By now, it’s no secret that Derek Trucks is one of the most talented and accomplished guitarists alive. But a funny thing happened in January when The Derek Trucks Band released its sixth studio album, “Already Free”: It debuted in the top 20 of the Billboard album charts.
It was an unfamiliar position for the virtuoso musician and his longtime band, both of which are used to strong critical and fan response but not such commercial success.
“I initially thought they were talking about maybe the blues charts,” Trucks says with a laugh during a recent phone interview before a performance at the Ellnora Guitar Festival in Illinois. “Nineteen on the top 200 was quite a shock. I think before that, our highest record to chart was ‘Songlines,’ which was 160 or maybe 165.”
The laidback Trucks points out that in the current music industry climate, it takes less sales to make it onto the charts. But he adds: “It was still nice. In a way, it validated all of the time and energy we put into it.”
The “we” in question are Trucks, bassist Todd Smallie, percussionist Count M’Butu, drummer Yonrico Scott, keyboardist Kofi Burbridge and singer Mike Mattison. And while the band bears the name of Trucks, a member of the Allman Brothers Band, the nephew of Allmans drummer Butch Trucks and a recent member of Eric Clapton’s touring group, he is not interested in using the group, or its records, as simply a vehicle for his acclaimed six-string skills.
“I’ve always wanted to avoid being strictly a guitar band. I know that might be the focal point (for other people) most of the time, but I’m not a huge fan of it,” Trucks, 30, says with a laugh. “For the most part, I like music that incorporates more than one soloist. To focus in on the technique or pyrotechnics of an individual player. … I’d much rather hear somebody tell a story — if it’s vocal or instrumental music, who cares?”
Trucks comes off as remarkably well-adjusted for someone whose jaw-dropping technique was hailed before he was 10, sat in with Buddy Guy by age 12 and had his own band — which will perform Wednesday, Nov. 4 at the Sherman Theater in Stroudsburg along with opening act, local band Miz — by 15. Named after the Clapton album “Derek and the Dominos,” by age 20 the Jacksonville, Fla., native was handling the slide guitar lines of another legend of his instrument, the late Duane Allman, as a new member of the Allman Brothers Band.
Trucks, who has two children with wife blues singer Susan Tedeschi, says meeting some of his idols has helped him maintain a healthy perspective.
That said, it would be difficult for most guitarists to not get a big head if people like Clapton and Carlos Santana told them they admired their work.
“It’s humbling,” says Trucks. “Those are the guys. Long before I knew them, I was a fan, and in a way, you kind of model what you do after them. … Eric’s music I was listening to since I was a baby. Not that you’re constantly looking for validation in what we do, but when somebody like that is interested in, or, luckily enough, way into it, it really makes you feel good.”
Trucks took notice, also, of how two musical icons, both well more than twice his age, treated fans.
“That’s inspiring, meeting these guys, or Willie Nelson or B.B. King, who are just true gentlemen,” the guitarist says. “God knows, you meet some of your heroes who are just assholes. … When you see B.B., he’s in his mid-80s, and at the end of the show he takes as much time as he needs. People come on his bus and he signs autographs. And Willie’s the same way. They’re so appreciative.”
Trucks, already mentioned in the same breath as those idols, shares more than their virtuosity. He seems to be a kindred spirit of a passed generation of musicians that aren’t interested in courting fame but instead playing what pleases them — and by extension, their fans.
“I did a short interview for an (obituary) when Les Paul passed away,” Trucks says. “And there was all this Michael Jackson hype when he passed, such an uncomfortable and tragic story with how Michael Jackson passed. Les Paul, that’s how you do it. Not a tragedy, really. Played until his 90s, made people feel good. He invented one of the great instruments of all time and multi-tracking.
“That’s how you live a life. Those are the people that you look up to that do it right and go out right.”
In 2007, Trucks’ phone rang. It was an unfamiliar number with an international area code, so he didn’t pick up. When he checked the voice mail, it was Clapton inviting him to join his touring band for a world tour. He also invited the Derek Trucks Band to serve as the opening act. Clapton’s lineup was unique, with the former Cream star giving Trucks and another guitarist, Doyle Bramhall II, plenty of room to stretch out musically.
“In that situation, it has to be the right three guys,” Trucks explains. “Fortunately, in that situation, it was mutual respect across the board, and the fact that it’s Eric Clapton’s band, no one is pretending it’s their gig. In saying that, he gave me and Doyle so much time to play. I was shocked at how much solo time he gave me.”
Last month, Trucks gained some added exposure when his song “Young Funk,” from the Derek Trucks Band’s 1998 album “Out of the Madness” was included in the “Guitar Hero 5” video game.
“I picked the track that my good friend Jimmy Herring is on, who’s a total badass,” says Trucks. Herring, now a member of Widespread Panic, also played with the Allmans when Dickie Betts was initially fired and also did stints with The Dead and Phil Lesh and Friends.
Asked who would win a “Guitar Hero” showdown between himself and Herring, Trucks says, “I think I could probably take him.” But, he adds, “My younger brother would just dust me.”
But what song in any “Guitar Hero” game has been the toughest for Trucks to tackle?
“‘Jessica,”” he says laughing, a song he’s played with the Allmans hundreds, maybe thousands, of times.
Derek Trucks Band/ Miz, Wednesday, Nov. 4, doors 6:30, show 7:30 p.m., Sherman