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‘To be respected in such a man’s world is a real triumph’ 

Those who follow modern electric blues and blues-influenced rock music likely recognize the name Susan Tedeschi.

A three-time Grammy nominee (for best New Artist, best Female Rock Vocal performance and Best Contemporary blues Album), this New England-bred guitarist and fiery soul singer has emerged over the past decade as one of the shining lights of the modern blues scene.

Trained at the famed Berklee School of Music, Tedeschi (whose surname is well-known in the Northeast from her family’s popular chain of grocery stores) came to the blues later than some, but has thrown herself into that world as few have. Since 1998, she’s released five critically-heralded albums on three different labels (she’s now on the respected Verve imprint), seen one of them certified Gold with sales of over 500,000 copies, and been tapped to open for such legendary figures as Taj Mahal and Bob Dylan, not to mention Southern blues-jazz fusion kings The Allman Brothers Band.

Her connection to the Allmans makes perfect sense. While opening for the jam stalwarts in 1999, she met, and later married, the band’s slide guitarist Derek Trucks — a former child prodigy who first hit the road when he was barely in his teens.

The immensely talented couple have since celebrated the birth of two young children, and Trucks is currently touring the world as a featured member of Eric Clapton’s latest backing band. Still, despite what might seem to the casual observer the very definition of rock luxury and music biz excess, the chipper and non-nonsense Tedeschi demurely insists that her family’s day-to-day existence is much more normal and down to earth than what others might imagine.

“This is not quite the glamorous life that everyone imagines it is,” she confides.

“People think we do it ‘cause we wanna be rich. Wrong! (laughs) We do it ‘cause we love it. We’ve had some success, though. We’ve made some records and seen the world. That was Derek’s dream, and my dream was to do that and have a kid, too. Somehow, that’s happened! (laughs)”

And though she had only recently returned from playing a showcase set at the 2007 Grammy Awards pre-show telecast with guitar icons Steve Vai and Joe Satriani, what was Tedeschi doing when I caught here at home in Jacksonville, Fla.?

“I’m making mac and cheese for me and my kids,” she says with a chuckle.

What quickly becomes obvious during our conversation is that family means everything to Tedeschi. Her devotion to her children and the ties that bind is as refreshing as it is almost quaint to hear coming from someone known more for tearing off blistering R & B lead work and bringing down the house than for making sure her five-year-old and two-year-old get the most stable and nurturing upbringing they can when their parents are globe-trotting entertainers.

Although Tedeschi is technically not on tour right now, she allows that she feels as though she’s “never at a real break.”

“It seems like I’m either out doing my own shows or following my husband on his. That’s kinda like touring,” she laughs. “You bring the kids, and you’re in another city each night. For my son’s fifth birthday we were out in Dallas seeing Derek play with Eric. Then the other night I was in California doing the Grammys. Then I played the Pollstar Awards. It was all a blast.”

Tedeschi says that she and her husband try to keep the children around both parents as often as they can, even when this proves logistically difficult. However, things should get a little easier this summer, when the couple finally takes the plunge and tries their hand at an entirely new approach to the way they manage their careers.

“This June, we’ve booked our first tour together,” she reveals, describing the new group as a “power band” made up of members drawn from both of their road groups, with the setlist taken from both their CDs.

“It’s just a two-week run to see if the whole thing will work,’ she elaborates. “We’ve never done something like this before. We’ve sat in as guests at each other’s shows, and made cameos on each other’s records, but this should be a fun and good way to keep the family together.”

Tedeschi says that since moving to Trucks’ hometown of Jacksonville, the thing she misses most about the Northeast is her own massive, Italian Catholic family.

“I have, like, 200 relatives just in Massachusetts,” she says incredulously. “And actually, I know about 150 of them pretty well! My grandfather is one of five kids, and all of his brothers and sister live within a few towns of each other.”

She says that she’s the only serious professional musician in the lot of them, but that despite knowing she’s the “black sheep” of the family, she’s never felt anything other than support from all her relatives.

“They weren’t surprised that I got into this as a career. I’ve been singing my whole life,” she says. “I auditioned for Broadway at an early age. It’s funny. When I was younger —and even today up there— people know me as being related to the supermarket people. But recently my grandpa said somebody came up to him and asked if he was related to me! (laughs) It was really cute, and he said it felt great! My family and Derek’s always encouraged both of us.”

As is the case with many professional —and amateur— blues musicians in particular, Tedeschi describes her love for the genre as an all-consuming passion that transcends merely being intrigued or fascinated by this art form. She says that she knows that most of her peers feel the exact same way.

“It gets into your blood. It’s addictive, is what it is. It’s not drugs, thank goodness! But, I don’t know if you can really understand it unless you’re a part of it. People have preconceived notions of what blues artists are like,” she says.

“But remember — we’re not true blues musicians. First off, we live in 2007 -- it’s a different time, but the passion’s the same. It’s a human music that tells stories. The progressions are pleasing and fun to play. And it’s cool to see how you can take the form and make it your own.”

Tedeschi is also quick to note the importance of history in the blues world, and especially the act of passing down knowledge and artistry from one generation to the next.

“This lifestyle is special,” she says in a slightly more reverent tone. “To grow up learning the music by playing along to records by Buddy Guy and B.B. King, and then for me to suddenly be able to sit in and make music with them?”

This Grammy nominee’s beginnings were surely humble. She says it was only by happenstance that she became a blues devotee.

“I’ve always been a singer and I played some guitar and piano when I was younger, but never took them anywhere musically. It wasn’t until I was sitting in at this blues jam ever Sunday in Boston that it hit me. They’d have people get up and sit in with the band. You’d just call out a tune and tell ‘em the key and they’d kick it off. It was hilarious! It could either be a moment of pure genius or a complete train wreck,” she says.

“That’s what inspired me to start seriously playing the guitar. I said to myself, these guys are horrible! Maybe I could do this at least as good as them! (laughs) But once I heard a Magic Sam —or maybe it was John Lee Hooker— record, something just clicked in my head. I could suddenly figure out what was behind what they did. I could play in any key and do all the progressions!” she recalls.

“Now, remember, this was after I’d been to jazz school. But I’d never felt like this before. I thought, wow! I can play with anybody and communicate the songs that up till then had only been in my head. For me, this was a whole new thing. It was like, yes! I could finally speak their language. To be respected in such a man’s world —and it most definitely is a man’s world, to be sure— is a real triumph.”

According to the singer, this upcoming appearance at the Savannah Music Festival (alongside superstar jazz vocalist Dianne Reeves) will be quite different from the type of headlining set she usually performs.

“For one thing, I’m using Derek’s band without him, since he’s out now with Clapton. They need to get used to what I do, because most of these guys will be on that joint tour in June. I have some new material I’m working up for my next CD, so we’ll play that as well as stuff from the older albums. It’ll be different, but great. These guys sound excellent and are a blast to play with,” she says.

“For me, playing music is sort of about keeping yourself ‘in the moment’ anyway. You wanna let the music breathe and ‘ride the wave,’ so to speak. The trick is to not control it too much, to see where it takes you. That’s exciting.”

Tedeschi’s also excited to finally take part in the Savannah Music Festival — something her husband has done many times.

“I was supposed to play with him there once before,” she muses, “but I believe I had another booking that got in the way.”

“It’s such a beautiful town, and I have some close friends who live there — Stacey and Gregg Allman. Hopefully they’ll come see the show. Honestly, I can’t wait to play there, especially with Dianne Reeves!”

Susan Tedeschi and Dianne Reeves play the Lucas Theatre at 9 p.m., Friday, March 16. This show is part of the Connect Americana series co-sponsored by Connect Savannah. For tix and info go to
 www.savannahmusicfestival.org or call 525-5050.

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Jim Reed

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Connect Today 12.04.2016

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