Susan Tedeschi, Humility and Grace

By Paul Rigg

If you wish to hear Susan Tedeschi’s hugely impressive voice you could do worse than watch her sing on one of our accompanying ‘Tiny Desk’ Youtube videos. Standing beside her husband, Derek Trucks, and eight others from the Tedeschi Trucks Band, in a miniscule space, the show reveals the love, joy and complicity among the performers in a way that few other videos can. At around 10 minutes, as a wonderful saxophone solo segues into Trucks’ perfectly-paced guitar intro to Anyhow, Tedeschi draws deep from within to express the anguish of the lyrics to come.     

On the other hand, if you seek an outstanding example of her skill on guitar, I recommend, for example, her guitar solo on the Elmore James’ track The Sky Is Crying, on 12 January 2017 at the Orpheum Theater in Boston, Massachusetts. At around six minutes, Tedeschi gently starts plucking her Les Paul, picks up the pace 60 seconds later and then really starts to let rip after another minute, as the crowd scream their approval. In some ways her external emotional restraint and grace seem to amplify the effect of the blues she is singing. It is a wonderful moment.


Tedeschi was born on November 9, 1970, in Boston, Massachusetts, and first clambered on stage at around the age of five, when she became involved in theatre. Inspired by her father’s records of Mississippi John Hurt and Lightnin' Hopkins, she found that the gospel of African-American Baptist churches resonated with her more than the rather restrained Catholic church choir she was initially encouraged to attend.

A few years later she came across the Allman Brothers’ album Brothers and Sisters and an unspecified Clash album in a local yard sale. “To this day, I still love both of those records,” she says. In bands since the age of 13, she formed her first ‘non-covers group’ at 18, the Smokin' Section, and then sang gospel in a choir at Berklee College of Music. At 20 she began sitting in on blues jams at local Boston venues. “For a long time, I really didn’t know what my calling was, but then I discovered the blues in my early twenties," she says.

So her early influences included gospel, blues and soul but also, she says,
folk music and country […] as well as rock ’n’ roll. I am from Boston, Massachusetts, and I definitely know my Aerosmith! But The Stones of course, and everyone from the Dead to Black Sabbath to Peter Wolf. I also had a huge musical theater background; I did over 60 plays and musicals between 6 and 17.”


Tedeschi explains that her musical idols, who included artists like King,
Hooker and David Hidalgo - gave her not just a love of music, but the importance of graciousness, humility and sincerity.

In 1993 Tedeschi formed the Susan Tedeschi Band with Adrienne Hayes and Tom Hambridge, and honed her blues guitar playing with Tim Gearan in 1995. Her band’s first album Better Days was released the same year; but it was Just Won't Burn, released in February 1998, which started to gain her serious critical and commercial traction. A heavy touring schedule in the following two years to support the album saw her eventually open for The Allman Brothers Band, Taj Mahal, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. Stadium venues brought her much greater exposure but little financial security. "They pay, but it's not great. I don't make any money 'cause I've got to pay all my sidemen. I'll be lucky if I break even,” she says of that time.

Tedeschi and Trucks met “on the road in New Orleans in 1999 and started dating and got a house together” according to Trucks in a 2016 Austin City Limits interview. At that time Trucks was bandleader and lead guitarist of
The Derek Trucks Band but he says that right from the beginning he could see that it would really be fun to start a band with her. Musically however they were in different places as Trucks had much more of a jazz background. They had the idea of putting together a ‘travelling musical circus’ under the name of Soul Stew Revival, with two drummers – one of whom was Trucks' younger brother, Duane Trucks - and then adding a horn section.


The Soul Stew Revival became the
Tedeschi Trucks Band in 2010 when the couple decided to focus more on writing and performing original material.“It’s really special being in this band, we truly love each other,” explains Tedeschi. “The whole band looks up to Derek as our leader because naturally he knows how to bring out our strengths and also he understands that it is not about overthinking – it is about where the music wants to go - he really is good at letting it breathe.”

A lot of bands will be on the road together and may not even see each other except on stage, but that is not the case with Tedeschi Trucks. “We eat together, we work out together, we listen to music together, we do laundry together. Everyone feels comfortable to bring stuff to the table. It’s really quite a miraculous band,” she says.

While the band performs in varying formations, the full complement involves 12 members. That became a challenge when the COVID-19 pandemic hit because supporting all of those musicians and their families was a priority for Tedeschi. “Making sure they didn’t suffer was a no-brainer,” she says. “[Luckily] we had saved a lot of money to pay the band […] You look at the whole picture, and we’re a family; it’s not the Derek and Susan show. Our band and our crew, we’re all in this together."


During lockdown they stayed busy mixing the Tedeschi Trucks Band’s
new album, a 2019 live performance of the classic Derek and the Dominos album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, released on 16 July, 2021.

In fact Tedeschi explains that she recently played with Clapton, which was one of her major life goals. “We just saw Eric, actually — I got to play with his band for the first time. I sang backup a little bit when he sat-in with The Allman Brothers, but this was my first real time playing with him. I got to sing on “Crossroads” and actually be in the band, with Eric and Derek, and Doyle [Bramhall II]. A bucket list item for sure.”

Following completion of the Layla album Tedeschi recalls feeling that ‘We have to do something. We need to be creative.’  This was when Mike Mattison, a bandmate, gave them a twelfth-century poem as inspiration, and suggested they all wrote music around that theme. As a result no less than 24 new songs were written by numerous members of the group, which Tedeschi says has “been really exciting, but also made us say, ‘We need to do something for our fans.’”


That was what triggered the ‘Fireside Sessions’, which were aimed at cheering up their followers during the most isolating periods of the pandemic. Now, Tedeschi is excited about taking a reduced version of the band on the road for what’s been called the ‘Fireside Live Tour’.    

Looking back, Tedeschi recalls her 2000 Grammy nomination for Best New Artist, alongside Britney Spears, Kid Rock, and Christina Aguilera, and her wonder at being  a blues artist ‘in competition’ with them. She says not winning didn’t phase her as she doesn’t seek that level of international renown. “I’m so happy I can go to the supermarket and do normal things, like go to my son’s baseball game," she says.

Professionally she is fequently asked if she thinks she’ll ever return to the Susan Tedeschi Band, before Soul Stew Revival? “I can definitely see Derek or I doing stuff on our own just to mix it up, but the focus is on keeping this band going and trying to bring new stuff to the table. [However] I’d love to do a gospel or a country record [and perhaps] call up
Willie Nelson or Herbie Hancock and do some kind of duo record.”


Outside of work, Tedeschi now lives in Florida and has two children with Trucks: Charles Kahlil Trucks, born in March 2002 - named after saxophonist
Charlie Parker, guitarist Charlie Christian, and author Kahlil Gibran - and Sophia Naima Trucks, born in 2004, who takes her middle name from a John Coltrane ballad.

"We have a regular life, and how beautiful is that? I never wanted fame or money, and it never was about that for Derek and me, because we really have a true passion for music and making people happy, as well as ourselves.”
“The two things I wanted to do when I grew up were to have kids and play music,”
Tedeschi concludes. “I got to do both, so I feel incredibly grateful.”