By Ray Chelstowski
As ZZ Top approaches their 50th anniversary, frontman Billy Gibbons (or Billy F Gibbons) released what will be his second solo effort, The Big Bad Blues. It’s a raucous ride accompanied by a group of well-known pros, all of whom augment the trio sound Gibbons is known for, with keys and additional guitars (and fiery harmonica parts that show off some of Gibbons’ little known harp chops). Across 11 tracks, the record mixes both original songs with classics from the likes of Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters. From start to finish it’s an album that resides within the kind of Houston sonic, blues-rock haze that Gibbons has helped trademark.
His sophomore effort with Concord Records, The Big Bad Blues operates as a modern day homage to a musical genre that has operated as Gibbons’ guidepost from the very beginning. Today, Gibbons is considered to be a laureate of the blues, and his deep knowledge of all of its traditions helps inform the record in a way that is completely authentic. With one of the most unique voices in music, Billy found time to share with Goldmine how his solo work differs from what he has done with ZZ Top. He also found room to squeeze in some thoughts about classic cars, his acting career and what else might lie ahead in a life experience that seems to continue to grow bigger than his home state of Texas.
GOLDMINE: The Big Bad Blues is only your second solo effort. Your first came in 2015. Why did it take so long for you to try something formally on your own?
BILLY GIBBONS: Well, needless to say, I was a bit busy—still am! However, I made time. It’s now well known that ZZ Top tours nine months out of a year... and, when time allows a return to the hacienda, there’s the usual huge pile of incomings to attend, and, of course, friends to hang out with, cars to customize and tacos to devour so we really don’t have the luxury of taking on this “bonus” because of scant discretionary time.
Yet, at a momentous point in time, it dawned upon yours truly and the studio crew that it might be prudent to appropriate some time out—between gigs and hot rod shows—to engage in some semblance of an outside sonic excursion. Fortuitously, Concord Records head honcho Mr. John Burk came knocking, asking in the most polite way if his label could follow up the success of the Cubano-esqe outing, Perfectamundo. Mr. Burk’s supportive stance was just the ticket to move forward with his request to create another round of loudness! The suggestion to return to our ever-strong blues roots was put on the table and we all thought, “What would Muddy Waters do?” That was it! So it was over to the studio to session up and write some originals as well at taking a stab with a few from tradition, fitting elements together tightly and cohesively to assemble a proper album. And so, The Big Bad Blues got into full swing.
GM: The record has a very “live” feel to it. There’s a lot of energy to every track. Even the slow burners like “My Baby She Rocks” keep the flames flying high. As a known statesman of the blues what were you specifically trying to deliver with this record?
BG: As the saying goes, “Play what’cha wanna hear!” and that goes hand-in-hand with the recording process, as well. You’re quite right about that “slow burn” thing, like our lowrider pals like to say, “The way to go is low and slow” and that’s obviously evident in these tracks. No need to rush any part of the creative process. We enjoyed savoring the sessions’ satisfying “take it slow” attitude.
GM: Your cover of Bo Diddley’s “Crackin’ Up” is maybe my favorite track on the record. You remain very true to the original, only playing around a bit on the edges. What made you decide to approach it in this way?
BG: That was a very tough nut to crack, so to speak. There’s a short passage in that insanely wicked guitar intro which has confounded guitarists seemingly forever. The timing is inside-out and upside-down and took quite a while to unravel, Bo Diddley being the genius he was. It sounds like Bo had help from another planet so we set about deconstruction and did our best to figure the formula. Everyone, by now, knows that Bo holds a very special place with us and we continue having great reverence towards him and his accomplishments, and truly respect his legacy. His sound, his look and swagger were truly inspirational. Besides, the simplicity of the Bo Diddly trio... guitar, drums and a full-time maraca player makes the magic of Bo’s mysteriousness even more outrageous. Bo always hits and hits hard.
GM: How does the songwriting/selection differ for you when you approach something outside of ZZ Top?
BG: With ZZ, you’re thinking about how three guys can approach a piece with a shared compound background so it’s kind of like haiku. There are parameters that we adhere to. On this one, The Big Bad Blues, it’s a bit more free-form and, to some extent, improvisational around tradition. The sessions unfolded with the presence of the not-so-usual lineup of players, bringing a distinct measure of diversity and the presence of some unexpected nuance, very different from the ZZ sound.
Joe Hardy took on engineering tasks, bringing some unorthodox session mischievousness to the party. And, when great playing begins, it’s a landslide winner. The mastery on the Fender bass guitar from Joe Hardy’s hand, Greg Morrow’s accomplished personality and delivery on drums, Matt Sorum’s pounding on the percussion, all became the solidity behind the project’s crack rhythm section.
Add in James Harman’s perfect blues chops on harmonica, along with Elwood Francis blowing harp as well—they injected those infectious elements everyone wants to feel.
And, Austin Hanks is heard banging on with his Albert King/Jimi Hendrix left-handed styled guitar spiffiness in the mix. Wild.
Mike Flanigin stepped out from his famous spot behind his Hammond B3 to take on the hammering on the piano ivories with splendid effect. Just enough of all that good stuff.
GM: Guitar friends all want to know how you specifically get that signature sound that you are known for, and how much credit do you give the Mistress Pearly Gates?
BG: Pearly Gates is known for possessing a ferocious tone with staggering pickup power. Combine her with the allure of vacuum tube tonality and that’s where it starts. The new Magnatone amp and the tried-and-true stalwart, the mighty Marshall amp really do the job of taking tonality to the top. A bit of tone tweaking and refining brings that elusive signature sound into possession.
GM: Over the last year I have interviewed your biggest fan, George Thorogood, twice. Who do you gush about when you get to talking about their work?
BG: Must mention that I sat with George T at a BMI event honoring—get this—Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Bo Diddley who were all on hand! What a moment!
On the assumption you’re asking bout musicians who are still standing tall in our admiration, I have to say Keith Richards would be the guy I’d bow and scrape before, and, of course, I’d also strew rose petals before Jeff Beck. I totally dig Keith’s tone and personality approach... those Stonesy chords are BIG and you now it’s him immediately. Jeff is a genius, pure and simple. His ability is really supernatural and his sonic approach is totally his own.
GM:You famously opened for Jimi Hendrix when you were just a kid starting out. What have you carried forward in your profession from that moment that you’d like to share?
BG: My recollections of Jimi continue to glow in my consciousness. He was very soft-spoken, almost shy off stage and, of course, on fire when he was on. He was kind of mirthful and was generous with his time, sharing tips and just riffing for hours on end. We got to hang beyond the show dates we shared and those remain cherished memories. We did this crazy thing with Day-Glo paint one night after the close of the performance—wrapping the headstock of the guitars with a rag and dipping it into a bucket of fluorescent paint. There was a black light overhead which, along with the maddening ear-splitting sound of feedback, kind of created an artfully oddball light show. Looking back, we made some striking visual street art along with our music for an audience of...NONE! Just two guys goofing off with sound and light.
GM:Lately I have been spinning an original copy of 1976’s Tejas. It wasn’t a commercial success and received mixed reviews at the time. But it may be the most impressive collective piece of musicianship that any rock trio has delivered. What do you remember specifically from those sessions working with (producer) Bill Ham and (engineer) Terry Manning?
BG: We kind of took a detour, at least on some of the songs, into a kind of roots and red soil thing but the spirit of Jimmy Reed was still looming over the proceedings. This was back in the days when Austin, Texas was the vortex of the rock-meets-country amalgamation so the Tejas release did have a more down-home feel to it. Bill was acting as manager and cast himself as the producer while Terry was part of Ardent Studios’ forefront of sonic frontiers. When Manning was at Stax, he was responsible for that great “thunky” yet airy sound you hear on “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There.” Heavy as cast iron yet lighter than air! Terry, along with the energetic engineering staff of Joe Hardy and John Hampton, made up the studio’s triumvirate. Those guys thrashed fearlessly and invented techniques that were of invaluable benefit for what we got to do in the session surroundings. Killer-diller days in Texas, Memphis and Mississippi!
GM: As ZZ Top evolved as a band, you never lost the core sonic elements that define the “boogie chillin’ nature” of music, even when you delivered Eliminator that included a healthy sampling of electronic instruments. How were you able to strike the kind of balance that widened your fan base but didn’t alienate the loyals?
BG: We’ve never been averse to technology nor were our all-time heroes. Muddy Waters was a a bluesman when he plunked a little old acoustic down on Stovall’s Plantation just as much as he was when he plugged in and went electric in Chicago. Guess you could say, ‘an early adopter’. Similarly, when we caught wind of some of the possibilities sequencers and synthesizers could afford, we jumped aboard to explore and incorporate those things into what we do which, as you noted, is at its essence a form of rockin’ blues. We figured if we don’t alienate ourselves, everybody else will be okay with whatever we might do and with whatever we might do it with.
GM: You like your friend, Jeff Beck, are known almost as much for your car collecting as you are for your guitar talents. Is there car in particular that you have your eye on at the moment?
BG: Oh, yeah! Jimmy Shine, at his Jimmy Shine Speedshop down in Orange County, is putting the grind to our ‘34 Ford 3-window coupe. Rudy Rodriguez put the Bonneville chop on the top with Shine taking in all of the weird fancifulness I was able to throw at the project. This hot rod obsession knows no bounds. Full throttle, my man! Pedal to the metal!
GM:Your appearance on the show Bones as Angela’s father got you a lot of favorable attention for your acting. ‘Any other projects of this kind on the horizon?
BG: Yes, indeed. There’s another hot rod and speed show in the works as well as a fine-food encounter for the home screen. We’re available wherever there’s room to cast a bearded guitar slinger in a role that calls for a bearded guitar slinger. That’s the kind of typecasting we certainly appreciate! Rock on!