Last year was a difficult one for guitarist and songwriter Derek Trucks. Not only did he lose his uncle, Butch Trucks, to suicide, but Gregg Allman, one of his musical mentors, died of liver cancer. One might assume that Trucks would take the year off to grieve and process his pain. Instead, he spent it writing new songs and touring with his wife, Susan Tedeschi, and their 10-person band, who will take the Embassy Theatre stage Thursday, May 31 at 7 p.m.
"A lot of people in the band have gone through some tough times the last couple years," he told me in a recent phone interview from the road. The band was preparing for their gig at the Brady Theatre in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
"I'm not the only one. We've all experienced loss. I mean, planet earth has been crazy for everyone recently, hasn't it? And our band has been busy trying to find the silver lining in it all. That's something we're all pretty good at - finding the positive side."
Trucks is referring specifically to the new album that the Tedeschi Trucks Band hopes to see hit shelves in early 2019, the group's followup to 2015's Billboard charting Let Me Get By. He and Tedeschi and their mates - Kofi Burbridge (keys and flute), Tyler Greenwell (drums and percussion), J.J. Johnson (drums and percussion), Tim Lefebvre (bass), Mike Mattison (harmony vocals), Mark Rivers (harmony vocals), Alicia Chakour (harmony vocals), Kebbi Williams (saxophone), Elizabeth Lea (trombone), and Ephraim Owens (trumpet) - were in the studio about a month ago, laying down some of the first couple tracks. They should finish the initial recording pass sometime this summer and the mixing and mastering in the fall.
Trucks said that a lot of the band members' brushes with tragedy and loss will end up in the album, and he's proud of the emotional hard work everyone has put in so far.
"I think I can say that much of what we've all gone through will be reflected honestly on the record. It might sound odd to say, but I'm actually enjoying the look back. There have been some hard times, yes, but as we write and record, we're working through them and they're enriching the songs."
The history of the Tedeschi Trucks Band is right there in the name. Tedeschi and Trucks met in New Orleans in 1999 when she served as the opening act for the Allman Brothers Band summer tour. Having been recruited by his uncle, Butch, the Allman Brothers drummer, Trucks had become the lead guitar for the legendary rock outfit that same year. He and Tedeschi married in 2001, had two children - Charles and Sophia - and began touring together under the moniker Soul Stew Revival.
Trucks was still leading his own band at the time and playing for the Allman Brothers. The commitments began to pile up, and in 2009 the Derek Trucks Band dissolved. A year later Trucks and Tedeschi decided to combine their talents - her sultry, soulful voice and his jazzy, blues-rock guitar stylings - and devote themselves to their new project . They renamed themselves the Tedeschi Trucks Band, and in 2012 put out their debut, Revelator, which went on to win a Grammy for Best Blues Album.
Trucks said the band's chemistry is strong and stable and that he and Tedeschi have a wonderful time touring with their mates and the road crew they've assembled over the years.
"Some of it is just having the right people together on the road," he said. "It's about putting the right combination of people together, both musically and in terms of people's personalities. And it's like any relationship, really. Whether it's with your wife and kids or with your band mates, you have to constantly work on things, to keep the lines of communication open.
"I think when we were younger, we might have done things a little differently, but we try hard to handle situations as adults, to keep things healthy. Of course, nothing's perfect and we don't always get there, but we try."
He and Tedeschi have likewise grown together as husband and wife, guitarist and singer. Their time in the studio has proven particularly productive in that regard, although it hasn't always been rose petals and champagne. If touring is like dating, then recording is more the marriage part of the equation - it takes hard work and compromise, not to mention tact and kindness.
"You learn to trust each other more, especially in the studio. Susan was always a little apprehensive about that part. She didn't enjoy it as much as being on the road. The studio is such a different animal. People are always giving you advice and telling you what they think is best for the album. Sometimes she wasn't open to that advice, especially if it came from me. Her initial reaction was 'who are you to tell me what to do?' Now it's 'all right, I'll give that a shot.' And it goes both ways. She'll tell me what she thinks I need to change."
The Tedeschi Trucks Band was initially signed to the Sony label, but they decided to record Let Me Get By in Trucks' studio, which he built in 2008 in his and Tedeschi's Jacksonville, Florida home. Trucks said the band members relish their newfound independence and being able to make music that is truer to their vision now that they have control over every aspect of production. Tedeschi has often credited Trucks with helping shape the band's recordings, saying that he's the big picture guy who has a vision of how an album should work out and works hard to make that vision a reality.
"Especially when you're in the beginning stages and you're writing tunes and compiling ideas, you have some picture of how it's going to flow," Trucks told me. "Like, this is going to be the last song on the record or the first, but it's like a setlist, really. There's an ebb and flow to it. You have peaks and valleys. The idea is to always have your foot on the gas pedal and then pull back when you need to.
"I think the best albums are the ones that take you to a different place. It's like you've gone on a trip and you want to do it again. I always have that in mind when we're recording, that feeling your favorite albums give you. We want to give our fans that experience."
Recording is, as Trucks said, one animal. Touring is another, and, as the parents of young children, Trucks and Tedeschi do sometimes struggle to maintain a healthy work-life balance. Their children are still in school, so that means long periods of separation are part of the gig.
"Any musician with kids will tell you that this is the hardest part of what we do. We do try to work in breaks, though. We'll do a 10- to 12-day run and then go home for a nice chunk of time," he said. "It's hard, but if you want to be a working band, you have to move. You can't sit at home. I will say that there are a lot of veterans on the street back in Jacksonville, and they're gone for six months at a time on deployment. Susan and I aren't about to start bitching about going on tour, not when you consider the sacrifices military families make every day."