By Jason SchneiderAs leader of the Stax Records house band, Booker T. & the MGs, Booker T. Jones's musical legacy will forever be heard in the songs of Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, and many others. That's on top of his own group's string of classic instrumentals such as "Green Onions," "Hip Hug-Her," and "Time Is Tight." But although that brand of southern soul fell out of fashion in the 1970s and '80s, Jones remained an in-demand session star and producer, working with everyone from Bill Withers to Willie Nelson. In the '90s he and the MGs formed a new partnership with Neil Young, and that in part has led to Potato Hole, the first album recorded under his own name. Although Young's lead guitar is a prominent presence on the record, the songs are built upon the spot-on teaming of Jones with the Drive-By Truckers, whose soul music pedigree is well known. In bridging this generation gap, Jones loses none of his trademark funk, while at the same time gains a lot of punch through the multi-guitar attack. And with a couple of well-chosen reinterpretations of recent material thrown in -€“ OutKast's "Hey Ya" and Tom Waits's "Get Behind The Mule" -€“ Potato Hole adds up to a most welcome return of one of American music's most underappreciated heros.
You're starting to play live with the Drive-By Truckers. How has that been going so far? Actually, we just did the first show the night before last in Atlanta, and to tell you the truth it was exhilarating. It was a new experience for me, and so great to play that music live. I feel it's better than what we did in the studio. I love what we did in the studio, but I got something from it the other night that I hadn't gotten before.
Is it nice to be front and centre again? It wasn't that, it was just that the room was full of people all wishing me well, and they liked the music. It was a completely new experience for me to be playing new music after that much time. And the music itself was just really exhilarating. I got a real charge out of it.
So how did this project get started? When I got my new manager, Dave Bartlett, about two years ago, his first suggestion was that I should be jamming with the Truckers, so he set me up at South By Southwest in 2007 with Jason Isbell and we did a jam session in the afternoon. It was a cool session; it was all his stuff that he'd sent me and I'd learned, and through that I got to know what they were all about. We had a great time.
It sounds like when you finally got in the studio to do the record, it all happened pretty fast. How much of the material did you have prepared? I started writing in March and I stopped in September when we had the sessions booked. I started off writing the songs on guitar, and making demos.
Were you writing specifically for this record, or are you constantly working on ideas? Not at the beginning. I'd write a song and send it off to my manager, and then he'd send it off to Andy Kaulkin at Anti Records. Then he'd tell me things like, "I hear Neil Young on this." For every song that happened. So then we ended up calling Neil, and of course he was happy to do it.
I love the version of "Hey Ya." That was a really inspired choice. Who's idea was it to do that song? That came from my wife Nan, actually. We'd been listening to other OutKast songs, and, you know, that's a group that's pushed the limits. What I like about that song is that it's got a really unusual bar pattern -€“ there's three 4/4 bars and then a 2/4 bar -€“ and that just intrigued me about the song. It gives it a nice little jump.
It also reminded me of how you used to cover Beatles songs and other current hits back in the day with the MGs. Yeah, somewhat. But with this one though, I had Andre's lyrics right in front of me and played along to them.
The MGs were such a tight unit. Were you conscious of tailoring your songwriting to working with the Truckers instead? No, I was just trying to follow my own musical vision. We didn't really have the Truckers on board at the time I was writing. I just had my Fender Strat and my Hammond in the studio. Some of the songs were almost leaning toward having lyrics, but nothing got completely fleshed out. I ended up just playing to a visual image in my mind for each song.
That's interesting. So were you close to writing some lyrics? In most cases with these songs I did have a lyric in mind, but I would just go ahead and play it as a melody through the organ.
You and Neil Young seem to have a special connection. I first saw you guys back him up in the early '90s, and at that time it seemed like a bit of an unusual combination. Well, you know, Neil was in the Mynah Birds with Rick James. We never really talked about it, but I always suspected that he loved funky music. But on this album the stuff he played on was practically second nature to him. He got my musical intentions on every song instantly. I do feel like we have so many common influences, and I think when he heard this stuff, he felt really comfortable with it.
Do you still work with Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn from time to time? Yeah, we get together on a pretty regular basis. We had three really great nights the week before last over in the Netherlands. The shows were really good because we're now mining our older catalogue. We're playing songs from the early '60s like "Booker-Loo" and "Soul-Limbo." It's not just the big hits; we're doing more of the obscure stuff and it still sounds good.
There are so many groups now that are trying to get that classic Stax Records sound. What's your take on the soul revival, and are there any young artists out there now that you might want to work with? There aren't any particular artists that I can think of offhand that I want to work with, but I think it's great what they're all doing. I always believed that what we did was a great way to make music and to record. Just keep it simple and accessible.
And with all the new technology, you still can't beat the Hammond B-3 sound. Yeah, it keeps hanging around. It's everywhere, from rock bands to gospel churches to jazz groups. I actually didn't own one until the '70s when I moved to California. The one I played at Stax belongs to them and is in their museum. Right now I have a new B-3 in my garage, and in the house I have one made in 1974.
So with this album getting you out there again, are you motivated to do more on your own, or are you busy doing sessions?I'm not doing sessions right now. I'm actually very excited about playing live. I have to say again how great this show in Atlanta was for me, and just how good the audience made me feel. It's going to be fun getting on the road to play this music.