By Jeffrey V. Smith
Duane Trucks feels “lucky” to play music for a living. The fortunate ones, however, are audiences that get to experience the gifted drummer on stage. Despite his well-known legacy, the 26-year-old musician has prepared his entire life for the rewards he’s reaping now, and is doing his part to take whatever music he’s involved with to the next level. Catch Trucks with Hard Working Americans, Aug. 29, at NedFest Music and Arts Festival.
Trucks’ love affair with rhythm began before he could walk and pots and pans were his instrument of choice. His third birthday wish was to get drums, and being from a musical family, it was happily granted. By first grade, the young drummer’s dedication to the instrument and his willingness to practice inspired a call to his uncle, Butch—renowned rock drummer and founding member of the Allman Brothers Band—who delivered a brand new, in-the-box professional drum set to the budding prodigy. That was all it took. Trucks began to take drumming seriously in hopes of making his kindergarten aspirations of being a drummer when he grew up, come true.
Throughout his school-age years, Trucks’ older brother Derek—the world-famous, Grammy award-winning guitarist—would encourage him to pursue his love of playing and listening to music by introducing him to the greats of jazz and providing a musical blueprint from which to build. “When I was really young, like 17 or 18, I was just focused on playing straight ahead jazz, avant-garde jazz fusion and stuff like that,” Trucks said. “That’s definitely a big part of what I consider fun to play and something that meant a lot to me coming up and was very influential.”
Within months of graduating from his Jacksonville, FL high school, Trucks moved to Atlanta to pursue a music career, mainly because Col. Bruce Hampton—a longtime family friend—was there. Hampton was, and continues to be, well-known for training up-and-coming musical talent at his weekly jam sessions and producing influential, improvisational-based touring acts like Aquarium Rescue Unit.
After arriving in Atlanta, Trucks formed Highly Kind and began touring the south. It wasn’t long, however, before Hampton called on him to fill a spot in his band Pharaoh Gummit for some shows. When the three-night run was over, Hampton revealed he had been observing Trucks for months and then asked him to be a full-time member. Forget college, Trucks was officially enrolled in the school of Col. Bruce—a much higher education.
His time with Hampton taught him in order to succeed, he must find his own musical intention. “[Hampton] would turn a mirror back on the musicians he was training. He was not directly asking that question, but constantly implying the question to the musicians that worked under him. It is one of the most important things that a musician can decide. What is your intension? Why are you even doing this… are you doing it for fame, for money? I think it’s something that’s good and healthy for musicians to decide early in their career. It’s like musical morals.”
Trucks figured out quickly it wasn’t about being famous or rich, it was simply about getting to do what he loves. “It’s really just about the art of making music. As Col. Bruce would always say, ‘it’s a ritualistic healing process.’ [He] is dead on. Realistically, that’s all music has ever been—from the tribe sitting around the fire to people waiting all year for their favorite band to announce tour dates so they can go see them in their favorite venues. It’s something you’re giving people to uplift them in their daily lives… that, for me, is the intention behind it.”
While working under Hampton, Trucks was also taught how to find himself musically. “I think it’s a constant goal [to be yourself in music]. It’s one of those things you’re always trying to work towards. Bruce would always be like, ‘I don’t want to hear what you practice in your bedroom.’ You let your influences help you learn how to speak, but then you speak for yourself.”
“That’s definitely something Bruce helped clarify for me, and for 100s of young musicians he’s constantly working with. I think, ultimately, all you can do is be yourself. Even if you’re trying as hard as you can to imitate somebody, ultimately, you’re never going to be able to sound like that person. Just take what you can from your influences and let those become your lexicon to speak. Bruce would say, ‘search, search and keep on searching;’ keep on looking for new things that musically turn you on so it won’t become stagnant and you won’t end up sounding like a John Bonham rip-off or a wanna be Ginger Baker—you’re going to end up sounding like yourself.”
As his time with Hampton was ending, Trucks formed a “New Orleans mojo revival” act he called Flannel Church, which included bassist Kevin Scott and guitarist Gregory “Wolf” Hodges who both played with Hampton. The trio worked with pedal steel player Roosevelt Collier and guitarist Shane Pruitt until pedal steel player A.J. Ghent, another Hampton alum, joined in. Trucks also helped form King Lincoln with an Atlanta singer-songwriter duo.
Those projects either ran their course or fell to the side once Trucks landed a gig in Hard Working Americans, a band assembled by Todd Snider featuring Widespread Panic’s Dave Schools on bass, Neal Casal of Ryan Adams & the Cardinals and Phil Lesh & Friends on guitar and vocals, Jesse Aycock on lap steel and Great American Taxi’s Chad Staehly on keyboards. The band went into Bob Weir’s Tri Studios studio together not knowing each other, or what to expect, and emerged with a self-titled debut featuring re-arranged renditions of 11 songs by a variety of songwriters like Randy Newman, Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, Lucinda Williams, Kevin Forson and more as well as a desire to keep the act together.
“That band was kind of one of those experimental things that just happened,” Trucks said. “It just kind of came together in a strange organic way. We got lucky enough to where everyone got along so well.”
The band went in to it thinking it would be one and done, until they performed together. “At our first few shows, everyone was kind of like, ‘wow, this is weirdly easy and weirdly fun to play with everyone.’” Band members were encouraged to take on a second tour, and by its end realized they had found some “serious musical chemistry” on stage. “Everyone felt really good playing with each other, and everyone hit it off on a friendship level really quick, and we all kind of walked away wanting to play with each other all the time,” he said.
Following the second tour, the band went back into the studio to record its first collection of originals. “It was once again an experiment,” Trucks explained. “We wanted to see what we could write together as a group. It was really kind of an eye-opener when we had about six or seven days in Chicago and we, as a group, wrote six to seven songs. I think everyone walked away thinking this is something we need to keep doing and wanting to try to make it happen as much as possible.”
The unfortunate reality for the groups fans, however, is each member is a successful, working musician so scheduling gets in the way. “We all knew that stepping in, so it’s not something that’s a vibe killer or anything,” Trucks said. “When you do a band like this, everyone is in a different band and to try to thread that needle as far as scheduling goes, a lot of things get in the way. We all have to be patient with it.”
According to the drummer, creating the new, original album—due out later this year—felt like it was their first because everyone was writing and “involved from top to bottom” for the first time. “I think [the band] has come together in a really cool way,” he said, “and I feel like everyone gels nicely and can really get behind the whole concept; the whole idea of standing up and claiming patriotism for the subculture… and being like, Deadheads are just as much patriots as the nine-to-five, tax-paying person. That’s something that really turns everyone on and gives us a musical outlet to dump all our ideas into.”
In the midst of the success of Hard Working Americans, Trucks was approached by Schools about joining his main gig, Widespread Panic, which needed a drummer to fill in for its founding member who was taking an extended break. Despite a week and half notice, Trucks jumped at the chance to join one of the country’s most enduring and successful touring acts.
Although he had the experience of sitting in for his uncle in the Allman Brothers Band and joining his brother’s Tedeschi Trucks Band, fitting into those roles came naturally. Suddenly, becoming part of an established, beloved band of musicians with a massive repertoire and fanatical fan base intimate with the music he wasn’t, was a different story. He says he had to study hard and went in wanting to know the music well enough to do his own thing while respecting a foundation that had been set for 27 years. By all accounts, Trucks has been more than successful in the challenge.
Joining Widespread Panic—which remains a stable position for Trucks for the foreseeable future—brings everything full-circle back to Hampton and having an uncorrupted musical intention. “I feel like that is something from the Col. Bruce school you can see in a lot of the guys that have been affected by him through the years. That was one thing with Widespread, stepping into that chair, where we were all lucky enough to have been affected by Bruce at an early age.”
Even though Trucks knew guitarist Jimmy Herring—who is his father-in-law and another Col. Bruce alum—and Schools from Hard Working Americans, stepping in and playing with the other band members wasn’t as hard as it sounds. “They were all kind of slanted in the same way from being around Col. Bruce to where that was something we all luckily had in common and could see eye-to-eye on,” he said. “If you’ve got those kind of things in common, it makes the whole process of making music and being creative together easier.”
While Trucks began his career exploring jazz, he has no issue being in the position he finds himself today. “As I’ve gotten older, playing rock ‘n’ roll in rock ‘n’ roll bands is really where my heart lies,” he said. “There is just something about the feeling of playing songs with a group of five or six dudes and being able to stretch out and improvise. That turns me on musically. Having the opportunity to play songs and improvise is the best of both worlds for someone coming up as a wannabe jazz drummer.”
These days, Trucks is very much in tune with his prerequisites for participating in a project and how to make sure it “feels good.” According to the drummer, it’s all about good songwriting, band chemistry and room to improvise. “The songs are a heavy part of what feels good or bad about playing with a group of people. As important as the songs is the chemistry between the musicians. Those are… the deciding factors of how much you enjoy playing with a group: the personal and musical chemistry between everyone and the songs that are the vehicles,” Trucks said.
He explained how he also needs to have room to spread his wings. “For me, it’s how free and open the parameters are in the band as far as being able to improvise and being able to stretch out and do something from night to night that’s going to be an organic thing and not going to be the same every night. I feel lucky enough with the two bands that are taking up the majority of my time right now—Widespread Panic and Hard Working Americans—I get to do that. There are great songs, great personal energy between everyone and there is an opportunity to improvise and stretch out and be able to, from night to night, see what happens, what’s different with a certain song or certain combination of songs or the musical conversation that takes place on stage.”
Trucks also gets turned on by a great audience, and Colorado, he says, has some of the best. “I think everyone looks forward to playing Colorado because the audiences are so attentive. If it’s time to get rowdy, they are there to get rowdy with you, but if it’s time to mellow out and play a quiet, chill song, they will quiet down and they will listen and they’ll be hanging on every word,” he said. “I feel like the culture that has migrated to Colorado is pretty amazing… I just played my first shows at Red Rocks with Panic a few weeks ago, just being there and doing that, it’s unbelievable.”
Colorado was also where Hard Working Americans got its start. Its first gig—documented on CD and DVD as The First Waltz by filmmaker Justin Kreutzmann—was at Boulder’s Fox Theater. “Every tour we’ve played, we’ve done one or two shows in Colorado, and every time it always ends up being one of the highlights,” Trucks said.
The drummer explained audiences like those found in Colorado can have a profound affect on the music. “When you’re out there and you’re letting it happen on stage from night to night, everyone’s feeling is based on the feeling in the room. With Panic or with Hard Working Americans, I remember from night to night just how much more involved and exciting the improvisational areas are when there is an audience… letting you know they are there and involved in whatever journey you are going on musically. It’s encouraging to the musicians on stage.”
The music really does get to a “different level,” Trucks says, when playing in a beautiful place and the “audience is really there for you and really has your back no mater where you’re going to take them. I think it makes everyone on stage just feel looser and feel more willing to take risks and ultimately that’s what people want to hear, they want to hear something organic they want to hear something real and vulnerable and that’s what happens when you feel like you got the support of the people that are listening.” Trucks’ connection with Colorado goes deeper with associations to local acts like Great American Taxi and The Drunken Hearts as well as performing in one-off super jams throughout the year.
Despite the recent accomplishments in his career, and a recent move to Los Angeles, Trucks seems to be rolling with the changes and remains open to whatever comes his way. “These past couple of years have been kind of a whirlwind,” he said. “Whenever new experiences or new things like this happen, you really just try to take it all in, take in the experience. I feel like the goals are always changing after you experience something new like this. I feel lucky just to be able to play music for a living and that’s honestly, that’s the main thing, being able to put all of your energy into something like this and see it somewhat start to pay off.”
As much as things change, however, the more they stay the same. Recently, Trucks has been exploring more recent music. “Growing up in a very old school musical mind set of listening to music only from the 50s, 60s and 70s, it’s a newer thing for me to really be into modern music,” he said. It’s expanded his musical horizons and prompts him to want to get involved in some “super psychedelic” L.A. rock band. The more he discovers the musicians of Hard Working Americans, the more he’s finding out he may have already achieved that goal. “Hard Working Americans is starting to become the kind of outlet where when I listen back to some of the new stuff we’re recording I’m like, ‘holy shit! That’s super psychedelic and super weird.’” Honestly, if I can just keep playing music and do things that make me happy musically, that’s my goal, that’s what I’m going to keep striving for.”
NedFest Music & Arts Festival, which also features Chris Robinson Brotherhood, MarchFourth! and more takes place, Aug. 28-30 at the Jeff Guercio Memorial Ball Field in Nederland. Visit nedfest.org for details and a complete schedule.
NedFest Guide: http://issuu.com/wideawakemedia/docs/nedfestguide2015
Top photo by Tobin Voggesser (used with permission)
Originally published in the August 2015 issue of the MMAC Monthly