Born Clyde Vernon Sonny Landreth III, February 1, 1951, in Mississippi; raised in Lafayette, LA; son of an insurance company employee and a homemaker. Addresses: Home--Lafayette, LA. Record company--Zoo/Praxis, 8750 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90211. Other--Sonny Landreth Fanclub, c/o Lord Entertainment, P.O. Box 121825, Nashville, TN 37212.
Singer-songwriter-guitarist Sonny Landreth brings together blues, jazz, Cajun, zydeco, and rock music, creating a style that's increasingly appealing to a wide array of listeners. The Mississippi-born recording artist employs a slide technique praised by critics from Guitar Player magazine to the Vancouver Sun. Each of Landreth's two solo albums is woven from the various musical styles he picked up in southern Louisiana, his home since the age of two. His ability to meld these loosely associated deep South genres has earned him a broad following, and, with twenty years as a professional musician, his resume packs important contacts. He has worked with the likes of John Hiatt, Mark Knopfler, and the late king of zydeco, Clifton Chenier and his Red Hot Louisiana Band.
After spending time as a sought-after session player, Landreth quickly moved from the shadows to the spotlight. With South of I-10, his 1995 Zoo/Praxis release, Landreth finally dispelled the sideman image, utilizing the talents of Knopfler and definitive New Orleans musician Allen Toussaint to do so. Critics applauded the album's meticulously produced displays of guitar ability and the conviviality among its many elements. The release also found new fans with Adult Album Alternative radio, a format that offers an outlet for musicians whose material falls outside conventional formats. Landreth noted in a Zoo/Praxis publicity release: "I wanted the listeners to feel like they spent part of their summer with me in Louisiana and this album would reflect the stories they took back home with them."
A childhood spent in Lafayette, Louisiana, in the 1950s and 1960s brought Landreth in contact with the blues, jazz, Cajun, and zydeco artists whose styles influenced his music. "Growing up in southwest Louisiana with a really rich cultural heritage, I got a lot of influences," Landreth explained in the Chicago Tribune. "I really feel fortunate to have that as a backdrop. One's roots really are inspiring and they remain, to this day." With New Orleans and its jazz just a short drive away, a grandfather living in the Mississippi Delta with its blues, and Cajun and zydeco flourishing around his hometown, the self-taught guitarist almost had no recourse other than to become a musician.
In elementary school, Landreth began playing the trumpet, though he soon found the guitar to be the most direct vehicle for his musical expression. "By the time I was 13, I knew I wanted to play guitar, and I knew I wanted to play in a band," he told the Houston Chronicle. Landreth's first experience with a guitar was with a toy Elvis Presley model belonging to his brother. Unfortunately, the family dog chewed off its neck while the budding rock and roll stars were in school one day.
Quick to overcome that setback, Landreth acquired another guitar and learned to play it by listening to Chet Atkins, appropriating his finger-picking style. The Ventures and Scotty Moore, who backed Elvis, were other influences, though the biggest impact on Landreth's early career would come from zydeco master Clifton Chenier. "I must have been no more that 16, 17 years old the first time I saw him play. Me and a friend wandered into the Blue Angel Club, and he was up there on the bandstand. The guy just blew me away. We were the only white people in the place, but Clifton, he came right over and took us under this wing," he recalled in an interview for the Sante Fe New Mexican.
Also important to Landreth's style was the slide mastery of Robert Johnson. By combining Chet Atkins's picking with Johnson's technique of pressing the slide directly on the guitar's fretboard, Landreth honed his own method of playing. Describing the evolution of his guitar style, he told the Los Angeles Times, "I had been learning the guitar as a solo instrument, where Chet would play the melody, rhythm and bass line at the same time. And then to hear Robert Johnson doing it with a bottleneck so many years before was a real influence." This fusion begat a musical career that has taken the guitarist around the globe.
Record label interest began as early as 1973 with Columbia Records. Landreth recorded a full-length album for the label that went unreleased. Columbia, at that time, was unsure of the record's audience and how to reach it. Combining session work with gigs as a backing musician, Landreth was eventually asked to perform with Chenier's Red Hot Louisiana Band. Of the experience, Landreth told the Los Angeles Times, "I figure that to be the highlight of my career, and that was in 1979." By that time, he had also formed Bayou Rhythm with David Ransom on bass and Gregg Morrow on drums. With limited gig work, the trio released two albums in the early 1980s.
After a short break from music, Landreth reemerged in 1988 playing with noted folk-rock performer John Hiatt. When Hiatt needed a touring band to take on the road in support of his Bring the Family album, he turned to Landreth and the Bayou Rhythm band, renaming them the Goners. Successfully recreating the guitar tracks laid down on the album by Ry Cooder, Landreth and his energetic playing provided solid backing for Hiatt's songwriting.
The combination worked so well that Hiatt recorded his following release, Slow Turning, with the Goners after label-recruited session musicians failed to meet his expectations. The album was a success for Landreth both critically and personally. "That was pretty much a once-in-a-lifetime thing. We all knew it was something special," he commented in the Seattle News Tribune. The exposure was just enough to create label interest in a solo project. The result was Outward Bound, released on Zoo/Praxis in 1992. The album received mostly positive critical attention, though a few reviewers felt that Landreth sometimes put his technical displays before his songwriting. Outward Bound made appearances on some critics' Top Ten lists and fueled the development of Landreth's solo career.
The move from backing musician to frontman is known to be difficult, with some artists unable to make the switch, but Landreth knew the ropes. "There's obviously more responsibility, but I did a lot of that stuff before with John Hiatt, and I had my own band before that. All of that helped me scope out the fire without being in the middle of it," he told the Los Angeles Times. His Outward Bound has a blues feel, highlighted by sounds coaxed patiently from the best in electric and resonator guitars--names like Fender, Gibson, and National. Landreth's seamless bottleneck slide provides an often vaporous undercurrent to the solo record.
The same formula of blues, zydeco, and roots-rock produced South of I-10 in 1995, much to the delight of critics. Landreth went back home to Louisiana to make the record. In his native South, he apparently found it easier to pull together his musical influences. The guitarist worked at a recording studio on an 11-acre estate along the forested Vermilion River. "I'd be recording at all hours of the night, so I'd have less distraction," he noted in the Los Angeles Times. "Then about three or four in the morning ... these tugboats barging shale from the gulf would be going by 30 feet away, with these lights cutting through the fog. It was an ethereal experience." Landreth told Andy Ellis of Guitar Player that he hopes South of I-10 will take him one step closer to reaching his life's goal of "turning people on to Cajun music."
by Rich Bowen
Sonny Landreth's Career
Early musical ambitions fueled by contact with diverse musicians in the South; first instrument, trumpet at age 10, gave way to guitar; first white musician to play with Clifton Chenier's Red Hot Louisiana Band, 1979; formed Bayou Rhythm with David Ransom on bass and Gregg Morrow on drums, late 1970s; recorded two albums before an association with John Hiatt in late 1980s; recorded with Mark Knopfler, Kenny Loggins, and Beausoleil; solo albums include Outward Bound, 1992, and South of I-10, 1995.
- Selective Works
- Solo recordings; on Zoo/Praxis Outward Bound, 1992.
- South of I-10, 1995.
- The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, edited by Jon Pareles and Patricia Romanowski, Rolling Stone Press/Summit Books, 1983.
- Periodicals Chicago Sun-Times, October 14, 1992.
- Chicago Tribune, February 26, 1993.
- Guitar Player, April 1995.
- Houston Chronicle, September 8, 1992.
- Kansas City Star, June 23, 1995.
- Los Angeles Times, March 27, 1995; March 30, 1995.
- News Tribune (Seattle, WA), April 11, 1995.
- Orlando Sentinel Tribune, August 28, 1992.
- Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), April 14, 1995.
- St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 10, 1995.
- Sante Fe New Mexican, June 16, 1995.
- Vancouver Sun, April 13, 1995.
- Additional information for this profile was provided by Zoo/Praxis, 1995.