Smile Politely

On the town with Derek Trucks

It’s not yer average guitarist who begins a conversation, sitting amid a thicket of empty wine bottles in Radio Maria in Champaign, with a casual reference to Bruce Chatwin’s wonderful (if anthropologically controversial) book The Songlines, about the Australian Aborigines and their fascinating relationship with their landscape, whose geography and history they convert into songs that also act as maps. (Hence the title of his 2006 release, Songlines.)

But then again, if you’re on tour 300+ days a year and you’ve been working at that pace for close to 17 years, you’ve got to do something on the road to keep your mind alert. So what has Derek Trucks been reading recently?

Well, just now it’s been classic short stories, such as Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. But that was actually triggered by reading Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, along with a slew of Murakami’s other works, while the band was in Japan. There’s something they don’t teach you when you’re getting your MFA in guitar at Berklee or the Miami School of Music: when you’re touring, immerse yourself in the literature of the country where you’re playing.

He’s also a connoisseur of good beer: on tour in Belgium, he tracked down all seven of the Trappist beers, including the almost mythical Westvleteren variety, sold in bottles without a label and found only within a 20-mile radius of the abbey where it is brewed. The Father Abbott of the Westvleteren Abbey has been quoted as saying, “We are not brewers. We are monks. We brew beer to be able to afford being monks.”

All of which leads me to imagine a scene in the Great Band Room in the Sky, where guitarists who never had time to read, or never learned how to read (it’s a matter of dispute whether Django couldn’t read, or he simply couldn’t be bothered to read any of the contracts that were shoved in front of him), finally get all the time in eternity to lounge around with a good book. What would they choose?

I can see Hendrix hanging out in a corner with the collected works of Sherman Alexie, finally getting in touch with his Native American roots. Les Paul, a relentless self-improver, has some kind of Great Books stack on the floor beside him, maybe a bunch of James Michener, or Will Durant’s The Story of Civilization. T-Bone Walker, always smarter than his nickname (which he hated) and his crowd-pleasing nightclub act, has made his way through W.E.B DuBois and James Baldwin and is now reading everything he can find by Barack Obama, just to make sure the guy is all he’s supposed to be. And Stevie Ray Vaughan? Well, call me prejudiced, but I see him finishing The Da Vinci Code, flinging it into a corner and saying, “Damn, man, I could have done better than that.”

Add your own ideas here. What would your favorite dead guitarist be reading? Or, come to think of it, what do you imagine your favorite living guitarist is reading? Who knows? Maybe word will trickle through the Internet and s/he will post back to let you know if you’re right….

Tim Brookes is the author of: Guitar: An American Life and the forthcoming The Greatest Guitarist in the History of the World. He’s in town to act as emcee, interviewer and man-on-the-sidewalk for the Ellnora Guitar Festival at the Krannert Center. Check out his blog at

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