Interview: Booker T. Jones

Sam Adams

By Sam Adams

on 05.11.11 in Interviews

The Road From Memphis

Booker T Jones

Booker T. Jones’s 2009 album Potato Hole was a surprise in two respects. First, with the help of the Drive-By Truckers and Neil Young, he’d made an album devoted to the wallop of the electric guitar, rather than the gritty soul of Memphis’s Stax records, a sound he was instrumental in forging. Second, that it existed at all. Potato Hole was Jones’s first new album in 15 years, and arrived nearly three decades after the last one released solely under his name.

Two years later, Jones is back with another new album, The Road From Memphis, and this time he’s back on the ground he knows best. Swapping out the Truckers’ Southern rock for the Roots‘ protean versatility, he tips his hat to the places and sounds that made him what he is. With guest vocals by Sharon Jones, Lou Reed, the National‘s Matt Berninger and My Morning Jacket‘s Yim Yames – as well as, on “Down in Memphis,” a rare vocal turn by Jones himself – he explores the sound and spirit of his home turf.

A few days before the album’s release, Jones caught up with eMusic’s Sam Adams to talk about going back to his roots, playing with FireWire, and the formative influence of Hoagy Carmichael.

You waited 15 years to make Potato Hole, and then only two for The Road From Memphis. What made you get back on the horse?

I realized six years ago that I had, to use your term, fallen off the horse. I had one particular experience where I walked into a studio with Hans Zimmer, ready to record a track, and it had been so long and I had been so out of touch that I looked at the screens and I didn’t know what was on them. There were no tape machines in the room. I thought, “I have to figure out what’s going on here.” So I enrolled in ProTools 101 at the University of San Francisco to learn the new technology. I always did my scales, I always practiced, I always played gigs, but as far as recording and the industry, I had to get to work.

On your Twitter feed recently, you were talking about sorting through FireWire cables to set up your home studio, and you’ve experimented with songwriting tools like Ableton Live. It seems as if you’ve embraced what the technology can do for you.

I did. I’m loving the convenience, and I ended up using one of the digital workstations to write with. I connected with it the same way I did the Hammond organ. You look at something, you get a little feeling, and then it’s in your life. But I have to tell you that on this new album, The Road From Memphis, I did complete a 360 when I realized that recording to analog tape was just really, really cool.

You chose to work with Gabriel Roth of Daptone Records, whose trademark is using analog equipment to get the same kind of sound you were getting in the Stax studio in the 1960s.

He was the absolute best young man, aside from Tom Dowd, to do that for me. It was the best of both worlds. We didn’t have a digital machine in the building, but we came up with some great sounds.

How did The Road From Memphis come into focus? Did you start with the concept, or a desire to record with The Roots?

My first little peephole was when we were doing walk-ons at [Late Night With Jimmy Fallon]. I was just sitting in with the band. I saw how quickly and intuitively we worked together, and the sound was good, so after the third or fourth time I asked if they would work with me, and they said yes.

Did knowing you were going to be recording with The Roots change the songs you were writing? Listening to “The Hive,” for example, I can’t imagine Drive-By Truckers’ drummer playing what ?uestlove does.

I had five or six months to sit and write songs that I knew would be played by them. That opened up some pretty wide doors for me creatively.

Are there songs on the album you wouldn’t have written in different circumstances?

I would say that the apex would be “Rent Party.” [The Roots are] a hip-hop band. So here you have four people playing four different grooves that kind of mesh, that work together. And it’s kind of a jazz-blues thing. Also, “Everything Is Everything,” because we had so much respect for Lauryn Hill and we just wanted to make it work. If you want to get something done, ask a busy person. Their chops couldn’t have been better. They play everything, so I didn’t have any limitations at all as to what I could write.

Where did the title The Road From Memphis come from?

There’s a couple reasons why it’s The Road From Memphis. First of all, Memphis was an underrated city musically that has given, to me personally and to the world, an inestimable, for lack of a better word, amount of musical pleasure: everything from Otis Redding to B.B. King to Al Green. I lived there and I grew up there, so I heard what people were saying and I heard how the town was putting itself down. It wasn’t as good as New Orleans. It wasn’t as good as Nashville. It wasn’t making money like Atlanta. None of it is true. Memphis has been huge and it is huge; it just needs to be recognized for the contributions the town has made.

You left Memphis with a bit of a bad taste in your mouth. You felt restrained by both the new and old regimes at Stax: Co-founder Jim Stewart wanted to stick to the sound the label was known for and didn’t want any song to run longer than one side of a 45, and the new management wanted the writers and musicians to work as if it was an office job. Was there an aspect of reconciling yourself to that by making this sort of musical homecoming?

I’ve grown up. I was a pretty young, brash kid then. There was a lot of immaturity. Jim found that he could make a seven-minute song and make a lot more money with Isaac Hayes. We all learned. But now as an older, wiser man, I realize that I got a huge amount of training and opportunity that would not have been possible any place else. Where could I have been born three, four blocks from a recording studio, with Steve Cropper and Al Jackson, Jr. and Duck Dunn coming in every day, and Tom Dowd coming in from New York building electronics? That’s Ray Charles‘s guy. It was a huge opportunity for me, and I really appreciate it now. Maybe I didn’t in my early years, but I enjoyed it. This is a tribute to it, and also a revisitation of the music itself, hopefully.

On your last album, Potato Hole, you surprised a lot of people by writing guitar-driven songs and playing the guitar yourself. What are you playing on The Road From Memphis?

Mostly, I played my organ. It comes from my heart. That’s why the music comes from Memphis. It’s an R&B record. It’s not a rock record, like Potato Hole. It’s not country. It’s right back in the center; right there where I came from…I just want to illuminate it, bring it back to life.

You’ve got a fine singing voice, but it’s rarely been heard on record. Why did you lay down a vocal track for “Down in Memphis”?

That song, it couldn’t just be played. On a lot of the songs, I hint at the lyric without actually reciting the lyric. I just play it on the organ. “Rent Party,” “Harlem House” – I’ve done that through the years, just hinted at it. But I was right back there on Beale Street with this song, watching the cops, so it just needed the words.

Did you actually get a D-minus from [fabled Memphis DJ/high school teacher] Nat D. Williams?

Absolutely. Nat D. Williams, who was recently enshrined in the Smithsonian, was such a huge figure, so important to WDIA radio and so important to Booker T. Washington high school, and he was my teacher. He rushed from the radio station in the morning to get to class on time, and then he taught six classes. He was huge figure in my life.

What was the subject of the class?

To be honest, the subject, as far as the Tennessee Board of Education was concerned, was Tennessee history. The actual subject was African-American history. That’s why he became a legend. He needed to do that, and we needed him to do that, because that subject [laughs] – that subject was not kosher. You didn’t do that in those days.

You’ve said that the fact that Memphis was such a segregated city paradoxically helped Booker T. & the MG’s get away with being a racially integrated band. People knew that couldn’t exist, so they didn’t see it.

Nat D. Williams needed his salary check, so nobody was going to expose him. Nobody would. Nobody was going to say, “There’s two white guys playing with two black guys over on McLemore.” Who knew? Five or six people at the most. After the record came out, “Green Onions,” then we went to play some clubs, it was an issue. Where were we going to play? A white club? A black club? How was it going to work?

What about “The Hive”? That’s a real standout.

That particular track is probably my creative self at its freest. The melody’s in G and the rhythm’s in C, superimposed on one another. It just made sense to me at the time, and it sounds like a hive of bees to me. I just allowed myself to be completely free creatively, and that’s what came out.

Sharon Jones obviously comes with the Daptone package, but how did you connect with vocalists Matt Berninger and Yim Yames?

Sharon Jones and I had been eying each other ever since I jammed with her in Brooklyn a few years ago. It was one of those Brooklyn street jam sessions with Booker T. & the MG’s, and she just got up on stage and killed everybody. She loved what we did at Stax, and this was her chance to do it. The same with Matt, the same with Yim Yames. I actually had contacted Matt before I did Potato Hole, but he’s been busy. Matt is just one of the best people in show business. He can do anything, and I’m just happy to have him on the album.

In addition to all the great albums you’ve played on, you produced some as well, including Bill Withers’ Just As I Am. To judge from the documentary about him, Still Bill, he has no desire to go back to recording or performing live.

I talked to Bill two weeks ago, and he really hasn’t changed. He’s still the plumber kind of guy, a carpenter-type person, who writes all these songs and that’s just a fun thing that he does. It’s not his deal. That’s not who he is. When we were getting ready to start recording, Bill came over to me and he said, “Booker, who’s going to sing these songs?” I said, “You are.” Being the nice guy he is, he dutifully walked in there and he sang the songs. And he became a star in the process. I’m glad you appreciate the album. It’s one of my favorites, too. He has no idea how talented he is.

Willie Nelson‘s Stardust is another great album you produced. You’ve talked about being down in the basement of Indiana University listening to recordings of Bach and Sibelius. What about Hoagy Carmichael? Were you familiar with that kind of American pop music?

Hoagy Carmichael: That’s the reason I filled out the application for Indiana University. I found out Stan Kenton later. You’re talking about a Booker T. Jones that’s maybe 13, 14 years old – impressionable. I hear “Stardust” in the key of D-flat, and I’ve got to learn to play this thing. That is the most classic melody written in this country, I think. Who is this guy, and where did he study music? Indiana. So that was it. That’s where I was going.

So doing Stardust was like closing a circle for you?

Doing that album? No. That was just the beginning. I felt like a real neophyte there. But it was good, because I learned about the simplicity. One of the reasons Willie had come to me for the album was because of how simply I approach everything. I think he really liked that. We had a lot of space on that record, a lot of time to think about the words and the melody. I think as far as the 360 goes, I think that’s where I’m at right now. I’m almost 67, and I’ve had a lot of time in the business to reflect, and I’m appreciating things I never appreciated before.