Sometimes the most interesting albums come from the most unlikely collaborations. A remarkable example is blues guitar dynamo Buddy Guy's recent Sweet Tea CD. It's a recording that's dripping with the riveting rawness of his live performances. But this project doesn't feature the guitarist's standout touring band, and it wasn't cut live on the road. Surprisingly, this recording was the outcome of 10 days' worth of sessions at producer/guitarist Dennis Herring's Sweet Tea studio in Oxford, Miss.
The producer, who's best known for his work with such alternative-leaning bands as the Counting Crows, Cracker, Timbuk 3 and Christian rockers Jars of Clay, had never produced a blues CD before. Nor did he have a prior relationship with Guy or his record company. But he says he became a blues aficionado after listening to the landmark Junior Wells album Hoodoo Man Blues, which featured Buddy Guy, and he's wanted to work with Guy ever since.
Certainly a major contributing factor to Herring's conception of the Guy project is the location of his studio. Originally from Mississippi, Herring returned in 1995 after being in Los Angeles for close to 20 years. In Oxford, he's smack-dab in the middle of Fat Possum Records territory, where artists such as Robert Cage, R.L. Burnside, T-Model Ford and the late Junior Kimbrough had fashioned a unique, regional blues style. The Mississippi hill country blues, consisting of drawn-out, moody, danceable, trance-like jams, is highly infectious. After developing a strong taste for the regional sub-genre, he started thinking of how to put a new spin on the indigenous sound.
“I was a studio guitar player before I was ever a producer,” Herring says, “and I came up being a big Buddy Guy fan. But I felt that Buddy's last few records or so had gotten very studio-oriented and were possibly looking for crossover potential. I just think the albums were going for something that I personally wasn't getting off on, although I get off on him as an artist. So I found myself thinking, ‘Wouldn't it be great if a major blues artist was to come and do a record saying, “Boy I love this music, this [Mississippi hill country blues] scene.”’ I had this separate thought, wishing Buddy would make a nasty-ass, real blues record, where he's freaking out like he does live. So it dawned on me one day that if you put the two together, it could be this completely exciting setting for Buddy that would free him up.”
Naturally, making a fantasy like this happen is far more difficult than dreaming it up. It took two years from the time Herring thought of the idea to actually begin recording. First, he made a proposal to Guy's record company, Silvertone, and to his manager, but they didn't respond. Then, a year later, when the producer had nearly given up on his dream project, Guy's people contacted him. “They said, ‘Why don't you go sit down with Buddy, play him the songs and tell him about this idea,’” Herring remembers.
Guy admits he was skeptical when he first met with Herring. Respect for the Mississippi musicians was a key concern: “I didn't want to mess up those guys' original type of blues,” Guy says from his Chicago home. “‘I can't do this,’ I said. But Dennis said, ‘No, we'll just play Buddy Guy along with this.’ I was still doubting myself that I was going to go down there and try to figure out how to play like them.” Herring adds, “Buddy wasn't too sure about it at first. He called me a couple of weeks later after he'd listened to the CD I made for him. He says, ‘I'm feeling this music.’ And it kind of seemed like he got off on it. I think he started hearing what he could do with it.”
Still, when the actual sessions rolled around in the summer of 2000, Guy says, “I got there and started frowning, thinking I'm going to mess this up. I'm not going to be able to do a good job. On the first day, I listened. The next day, I smiled. Third day, I was tapping my feet. Fourth day, I said, ‘Man, turn me on, let me have some of this!’” And with that epiphany, the hard-jamming musician, who'd influenced second-generation rockers such as Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and many others, finally felt comfortable enough to submerge himself in the heated jams. “One of the cuts on the CD, [“I Gotta Try You Girl”], is 12 minutes; they couldn't stop me!” Guy enthuses. “I'm not going to stop playing this, so I just went on and on and on. And that's just that feeling I had about it. When I got into it, I couldn't stop.” Indeed it was the longest track of the sessions. But all of the tracks, most of which are covers of songs by the region's groundbreaking players, were initially very long and jam-like before being cut down. That was a key element to the project's authenticity: letting Guy get into the flow of this often expansive style and then having him do what comes naturally — play searing, kick-ass guitar.
However, the project wasn't as simple as getting some blues musicians together and having the rocking bluesman jam with them. Herring painstakingly selected a diverse group of musicians and, unlike the authentic Fat Possum material, added a bass player. Rehearsals went on for a couple of weeks before Guy's arrival. “The main drummer on the record is Spam, who's been T-Model Ford's drummer for a real long time,” Herring says. “And he has his own beat, which he's great at; some kind of modified stomp. I wanted that beat for every song on the project. The bass player is an L.A. guy named Davey Faragher, who's my favorite bass player on earth. We worked together for 15 years with groups like Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven. He was also the only guy on this project whom I've had a longtime musical dialog with. I could be as musically technical as I wanted to be, and I knew he could always get it. The guitar player I ended up picking was Jimbo Mathus of the Squirrel Nut Zippers; he comes from some other disciplines. But I knew that he had grown up in Clarksdale, Mississippi, was a Southern boy who was legitimately fascinated to learn the guitar styles of people like R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough or T-Model. Musically with these guys, I wanted to make this bed that Buddy could play over. Overall, I never wanted him to have to play the main riff of the songs. I wanted that to be something that somebody else was always supplying. If Buddy wanted to join in with that, he could, but it was always there.”
Additional musicians helping out were drummers Sam Carr (Jelly Roll Kings) and Pete Thomas (Elvis Costello's Attractions), percussionist Craig Krampf and Bobby Whitlock on piano.
Herring's studio, converted from an old cement building, houses a vintage Neve 8038 board with 1073 preamps, lots of analog outboard gear, and then both an Otari RADAR hard disk system and an Ampex MM1200 2-inch deck that the producer swears by — it was the classic contemporary mixture of vintage analog and modern digital devices.
“I couldn't have had this whole idea,” Herring says, “and tried to be as regional as I could be with the musicians to get the right flavor, and done it in Miami Beach. I don't think it would have even worked in Chicago. You would have had Buddy so much in his normal environment that the other musicians would have felt out of place.” On the other hand, to keep Guy comfortable, Herring scheduled all of the sessions in the evening, when Guy likes to work, and he even had an area of the studio set up as a bar, with a female bartender. When the guitarist entered the studio each night, the band was already warmed up, drinks were available, and all technical bugs had been eradicated.
“By the time Buddy came, we all knew these songs backward and forward, from the originals and the versions we worked up,” notes Chris Shephard, Herring's engineer for the CD, speaking from his home in Arlington Heights, a suburb of Chicago. Herring and Shephard had worked on several projects together, including albums for Red Telephone and the Counting Crows. Still, because this was a completely live-in-the-studio project (save for an overdubbed tambourine), “it wasn't that easy getting things set up,” Shephard says. “When we plugged in the guitars, the drums and mics with the monitor rig running full blare all in one room, it was crazy. The trick was harnessing it and getting a lasso around it.” This required a fair amount of moving microphones and changing tones so different elements didn't conflict with each other.
In order to get the best possible vocals from Guy, they had him out in the hall playing and singing. This had some interesting side effects, namely plenty of leakage, but Herring and Shephard were ultimately able to use the leakage to their benefit. “His guitar amp was right next to him,” the engineer remembers, “so the reverb you hear on that record on his vocals is really the room mic on the guitar. But the reverb on his guitar is from his vocal mic. Also, I put an amp in this little workshop closet and ran his vocals back through that and miked them. So we had a drive-y vocal thing that we could also use.”
Herring has quite a collection of vintage amps and microphones (additionally, they rented an M-49 and a couple of U47s) and that was another element that piqued Guy's interest in the project. “I used Buddy Guy's guitars; I'm in love with them,” Guy notes. “But Dennis has all those amps with cobwebs still on them and you can't buy them anymore. He didn't have to say anything to me. I said, ‘Turn me on and let me go!’ That was one of the reasons I didn't want to stop playing. This is real Buddy Guy; I could turn up the amplifiers like I wanted to and like I play in person. Plus, these old amps give you what you play, not what technology is putting into your playing. His old board doesn't have as much tech stuff as the new ones. [With the new consoles], it's like you sing something, go out to the bathroom and come back asking, ‘Who's that?’ And they say, ‘It's you!’ [Working this way] brought me back into the things that I was doing before I left Louisiana. You get to these big cities and they start telling you how to play and when to solo. [Mississippi hill country players] got a groove like James Brown in the '60s. And they're still playing in the blues.”
“I learned a lot about unsterile on this CD,” Shephard acknowledges. “We all know, in the recording process, having everyone in one room is a big no-no. There was no isolation; it was complete bleed — we were breaking laws left and right with that record. The guitar and vocal mics were in the same room. There was all kinds of stuff [making you] say, ‘That'll never work.’ But it's really a matter of pushing and pulling really hard to make things sound like we had them planned. We had to really work it to make things sound good. There's a lot of compression going on with the drums, bass and other things. A lot of things Davey played were all distorted — it was really different for blues to have that grindy bass sound. Not many bassists plug into a tube Screamer for a blues record.”
According to Shephard, mixing the album on the same Neve board at Sweet Tea didn't require anything special. “With Buddy's CD, getting the performance was the thing and the biggest challenge,” he says. “It wasn't living on the mixing.” In preparation for mixing, Herring edited the songs down from their sometimes-cumbersome lengths. “Dennis is a very crafty editor,” Shephard notes. “He took about a month to edit the songs on his own time. He drove around in his car — a new BMW with an awesome stereo — listening to the tracks. While driving back and forth to Memphis, he'd get a feel for the length and structure of the songs.” Once Shephard returned, they mixed in a tag-team-type mode, comparing notes at every turn. “Dennis is very hands-on,” says the engineer, “because it's his studio and he knows how it all works. Once Buddy left, he could get more involved with technical matters. I'd work on a song for a few hours, then take a break. Then he would come in and push the faders a little bit more the way he wanted things. It's an odd way of working, but with Dennis, that's how you have to work. Most people are too afraid to get in and start monkeying with someone else's mix. Eventually, everything got mixed down to a half-inch machine that we rented from Dream Hire, and to DAT.”
Although most of the album features Guy's characteristically scorching electric playing in front of the band, there are other moods and feelings on the CD as well. For instance, the opening track, “Done Got Old,” has Guy solo, playing acoustic guitar. “We planned that day so well, knowing that it was just going to be Buddy at the studio,” Shephard recalls. “Dennis wanted it to be in the control room so it felt real intimate. So with the air conditioner off, we set Buddy up on the couch with his guitar. He ran through it with Dennis a bunch of times, and we all sat there quietly. And what you hear there sounds like a story. That piece, for me, was the culmination of the whole recording experience.
“This whole record really falls into Dennis' plan,” Shephard concludes. “He was very much a master planner when it came to this project; definitely a lot more than I've seen from most producers. He sweated over it and really worked hard. He put a group of people together that was pretty edgy and risky. He hadn't met any of the players [except bassist Faragher], yet they were playing on this record. And these weren't Buddy's songs, so that made things even more unpredictable. We were either going to fall flat on our faces or we were going to make a dangerous and sweaty record. I listen to it now and it sounds hot, like it was August in Mississippi.”