We may all debate from time to time what constitutes americana music, but there are very few true americana music lovers who would argue that Bob Dylan, Leon Russell, John Fogerty and Delbert McClinton are founding fathers of the genre even though their music was not constrained by any one genre. There may be some quizzical looks if Bob Britt’s name was associated with that list but the guitarist has played live and in the studio with all four founding fathers, together with countless other acts, and is one of the leading go-to Nashville guitarists. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Bob at his Nashville home over Zoom to discuss his four-decade-long career, his thoughts on the four founding fathers he has worked with and how supporting the song is all a really good guitarist has to do. We get a first-hand recollection on what it is like to win a Grammy which Bob did in 2020 when he won the Grammy for The Best Traditional Blues Album for Delbert McClinton’s ‘Tall, Dark and Handsome’, which features Bob as co-producer, songwriter and guitarist. If that is not enough, we get an insight into the recording of what is on most critics’ best albums of 2020 list, Bob Dylan’s ‘Rough And Rowdy Ways’. Bob also reflects on working local gigs with his wife and “badass” singer Etta who is currently recovering from illness. Reflecting the local community spirit amongst musicians we drew the interview to a hasty close when Eddie Perez of The Mavericks arrived with his wife and some home-cooked food.
How is your wife doing with her treatment?
She is handling it very well and it is not nearly so bad now.
It is hard for everybody involved though.
We have been through it before with me, so we have an understanding of it and know what to expect more than most people going through it.
I hope everything is OK with you and yours COVID-wise.
It has been fine. We live about forty-five minutes outside of Nashville and are therefore in a much smaller community. We tend to stay away from Nashville and it hasn’t really been a big problem out where we are.
How did the election go down in Nashville?
I just try and stay away from it. As I say, we stay out of Nashville apart from my wife’s doctor’s appointments. My wife is in real estate and passed the hard chemo phase and so is OK to go to work and she has some clients moving here from Los Angeles. I’ve been driving her and we have been showing them houses. We do get out and about but we just stay away from crowds. She had planned a show next weekend with a band here in Nashville called The Eagle Maniacs, they are an Eagles tribute band, but they are really great because they are all Nashville session players. If you hear them, aside from the voice of the lead singer not being the correct lead singer, it could be the Eagles. They are so good Vince Gill has come out and sung with them occasionally, so they have had a real Eagle play with them. However, the COVID numbers have spiked in Nashville and she said she thought it probably wasn’t the wisest thing to do and go play a gig., so she called the band leader, a friend of mine, and pulled out. That is not a problem in Nashville though, with so many musicians and singers about.
Guitar player to Leon Russell, Delbert McClinton, John Fogerty and Bob Dylan in the studio and on the road. How did a kid from California get to be such a leading light on roots-rock guitar?
Well, it all started with Leon really. In the late ‘70s, he had New Grass Revival as his backing band, John Cowan the New Grass bass player and my brother were like best buddies. Interestingly, John Cowan now plays with the Doobie Brothers and he is inducted into the Bluegrass Hall Of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame.
That must be a first. I’m not aware of anyone else who has managed to achieve that.
I think he is. New Grass had said they were quitting playing with Leon and he wanted to put a rock band together, and John suggested me. I flew to Nashville from Mexico City, where I was playing with an Elvis impersonator, played a few things for Leon and he said yeah. I lived in the Bay Area, so I packed everything I could in my Chevy Nova and drove across the country out here to Nashville. That was in 1981 and I played with him for about ten years, three of those years Edgar Winter was in the band. That came about because Edgar opened the show for us one night and Leon asked him to sit in and afterwards he asked him “Do you wanna join our band?”. It was really great. We did a combination of both of their material.
There was a video of one of those shows released many years ago, I think. Leon also went through a bit of a quiet patch in the ‘80s compared to the craziness of the ‘70s. What did Leon teach you?
I would say he was my main teacher. I was pretty much self-taught. My older brother plays the guitar and he showed me a few chords and got me going. Back then you would put a record on the record player and lift the needle off and move it around and stop it, all to try and figure the music out. Leon helped me with a lot of things. He helped me with my tone, he said you are playing too distorted and eventually that finally sunk in and I cleaned up my tone. I learnt just so much phrasing, a melodic sense, how chord triads relate to bass notes. You can have this triad and you can just move this bass note around and you have a completely different chord. Leon being left-handed, that was a huge part of his thing. His left hand was so strong, it moved around more than his right hand except when he did the little flourishes that only he did. When I moved here I lived with Leon at his house for probably the first three years, I lived on his houseboat at first and then in his house, and I learnt how to engineer. He had an engineer and he taught me how to engineer, and eventually, I was Leon’s engineer in his studio. That was huge, learning to do that. Before I flew out Tom, my brother, was actually playing with Leon at that point, he was playing pedal-steel towards the end as well as electric guitar, and he said well you ought to just listen to Freddie King records and try and play like Freddie. So that is what I did, and when I got the call until I got here I just listened to Freddie King records. Musically a lot of my sensibilities comes from Leon. When I sing I kind of sound like him, I played with him for ten years so it just gets ingrained in you.
I have spoken to a few musicians in Nashville and Leon seems to have been remarkably well thought of by Nashville musicians, rather than simply the fans. When you were playing with him was he playing that electronic keyboard arrangement he favoured in later years rather than piano?
At the start he was playing electric piano, it was a Yamaha electric piano and then he went to a Kurzweil, which was similar to a Yamaha, and he played that for a while, and then all the Yamaha DX-7s sampling keyboards came out, and he loved technology and he embraced it. I remember when the Apple MacIntosh came out, the very first one, we would just go to the store and buy one. I think Performer was the first halfway decent programme you could programme Midi with, it then went to Digital Performer where you could record digital audio, and we are just using those little MacIntosh computers. I mean now it is just over the top. He loved technology, and he eventually had two five-foot racks full of gear and a pedal-board down below that had seven or eight-volume-pedals, one would bring in basses, one would bring in trombones, one would be strings, one would be trumpets and he would bring them in and out. A lot of people hated it, some people liked it, it was just what he liked to do, you know. Personally, I just liked it when he played his grand piano. Some of my favourite memories are sitting in the house and he would be sitting in his bedroom just playing his Steinway and singing Ray Charles songs. It was just beautiful, really great memories.
There aren’t many truly great piano players because it is a very difficult instrument to play really well. I agree with you that Leon was best when he was on the piano.
He had his own style, you hear Leon and you know it is Leon, or at least I do, and I think a lot of musicians can instantly say wow, that is Leon right there. He is very easily recognised. Another thing he taught me was when he used to just come up with a little groove or a little lick and just played it over and over relentlessly, he didn’t stop, just kept doing it for twenty or thirty minutes. If you do that, your mind will eventually become removed and all of a sudden little things will start happening and you will discover new little variations, which is a really cool thing. I find a lot of times when I play rhythm guitar, which is what I really like to do, I tend to play rhythms like Leon, you know. I probably play rhythm guitar like Leon played rhythm piano, as odd as that is, it all translates I guess.
It is whatever works. It doesn’t matter where it comes from.
I find myself, when I am playing, thinking that’s Leon. That’s where it came from.
You came from the West Coast, and when I have spoken to musicians from Texas and Oklahoma they say that they didn’t have to particularly learn roots music because they simply heard it when they were growing up, it didn’t matter whether they liked it or not, it was just there in the ether. You have picked up a broad spread of root music styles, was that primarily through Leon or was it simply self-taught?
It was probably primarily Leon. When I left the West Coast to come to Nashville, I had been in a kind of a jazz-fusion band, Crusaders type music, and I still love that stuff but I don’t play it anymore as I don’t have an opportunity to play it really. Leon changed my whole sensibility of what I like to play and naturally, living here in Nashville, I ended up doing country stuff, and I never listened to country stuff growing up. I think country music morphed into ‘80s rock for a spell back then. As my Mom said, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it. I am not a huge fan of what country music became, but as I have grown older I do listen to older country music and I love it but most of the new stuff, or at least what they play on the radio, is not very palatable to me. Fortunately, americana has picked up the slack.
Americana is really country music with taste. A marketing term.
Yeah, but I am also convinced not all americana is good.
You were with Leon for 10 years, you have got your musical grounding and start picking up Nashville sessions. When did you hook up with Delbert McClinton?
That was about 10 years ago. I had met him several times and when I say 10 years ago that was when I really started playing with him. His guitar player had been Rob McNelley, and Rob’s wife was pregnant and about ready to have their baby, so I went out and filled in for Rob one weekend on a couple of shows in Texas. I got to play Delbert’s Sandy Beaches Cruise because I was recording a McCrary Sister record and Delbert just happened to be there with Gary Nicholson and they were just hanging out, and between takes, we were sitting outside and I brought up Foy Vance and I said I’ve got to introduce you to Foy Vance, he is amazing. Delbert is like, yeah did you see him on The Cruise and I said I have never been on The Cruise. So he is like, how come? I said I had never been playing with anybody who had been invited, and he is like well you are invited. We were going anyway, and Rob called about 6 weeks before The Cruise and said I’ve got booked on a session, can you fill in for me with Delbert, The McCrary Sisters, Mike Farris and Leroy Parnell and I said sure. That was our first Cruise and then Rob just kind off decided to stay in town and not go on the road, and so I took over from him in Delbert’s band. Once in the band, we started writing and doing records, you know.
Was that the first time you started writing regularly?
No, I have written over the years but that is the most productive I have been. Typically it is Delbert, myself and then one other person, but sometimes two others on occasion. He has a place down in Mexico and we go down there and that is where we write, most of the time. We write at his house sometimes. It all started when we had a weekly writers meeting but now we mainly go to Mexico for 10 days, write a pile of songs, drink a few beers, eat some really good food and then make records out of them. I’m not sure but I think we almost have another record ready, we are more than halfway there, but the whole COVID has kind of put the kibosh on that for a while.
Delbert is around 80, isn’t he? How does he do it?
He is doing great, it is pretty amazing, I hope I am doing that well when I am his age. Consequentially he has to be extra careful so he basically doesn’t leave his house.
Delbert is another artist who is largely unique. He has his own sound which is a mixture of genres and he is the only one who does what he does.
His music is perfect for my style of guitar playing, and since we started writing together it has become even more perfect.
You also produce him as well don’t you?
Kevin McKendree, who is the piano player, myself and Delbert will co-produce it. We did the last two records and after we had just finished ‘Tall, Dark and Handsome’, which won the Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album, Gary Nicholson said I think that first record, ‘Prick Of The Litter’, was just practise for this one. The first one is a good record, I like it a lot, but it didn’t win a Grammy.
What did it feel like winning a Grammy, particularly when you had put so much of yourself into it?
It is huge, very exciting. I was there, Kevin was there, Delbert was there and our saxophone player, Dana Robbins, was there, and I remember sitting there and then the girl announced it but it didn’t really register for a couple of seconds then I thought holy crap. We went up got the award and when we left we had a nice meal at a Japanese restaurant and celebrated quietly.
That is Delbert done. You played with Bob Dylan in 1998 on ‘Time Out Of Mind’, you toured with him just before COVID and you recorded ‘Rough And Rowdy Ways’ with him. How did all that come about?
That came about when I was playing a gig at a club in Nashville called 12th and Porter, I looked up, it is a small club, and there sat Bob at a table with Tony Garnier, his bass player, and I think Bucky Baxter was there, who is his steel player, and I had known Bucky previously. On break, I was outside having a smoke and he just walked up to me and started talking saying he really liked my playing.
He does know a good guitar player.
He invited me to come to a show he was doing the next night. I got a call a couple of years later to do ‘Time Out Of Mind’.
That was a special album that revitalised his career, and ‘Rough And Rowdy Ways’ is also very special. That must have been something else working on that album?
It was. It is like no other record anyone has ever heard. It is pretty astounding and astounding is a pretty good word for what it was like working on it. To sit there and play with him and just watch it happen.
How much latitude did you have on what you played?
You just try to play what fits the song. It is all guided by Bob. It is really a beautiful process to watch how he crafts a song. It starts with a lyric. I shouldn’t really talk about it, but it all comes from Bob.
Did you learn anything about your own songwriting from watching Bob work at such close quarters?
I don’t know, I hope something rubs off.
I think his latest album is going to go down in history as something very, very special.
I certainly think it is. I don’t know what to say about it other than you just have to experience it. You have to really listen to it, not just a quick dip in. It deserves a lot of respect.
When you joined his touring band a couple of years ago it was fairly stable. You and Matt Chamberlain joined at the same time. Is it easier joining an existing band?
Yes, Matt Chamberlain was the new drummer. Theoretically, it is easier to join an existing band because an existing band already has a lot under its belt and already knows a lot of the material, although it does change in how he presents his material live. I think every tour it probably changes. Most artists go out and try and reproduce their recorded works but you can listen to that any time. I think it is way cooler to go out and experience something fresh you haven’t heard. I think it is truly a beautiful thing.
When COVID is over, will you be going back out on the road with him?
I certainly hope so. I know everybody is just itching to play shows again, we all miss it.
Bob Dylan can do anything he wants, but he chooses to play his music.
I think he loves doing live concerts, which I do to, and I think most musicians who have played live do just love it otherwise why would you be out there doing it.
You played with John Fogerty as well and he is another iconic artist given his contribution to the modern American songbook if you pardon the term. He is also a pretty fair guitarist himself, how did you work out who was going to play what?
Well in rehearsals, when I started that gig it was Billy Burnette and me playing guitars, and he said “Billy, why don’t you play acoustic guitar, and Bob you play electric rhythm and you do this and this”. That is how it all started and one song came up, ‘I Can’t Stand The Rain’ maybe, and he said maybe you should both play acoustic, and I said what if I played like a Tremolo Gretch Bigsby thing on that instead and he goes, “Oh, well let me see what that sounds like”. I did it and he loved it, then he said “Hey, I’m working on a new record and I want you to come and play that sound on a song I’m doing”. After that, he had another tune we were working up and he came up and said “What do you think you should play on this”. It was all very sensible, I like to think I play what is appropriate for the song, that is what I strive to do. I am not the artist up there, I would be happy in an orchestra pit just playing, I am not interested in all that fame stuff I just like playing music, it is rewarding. As a musician, you have to do what fits the song.
But that is pretty hard. To truly service the song is not easy.
It can be difficult sometimes, hopefully, though it isn’t difficult as you instinctively know what to do.
That is the skill and not everyone has it.
You have never released a solo album, apart from the duet album with your wife. Have you ever thought about a solo career?
I haven’t planned anything in my career. I just try to walk the path that God has laid before me and he has been good to me. People have been asking me to do that for years, I don’t know, maybe but I don’t know.
If you are happy doing what you are doing and are busy, then there is no need to change direction.
I do enjoy singing songs and my wife and I have a duet thing we do. I think sometimes I sing more than she does, but she is a badass singer and for years and years she has always been the front person, and I am always playing the guitar with her. It is just the two of us and it is a lot of fun, she plays percussion and I play all sorts of guitars, acoustic, electric, resonator, again whatever fits the song. We haven’t done it for a while since this COVID thing started, but we have done a few little shows. There is a wine bistro in the little town we live in and we did a couple there, there are a couple of YouTube things early on. She actually asked if I wanted to do one this coming Sunday, maybe just a half an hour. I said that would be fun. That is a lot to think about doing your own record. It is so comfortable being the sideman. Delbert in his shows takes a little break in the middle, and I will do a song, James Pennebaker will do songs and Kevin will maybe do a song. It is fun and I enjoy it, but I don’t know if I will ever put a record out.
Kevin is quite a producer in his own right. Isn’t he?
Yeah. He built a studio out behind his house and that is where we do the Delbert records. He does a lot of blues and roots records there.
He did John Hiatt I think, didn’t he?
And you played with Buddy Guy there a couple of years ago.
Oh yeah, I played on the record before last.
It wasn’t Freddie King but it must have been special?
That was really great. It was really cool sitting there playing and I look to my left and there is Buddy. That was a really cool thing to get to do.
What are your plans for 2021 COVID permitting?
Just get out on the road. 2020 couldn’t have started any better for me, then it turned to shit really quickly.
We like to share new music with our readers so currently what are your top three tracks on your playlist or your current 3 favourite albums?
That is really hard to say. I think last night I was listening to Frankie Miller, not a current record I know. I just like to surf around and listen to different things.
How did you find Frankie Miller?
You know what happens is I will glance at Facebook, in the evening after dinner and just scroll through and somebody posted a video of Frankie and so I went down that rabbit hole. That is what happens, the same thing happened the other night and it was NRBQ. So it is stuff like that or I will chase an old blues artist around. I will chase stuff around that either intrigues or interests me. I am a huge NRBQ fan, Al Anderson just kills me.
Has he retired now? He doesn’t seem quite as active as he was?
He still writes. He goes on Delbert’s Cruise every year. One aspect of that Cruise is that every night there is a writers’ stage where songwriters perform their songs. There will be 4 to 6 songwriters up there and they just go down the line and do something. Al does a lot of that, he had that band The World Famous Headliners which was him Shawn Camp, Pat McLaughlin, Michael Rhodes and Greg Morrow, and they were doing it for a few years. He is still doing great.
I think you have visitors Bob you better go. Thanks for your time Bob, and I hope your wife continues with her recovery.
It is Eddie Perez of The Mavericks and his wife. They have just popped round with some banana bread and that for Etta. Thank you, and keep safe.
Bob and Etta’s ‘Feelin’ Good’ is available here.