Now, with the release of Made Up Mind (Sony Masterworks, August 20, 2013), there isn’t a shred of doubt that Susan Tedeschi, her husband and creative collaborator, Derek Trucks, and their superb bandmates are on to something—something very big.
For Derek and Susan, TTB’s strength in numbers—the band presently comprises 10 members (plus a revolving cast of bassists)—virtually guaranteed that a wide range of influences would steer the music to new, previously unexplored places. That diversity is evident throughout Made Up Mind. “I felt that with the personnel in this band, it was just a matter of time before all of these ideas started leaking out,” says Trucks. “As things progress, and as the band grows, I think that is inevitable. But we had a lot of confidence that it was going to be really good right out of the gate.”
It took a while for that gate to swing open, but it was worth the wait. Derek and Susan didn’t want to rush into things, and paced themselves until they were certain that each musician they brought into the fold was an equal, someone who would elevate the band to new plateaus musically. Today, as the result of carefully building it from scratch, Tedeschi Trucks Band is nothing less than one big happy family, a traveling roots music circus of sorts, roving from town to town and pulling out all the stops along the way, never knowing just what will be the highlight of tonight’s show or which band member will be the one to shine in the next moment. Each member of TTB is a strong enough force to be a bandleader in his own right, but the chemical reaction that takes place when they all come together results in a mighty sound that’s even greater than the sum of its considerable parts.
Both Kofi Burbridge and Mike Mattison, for example, were longtime members of The Derek Trucks Band, Mike as lead vocalist and Kofi—who contributes his harmonic expertise to arrangements—as keyboardist and flutist. The horn men—Kebbi Williams, Maurice Brown and Saunders Sermons—are each outstanding players who together give Tedeschi Trucks Band a soulful thrust and who, separately, are soloists of extreme agility and creativity. Saunders also proves himself an asset in the vocals department on Made Up Mind—his duet with Susan on the track “Part of Me” opens the band up to even more possibilities. Mark Rivers is another formidable vocalist and the drummers, Tyler Greenwell and J.J. Johnson, provide a virtual twin rhythmic engine. The first time the pair sat at their respective kits and started to bash away, everyone in the room knew immediately that this was a drum team that was meant to be.
From their first gigs, TTB was a sensation among audiences, but for Susan and Derek, adulation is nothing new. On her own, before the formation of Tedeschi Trucks Band, Susan had already racked up five Grammy nominations, in three different categories. Her catalog of pre-TTB recordings, beginning in the mid-’90s and culminating in 2008’s Back to the River, personified American roots music—she’s been praised for her insightful songwriting, galvanizing, emotive vocals and her blues-informed, gutsy guitar style. Her playing has, in fact, blossomed even more since the formation of TTB. As renowned a guitarist as Derek is, one listen to a track like “Whiskey Legs” is proof that Susan is more than holding her own up there, that her exceptional playing is as essential to the total TTB picture as Derek’s, that her instrumental voice is as moving as her singing voice. And that singing voice is like none other on the scene today.
“I started singing when I was a little girl, before I even spoke,” Susan says. “My mom said I used to sing every morning in the crib and make up songs. I remember hearing Judy Garland when I was about 3 and I said, ‘Wow, that’s a voice! I want to do that.’ I started acting onstage when I was 6 and had my first major role in the chorus of Oliver. Then I continued to do a lot of theater. I was always doing a show.”
Theater eventually lost its luster for her though, and at the same time music beckoned. “I started being in bands and playing guitar, mostly acoustic, at 14,” she says, “and that’s when I started writing and making up songs. It wasn’t until I was around 21 that I said, ‘I really want to learn how to play this thing.’ I played piano and clarinet but I never really played the guitar. I never had lessons other than my dad showing me a couple of chords, so I got a bunch of blues records and had some friends who were blues fans who needed singers and I sang every Sunday for about a year. Before you knew it, I was getting up and playing rhythm guitar and learning how to play with a band. I really wanted to be able to accompany myself. That was a big life-changer for me.”
Susan began performing music professionally in her early twenties, at first in a band whose front line was all-female. Around the same time she also earned a degree in musical composition from the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Her early albums, including Better Days and Just Won’t Burn—the latter of which was certified gold by the RIAA—brought rapid recognition to the Susan Tedeschi Band and she was nominated for a Best New Artist Grammy in 2000, building a high-profile solo career that would carry her through the decade.
Derek, meanwhile, who began playing guitar at age 9, was destined to become a musician, and since his childhood he's worked relentlessly to turn his natural talent into a true virtuosity. As is well known by rock aficionados, his uncle is Butch Trucks, one of the two drummers in The Allman Brothers Band since day one. But, contrary to popular rumor, Derek did not grow up amidst the band’s inner circle. “I wasn’t around the Allman Brothers when I first started playing,” he says. “There were still remnants of that scene but it was almost mythical. In some ways it was almost better though, because being too close to that fire was probably an unhealthy thing at that age. Better to know about the music and the feeling of it and maybe not being directly in the midst of it.”
Derek did, of course, absorb the Allmans’ music, and was particularly influenced by their original lead guitarist, the late Duane Allman, whose slide playing, along with that of blues legend Elmore James, had a profound effect on his own developing style. But he was keen to expose himself to every kind of music that came his way: The young Trucks took in blues and soul from the likes of B.B. King, John Lee Hooker and Ray Charles, jazz by John Coltrane and Miles Davis, rock from all of the classic artists, and also his mom’s Joni Mitchell records—all of it helped him formulate his own musical ideas. By all accounts, Derek, a true prodigy, was already an astounding musician by the time he entered high school.
By his early teens Derek was sitting in with the Allmans, and he became a full-fledged member of that band in 1999, when he was still only 20—a gig he still proudly holds on to. Today, Derek’s wicked guitar work, both electric and acoustic, is recognized globally—Rolling Stone lists him as number 16 on its most recent list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time, the youngest living player on the list—and he’s matured into a formidable songwriter and producer as well. Derek was tapped by Eric Clapton as a featured soloist for the English guitar god’s 2006-2007 world tour, and he has played alongside Herbie Hancock, Bob Dylan, Buddy Guy, Willie Nelson, Levon Helm and B.B. King, among many others. With Susan, he has performed at the United Nations in New York and at the White House for the First Family. “Getting to see the look on the President’s face when Susan started singing, I don’t think they were expecting that,” says Derek with a chuckle, recalling that memorable evening.
Before all of that, though, there was The Derek Trucks Band, which he formed in 1995. One of the most revered live bands of the late ’90s and 2000s, the band performed well over one thousand gigs and also found the time to release multiple well-received albums, beginning with their 1997 self-titled debut and leaving off with 2009’s Already Free,their sixth studio effort, which nabbed a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album. In addition, Derek can be heard on several Allmans’ albums, as well as adding his in-demand guitar work to recordings by a vast and diverse array of artists including Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy and jazz great McCoy Tyner.
It was, in fact, at an Allmans show, where the Susan Tedeschi Band was opening for the Southern superstars, that the future couple first met. “We weren’t that familiar with each other,” remembers Trucks. “We met on tour in New Orleans at the Saenger Theatre. A few months on the road and then five records and two children later, here we are.”
“I had some really awesome moments right around when I met Derek and realized a lot of great things were happening,” says Tedeschi. “I had a lot of opportunities—I got to make records with some of my heroes and to meet people like Derek, getting to open for the Allman Brothers. When we met I realized he’s such a special talent. He’s so sweet, amazingly hard-working and very intelligent.”
They married in 2001 and first toured together in 2009 under the banner of Soul Stew Revival. “That was just an excuse to get our bands together on the road and hang out and bring our kids out for the summer,” says Derek. “In a way it was us testing out this thing and seeing what we would want to do and just how it would feel.”
It felt great, and by 2010 they were ready to leave behind their individual bands. Says Trucks, “The Soul Stew tour was when it really got planted in both of our heads that this is something that might work. I don’t know if there was a specific turning point but it just kind of hit me that the window was never gonna open perfectly and if you’re gonna do it, I’d like to do it while we’re still young and crazy enough to put an insane amount of energy into it. So we decided now or never. I’d had my band together for a good 14-15 years and I was ready to shake it up a little bit. I’d never put a band together as an adult, so there was something nice about a clean slate.”
Since then, Tedeschi Trucks Band has maintained a hectic but rewarding touring itinerary, including swings through Canada, Europe, Australia and Japan, and a summer 2012 co-headlining tour with B.B. King that brought TTB to the Hollywood Bowl and Red Rocks for the first time. It’s been a nonstop ride for the band in the few years they’ve been around, but it’s the life they love. The logistics of putting and keeping it all together—aligning that many schedules, working out the travel details, balancing personal lives with touring and recording commitments—are a constant challenge, but Susan and Derek knew what they were signing on for, knew where they wanted to go with this, and fortunately they’ve found a band that shares their vision.
“When we got married,” Tedeschi says, “we both had record deals so we were constantly trying to keep up with doing what we loved to do. We juggle all of the things in our lives, including parenting, pretty well, considering, but it’s pretty intense. If you get four hours of sleep you can still get the job done, but you definitely have to pace yourself and be aware of what’s going on. Everyone has been really supportive of Derek and me.”
“We’ve been incredibly fortunate,” adds Derek. “Putting a band together has actually made us closer. There’s nowhere to hide. You have to be brutally honest with each other.”
Now that TTB has been together a few years and the band’s artistic vision has begun to solidify more firmly, Derek and Susan have been able to devote more of their time to fine-tuning that vision.
“We never wrote together until we were in a band together,” Susan says. “We should have done that sooner, but it’s funny, you live together and have this whole lifestyle together but you don’t always want to jump into music on your time off. We both have so many other interests. We both love baseball, we love basketball, football. We both love to exercise and get out and ride bikes. We like to fish and swim and surf. We’re very active.” But now, she says, creating music together for the band is an integral part of their daily lives. “I’ll be doing dishes and think about a chorus. Then I’ll bring it out to him in the studio.”
That loose and casual approach extends to the way in which the band approached the writing and recording of Made Up Mind, recorded at Derek and Susan’s Swamp Raga Studios at their home in Jacksonville, Florida. To start with, the band had the same team at the helm as with the previous two albums, a team continuing to hone their recording techniques with each session. Jim Scott co-produced the album with Trucks, and longtime TTB crew member Bobby Tis engineered it, spending countless hours with Trucks in the studio. “Once we were in the studio the songs were already written, mostly with friends of ours,” says Trucks. “Sometimes you’d show up with an idea, sometimes you’d show up with nothing and you pull it out of the air. Then we went in and we listened to all the stuff we had written and whatever we felt like playing that day is what we would track. A lot of times the demos were just rough sketches and you let the band unleash on them and it would come together really quickly. It was a matter of playing it a few times; everyone would listen and everyone would have a pretty good idea of what they would want to do and then usually the next take or two would be the record.”
There’s nothing Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks would rather do than create music with this band. “We all work hard,” says Derek, “and we’re all working toward making it even better. We are very fortunate to do what we do.”