By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star
Guitarist Derek Trucks was 12 years old when Bob Dylan asked him onstage during a show to play “Highway 61 Revisited.”
For Trucks, it was just another gig. The look on his dad’s face, however, told a different story.
“I knew who Dylan was because my dad was a massive fan, but it didn’t hit me then like it would have now or even 10 years ago,” Trucks said. “But even though I didn’t realize the significance, I could see it in my dad’s eyes that this was life-changing.”
Trucks and his father were both right. Playing with Dylan was just another encounter for the prodigy who would go on to play with Buddy Guy, Carlos Santana, Eric Clapton and numerous others. But it also opened the door to other possibilities.
Trucks, who turns 30 in June, now helms his own eponymous group (performing Friday at Harrah’s Voodoo Lounge) and also plays in the Allman Brothers Band. He returned Dylan’s favor with his supercharged blues cover of Dylan’s “Down in the Flood,” which opens his sixth and newest studio album, “Already Free.”
“I try to pick covers with some connection to the band,” Trucks said. “Part of that is Dylan is such a good songwriter with a great amount of tunes, but on top of that I figured after Katrina and the flooding in Iowa, the title and the lyrics were just a great metaphor for all that.”
Trucks didn’t go into the studio planning on cutting a record. Finding himself with downtime at his Jacksonville, Fla., home – atypical for a man who averages 300 shows a year – and a recently completed home studio called Swamp Raga Studio, Trucks and his band decided to lay down some tracks just to see how the room felt.
“The first day we wrote and ” Trucks said. “The next thing we recorded (the song) ‘Already Free,’ knew there were a dozen, then two dozen songs. We started calling people from (wife and blues guitarist) Susan (Tedeschi)’s band, Doyle (Bramhall II), Warren Haynes, Oteil Burbridge, to come in.”
The resulting release has a laid-back yet focused organic vibe that inhabits the best of the Allman Brothers’ Capricorn albums.
“It’s the most natural record I’ve done,” Trucks said. “It was very comfortable recording, and I think you can feel it. We captured tunes hours after they were written. There’s a freshness that comes across when songs are captured so quickly.”
Unsurprisingly, Trucks wanted to translate that urgency to the road as quickly as possible. The Derek Trucks Band tour kicked off last week.
For someone who has seemingly played with everyone, Trucks had the opportunity to encounter another legend and influence last year.
When you record two John Coltrane numbers on your debut album, and the opportunity to play with Coltrane’s longtime pianist McCoy Tyner arises, you don’t say no.
Still, Trucks was intimidated. Especially when he walked into the studio and saw bass player Ron Carter and drummer Jack DeJohnette.
“Those guys are legends in their own right, but McCoy is on his own level,” Trucks said. “He was such a sweet guy. He really made it feel comfortable.”
Trucks entered the studio with a list of four songs he hoped to play with the trio, but as the last guitarist on the session, some of his choices had already been recorded.
“My first choice of song was ‘Contemplations,’ but (jazz guitarist Bill) Frisell had already recorded it,” Trucks said.
The two-day session yielded collaborations with Trucks, Frisell, Bela Fleck, Marc Ribot and John Scofield. Trucks was the only “rock” guitarist invited, but he works well on his two featured cuts, “Slapback Blues” and “Greensleeves.” Trucks’ presence in the company of such eclectic legends is unsurprising given the range of covers his band performs – everything from Pakistani qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to Delta bluesman Son House – and the diversity of the band playing them, which contains a four-decade age span.
Trucks said his innate musical curiosity has not only expanded his palate but has also given him a level of comfort playing with nearly anyone.
“It started at such a young age. I was always around musicians, so I’d try to pick their brains and see what influenced their music,” Trucks said. “A huge part of being able to stay on the road and on top of the game is to keep finding inspiration. You keep finding different things that turn you on, things that tweak different parts of the brain. In the long run you’re a better musician for it.”
Trucks hopes that same level of comfort and curiosity extends to his home Swamp Raga Studio.
“I’ve spent a lot of time with Willie (Nelson) in Maui, and anywhere he is has a clubhouse vibe. I can see that communal feeling. Wherever you are with him – on his bus, in his home – he makes sure everybody is absolutely comfortable,” Trucks said. “That’s kind of what it’s (Swamp Raga) starting to turn into in the month and a half we’ve gotten into it.”
Swamp Raga is not only musician-friendly but environmentally friendly as well.
“The beauty of building from scratch is that you can think about stuff ahead of time,” Trucks said. “When I figured the electric bill would be double, not only was that a financial hit, but psychologically I started feeling guilty because of all the energy we’d be using. We went out of our way to be conscious of that. We made it a point to do everything as efficiently as possible.”
To that end, Trucks and Tedeschi installed 26 solar panels on the studio and their home. And in the months when the family is out on tour, the local utility company pays them for the energy their panels generate.
“Sometimes our bill comes in right around zero,” Trucks said. “By doing the right thing it actually works out better in the end.”
Despite such 21st century enterprises, Trucks believes his band and his music are a throwback to a time where wooden instruments were hand-crafted and stepping onstage meant being ready to cut some heads.
“When you get on stage, you have to bring it,” Trucks said. “I get a sense from new music that the idea is to outsmart your audience or be so ultra-hip you can pull one over on them.
“With a band like ours, we try to represent a more honest music. We’re musicians representing our craft first and then trying to connect with people.”