Q & A: Tab Benoit: "There Are Other Things That I Pay Attention to Besides Just Playing the Guitar."
Guitarist/singer-songwriter Tab Benoit is Cajun to the bone. Born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, but raised in the small town of Houma, Benoit was brought up on a steady diet of Hank Williams, George Jones, B.B. King and John Lee Hooker. It's no wonder that Benoit's songs echo the influences of classic country and blues. It also doesn't hurt that Benoit is a hell of a guitarist. His stinging lead work adds a ferocious edge to his already sturdy compositions.
Playing with a who's who of legendary musicians, Benoit has released over fifteen albums of top-notch country blues. His 2006 effort, Brother to the Blues, was nominated for a Grammy for best traditional blues album even though it featured as much hardcore country as it did the blues. Speaking from a studio in Baton Rouge and in anticipation of his December 1st show at the Granada Theater, Benoit was kind enough to talk with DC9 At Night about his environmental concerns for his home state and his fine new effort Medicine.
You've from Houma, Louisiana, just south of New Orleans. Were you affected by Hurricane Katrina?
We didn't get it as bad as New Orleans. That's for sure. We're not below sea level. That kind of freaks people out, because they think that if you are south of New Orleans, how can you be above sea level. They think you must be in the Gulf.
You're associated with many styles of blues such as the delta, swamp and soul variety. How many kinds of blues are there?
[Laughs] I don't know because I don't put those names on them. That seems to be what other people do. For me, there is only one kind of blues and that's country blues. I think it is just putting a name to a sound or a region. Obviously different sounds come from different places.
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You do mostly original material. Why do you think a lot of blues acts play primarily covers?
It's not a bad thing to do covers. It actually can be a good thing. It's a way of paying homage. It's a way to show your audience where you are coming from. Blues is a simple formula that you can make your own. Even the guys back in the day would record a version of a song they had just heard.
You started playing guitar as a teenager. Were you listening to the blues then as well? Yes, I was listening to B.B. King and John Lee Hooker and Lightning Hopkins. I was surrounded by a lot of music, but the guitar kinds of lends itself more towards the blues. When you are listening to rock and roll and country, you are still hearing the blues. I wanted to learn where rock and roll came from, to learn the origins of American music.
Do you put just as much emphasis on the song as you do the solo?
First of all, I don't really consider myself a guitar player. I started on drums. I am a singer and a songwriter. There are other things that I pay attention to besides just playing the guitar. A guitar is just a way to play a song. That's the way I think about it. If I play a cowbell, it's going to be in the context of a song.
How did you end up in the IMAX film Hurricane on the Bayou?
The producers talked to me about two years before Katrina about doing a movie on what I had been talking about. I had started an organization called Voice of the Wetlands to try to get the word out that we had problems down here. I knew that if we ever had a storm that came anywhere near New Orleans, it was going to be bad. We were trying to get ahead of the game. I was giving out the information and the knowledge that I had about the situation. They came up and asked me if I wanted to do an IMAX movie about it and I said, "Hell, yeah." Sadly, we didn't finish the movie before Katrina happened. We started it two years prior and then it all came true. Our film was about what could happen and to try to warn everybody. As soon as we finished the movie, Katrina hit. The storm did exactly what we said would happen. You didn't have to be Nostradamus to see that coming.
Last May, you were inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame. Was that an "Oh shit" moment.
You bet it was. I thought you had to be old to get that.
Did it make you feel old?
No, because at the ceremony, I was the youngest guy. I felt young. I wondered if I really belonged there, but it was a huge honor. To have my name in there is spiritual.
What is it about Louisiana that seems to foster such an interesting array of music and performers?
I think it has something to do with the Delta and the Mississippi. It's a rich environment that we grew up in and still live in. It's alive. It's rich. You can walk into a swamp and every square inch has something moving in it. It's an inspirational place. You can feel it. The culture here is strong.
On your 2002 album Whiskey Store, you assembled a hell of a backing band that featured Charlie Musselwhite among others. Did playing with those guys feel like a dream?
Yes, you just never think you are going to get to play with people like that. The rhythm section was Tommy Shannon and Chris Layton from Double Trouble. To have those guys playing while I am singing, it's hard to believe. Those things just fell right into place and there you go. Jimmy Thackery is playing guitar with me. We're friends and we make each other laugh. We like hanging around together. That makes it easy to play together. There's no competition. It's respectful and fun.
Were you surprised when you 2006 album Brother to the Blues was nominated for a Grammy?
Yes, because it was nominated for a Grammy in the traditional blues category and that was the first album that I did where I wanted to do some country on it. The song "Brother to the Blues" is a George Jones song. I wanted to show my audience another part of where I was coming from. I loved country as a kid. I still do. George Jones and Hank Williams were my heroes. I wanted to kind of archive it. That's what I'm saying. The first album that I put some country on ends up being nominated for best traditional blues record. Maybe, they don't even know. I think they got mixed up. It's not a traditional blues album. It's a country record.
Your new effort is Medicine. One of my favorite songs on the record is "Broke and Lonely." Is that song the perfect description of the blues?
I think so, man. That's a Johnny "Guitar" Watson song. You can't go wrong with him. I wanted to do one of his songs that everybody didn't already know. It just fit the project perfectly.
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