little raw and loose; they hadn’t earned a lot of hard-knock stage experience on the road as a group at the time of the release.
This time around with “Made Up Mind,” Trucks and Tedeschi say they noticed a greater sense of confidence as the band started tracking the new songs.
Studio veteran Jim Scott (Wilco, Johnny Cash, Red Hot Chili Peppers) came on board to co-produce the new album with Trucks and Tedeschi at their Swamp Raga Studios. According to Trucks, things clicked right away.
“Bringing a co-producer into studio and home was essentially like hiring another band member,” Trucks says. “Jim’s rapport with Susan and the rest of band was really special. He was open to ideas, and he offered great ideas. We all worked together to make something we could believe in. Jim was a great champion for Susan and her voice, and he really wanted to bring the best out of her. We were lucky to have him.”
Trucks and Tedeschi started out the new album by simply writing tunes together and with a couple of pals, the Jayhawks’ Gary Louris and Soulive’s Eric Krasno.
They began with a basic concept of what they wanted the new collection to be and then let it take on a life of its own.
“I knew I wanted the sound of the album to be a little more ‘live’ and aggressive than ‘Revelator,’ but I didn’t want to force it,” Trucks says. “I had no fear. Once the band came in to check out the tunes, it was a simple process. We just tried to capture good performances, and there weren’t many speed bumps.”
The Burbridge brothers, Johnson and Greenwell returned to the studio alongside a solid horn section comprised of Kebbi Williams (sax), Maurice Brown (trumpet) and Saunders Sermons (trombone), and backing vocalists Mike Mattison and Mark Rivers.
In the time between the release of “Revelator” and the sessions for “Made Up Mind,” the full band had built a solid reputation for fiery, emotive live performances at big shows during lengthy tours. The experience together on the road made for a new kind of chemistry.
“When you have the same band on the road for a few years, you start learning how to hit all these different music areas,” Truck says. “We’re not pretending to play a ballad or whatever. We have an innate sense of what we’re capable of, and we can reach that in the studio. On the first record, it was harder to do that because we hadn’t been on the road much. The music wasn’t road-tested yet. Now, we know when we’re cooking and when we’re locked in and free and sailing. On this new recording, when things were really happening, everyone instantly knew it.”
With Tedeschi’s soulful croon at the forefront, much of “Made Up Mind” rolls and rocks with punchy energy and sass. It’s a fluid, warm-sounding album with two distinctive personalities: a raw, almost nasty rock ’n’ roll side and a softer soul-ballad side.
“There’s always an undercurrent of blues, jazz and gospel in what we do,” Trucks says. “Everyone in the band is a student and appreciator of great American music. As long as it’s honest, coming from a good place and has a certain level of dignity and musicianship, we don’t feel that anything is off limits. I think that’s reflected in ‘Made Up Mind.’ ”
Earlier this month, Trucks and longtime singer-guitarist Warren Haynes of Gov’t Mule fame simultaneously announced that they planned to leave the Allman Brothers by the end of the year. Haynes has been contributing to the Allman Brothers for 25 years; Trucks has been a part of the band since 1999.
“The Allman Brothers influence on myself and a lot of Southern-based bands is pretty massive,” Trucks says. “It’s been like that for years and still is like that now. Col. Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit was also a big influence. Their music will always be a big part of what we do.”
In a joint statement issued in early January, Haynes and Trucks wrote, “We will be forever grateful for the opportunity and the experience, and for the love, enthusiasm and support of the incredible fans. We are both preparing to dig even deeper into our various creative and musical endeavors.”
Trucks feels like the timing is right for an amicable parting with his longtime comrades.
“This is my last year with the Allman Brothers, and I want it to go out strong,” he says. “Both Warren and I want to blow it out and the 45th year of the band to be one of the best — at least this incarnation of the band.”
“Made Up Mind” was released only a few months ago, but Trucks is already eager to start brainstorming with Tedeschi and the band on new song ideas and recording projects. It’s convenient that they live next door to their own state-of-the-art recording facility.
“Since I’ve had this studio, I started thinking about songs differently,” Trucks says. “I consider how I might arrange and track things in my own way, without having to worry about a clock ticking and running out of money and time. I can make sure you get the sounds I want, and I can make sure the songs are crafted in a way that will last and even age well. Over the last five or seven years or so, I started thinking that a lot of bands in this scene were simply making records without really thinking that way.
“With my favorite records growing up, like the Allman Brothers’ ‘Eat a Peach’ or the Jimi Hendrix albums, you can tell that they were crafted with masters working on them,” he adds. “I’ve been a student of that lately. You learn as you go, and having a studio in the backyard certainly helps with that.
“There’s a lot of work to be done this year, and everyone’s pumped to get out there and see what we can make happen.”