Z.Z. Top’s new album La Futura is a study in retro-cool. It’s a return to the down-and-dirty songwriting and arranging that was the foundation of the band’s career during their first decade of recording, the ’70s, and a throwback study in guitar tones that extends two decades beyond that, when giants like Lightnin’ Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, Frankie Lee Sims, Fred McDowell and other vintage electric bluesmen perfected the art of story telling with three chords — sometimes just one — and six-string sounds that spoke volumes.
Z.Z. Top’s guitar maven Billy Gibbons absorbed all of those sounds and has the uncanny ability to apply them to music that’s both deeply rooted and appealingly popular. He’s learned something about the rewards and beauty of keeping the past alive and connected to the present, and on a recent visit to Nashville he shared some of his insights. Here’s what Pearly Gates’ poppa has to say about:
• The Virtues Of Vinyl Albums: “The rawness and the richness of music on vinyl almost went away… but it still seems to be on a lot of people’s radar and for good reason. It does something different than more accessible means of music playing, like MP3 players and downloads and whatnot. You get in front of these archaic contraptions that go ’round and ’round… It’s mesmerizing, not only to look at, but to sit back and experience.
“[Part of my vinyl collection] had to be rescued. We were in England and I was notified to call my assistant Denise. She said, ‘Well there’s been a horrific rainstorm and that flat roof of your condo sprung a leak. I was retrieving the mail and I saw something that looked like a garden hose spraying straight into the room.’ She called the handyman and they were able to put the valuables aside, but part of the rain went right into a column of vinyl.
“Water doesn’t hurt a vinyl record. Put it into a dishwasher and you’re fine. But the paper began to mold and my secretary, being rather protective, decided it was unsafe and threw them all away. I was able to rescue several garbage bags. It was just one column, but it happened to be a column of favorites. I ordered up a bunch of plain white sleeves to put them in and they were fine.
“I’ll turn one track into a two-hour listening session. It’s that obsessive thing — the passion and obsessiveness that can enter one’s pathology when it comes to vinyl and tubes and all this crusty stuff.”
• Memphis As Music Mecca: “How did Memphis become this musical melting pot? As the African-American exodus to leave Mississippi started building up steam to head up to Chicago — where it was a little more open and job opportunities were better — very few people had enough money to have an automobile or even to get a bus ticket, so walking out of Mississippi was the way to get on your way. From the Delta, Memphis was about as far as you could make it on one set of soles. That was a great stopping spot, with Beale Street and the nightlife. The attraction must have been beyond imagination.
“I heard a story… Freddie King and Little Walter walked… you know the [Howlin’ Wolf] song ‘I Walked from Dallas.’ I think Freddie did a version. Word has it that Freddie King and Little Walter walked from Texas to Chicago. Maybe not all the way, but significantly…”
• The Gift Of Performing: “There is something remarkably mesmerizing about getting to do what we get to do. It’s beyond design. We’re just drawn to it. And there are those moments when, I don’t know how to describe it, but you’re just enjoyably drawn to get it out. It’s beyond yourself.”
• British Blues: “The British have a tendency to take whatever subject they plow into down to the genetics, and blues was no exception. But they were getting blues records much, much later, when the art form itself here in the United States ran the risk of being abandoned. Then the Rolling Stones, the Pretty Things, a lot of these groups — especially John Mayall, who was the leading exponent of hard-core electric blues experimentation — made it so appealing and re-popularized the art form. I call it the ‘Great Salvation.’ They are to be credited for the salvation of this art form that was nearly extinct.”
• The Dirty Joy Of Vintage Blues Tones: “If we had to cite a window of calendar dates… let’s pick 1950 to 1960. In 1950 the biggest amp you could get was no bigger than a tabletop radio. Imagine trying to be heard in a joint with people screamin’ and shufflin’ their feet and bottles breakin’. You had to take that amp and turn it up all the way. When you’d get up past that ‘acceptable’ point you’d get into the land of distortion, which is where it really gets groovy. And I don’t think it was intentional. I think they just wanted to be heard.”
• Being Yourself: “There are two premises to aspire to. Number one: learn to play what you want to hear. And two: know what you want to hear and then go after it.