For Trucks and his father, Chris, who acted as the boy’s road manager, the early years were tough -- a virtual crash course in how to survive in show business. Dad had a child prodigy on his hands, and the industry sharks were already circling with dollar signs in their dead eyes. Not only was prepubescent Trucks adorably diminutive, practically dwarfed by his red Gibson SG (still his guitar of choice), he had a famous uncle in one of rock’s greatest jam bands. And the kid could seriously play. He was a commodity all the way around.
Child virtuosos, impressive though they may be, are more common than you might think. Classically trained 10-year-old pianists and violinists are doubtless impressive, but they’re not all that rare. Trucks, on the other hand, was a street-smart kid who excelled in a discipline many guitarists never attempt, much less master. He played slide blues, and he played it better than most elders of the art.
Rather than pursue a formal musical education, Trucks perfected his trade on the road, playing in smoky clubs with guys 20 years his senior. In his early teens, he opened for Buddy Guy and hung out with Col. Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit. He started his own band at that time as well.
Attending school during the week and touring on the weekends was grueling, but Trucks was determined to see it through. His father, an old-school blue-collar man who had experienced his own share of hard times, knew he had to simultaneously push his son to succeed while protecting him from those out to exploit him.
“We were completely out of our element, out of our league. It was trial by fire at all times,” Trucks says. “We had no idea what we were doing. We had a manager who tried to get legal custody of me. It got really squirrelly and really weird. There was some supershady stuff going on. We were learning as we were going.”
There were even “mom groupies” on the road -- women in various cities who claimed to be Trucks’s mother. At a venue in Jacksonville Beach, Florida, Trucks’s real mom was in the restroom when she overheard one woman relate to another the salacious details of what she would do with that sweet, little guitarist were she given half a chance. Understandably, Trucks’s mom took issue with the lecherous ladies. In Trucks’s words, she “freaked on ’em.”
Despite the efforts of unscrupulous agents and promoters, Trucks persevered with single-minded determination. He concentrated on his playing, while his dad took care of the business end. Onstage, Trucks was quiet and reserved, choosing to speak with his slide. He never showboated. He just played, and played well.
As Trucks matured and the child-star novelty wore off, a true career blossomed. During his junior and senior years of high school, he participated in an “on the road” schooling program, which allowed him to tour constantly and study in his van between stops. While his older peers had always respected him, they eventually began to see him as their equal. Looking back, Trucks credits his father’s work ethic and his own focus and independent spirit for getting them through it all with relatively few battle scars.
“When I first saw footage of John Coltrane [performing, he] was just business,” Trucks says. “It was the look in his eyes and the sound that came out of his horn. That’s what I was shooting for. The people, whether labels or managers, would try to push it in a different direction. It was just unnatural. I would naturally rebel against that.”
Like Coltrane, Trucks embodies steady calm on stage. When his eyes are open, his gaze is fixed on the neck of the guitar or in the middle distance. Mostly, his eyes are shut, his feet are planted, and his hands do the heavy lifting. His playing style is unusual, even in the world of slide guitarists. He rarely uses a pick, choosing instead to pull and strum the strings with his fingers and thumb. The result is a warm, lush tone absent of the harsh highs derived from picking.
Influenced early on by blues legend Elmore James and, of course, the late guitarist Duane Allman, Trucks is also a fan of improvisational jazz and East Indian music. He’s a devastating Delta bluesman, to be sure, but he is so skilled at using the glass slide on his fretting hand that he can sustain a harmonic note while moving the slide around the neck. With this technique, he is able to create hauntingly fluid Indian melodies; he pays tribute to his mentor, Ali Akbar Khan, a master of the sarod (a guitarlike instrument akin to the sitar, which Trucks learned to play as a teen).
Trucks is so good and so well respected in the music industry that guitar legend Eric Clapton contacted him out of the blue in 2006 and asked him if he would record an album with him, along with songwriter/ guitarist J.J. Cale and (the late) keyboardist Billy Preston. Following the sessions, Clapton invited Trucks on the road for a yearlong tour. Trucks says he couldn’t turn it down. This was, after all, Eric Clapton -- one of his musical heroes, not to mention the former leader of Derek and the Dominos, the band for which Trucks was named.