Interviews & Features
Billy Gibbons: Big, Bad and Bluesy
ZZ Top frontman on his latest album and the band’s 50th anniversary
By Gary Graff
September 19, 2018
ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons has the blues on his second solo album — and couldn’t be happier about it. The Big Bad Blues, coming out Sept. 21, follows Gibbons’ 2015 solo debut Perfectamundo, which delved into the formidably bearded singer-guitarist’s Afro-Cuban roots. The new set takes us into the Gibbons roots he’s used to great effect throughout ZZ Top’s nearly 50 years, combining Gibbons originals and covers of songs by Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley — some played on a Gretsch Duo-Jet guitar Gibbons “dusted off” just for the sessions in Houston. Co-produced by regular collaborator and bassist Joe Hardy, it also features a crack band that includes drummers Matt Sorum (Guns N’ Roses, Velvet Revolver, the Cult) and Greg Morrow, keyboardist Mike Flanigan and guitarist Austin Hanks, with Gibbons and James Harman adding harmonica to the mix. ZZ Top fans need not fear; Gibbons is most definitely still leading the band and ready for a big 50th anniversary celebration in 2019. But in the meantime he’s happy to be dabbling in some Big Bad Blues, crying only for joy …
FGPO: How did this album come about?
Gibbons: I spoke with John Burk, the president over there at Concord Records, he said, ‘Y’know, we had such a nice success, surprisingly, with such an unusual release (Perfectamundo), I don’t think we need to prove the point any deeper. We’ve pretty much got to that point covered. How would you feel about returning to some of your bluesier roots?” I said, “Well, that’s how we started and we’re still walking that line. I think that’d be fine.” And it couldn’t have come at a better moment; I had gone back to Texas and I ran into Greg Morrow, the great drummer from Memphis, and of course Joe Hardy, our engineer, strapped on a Fender bass guitar and we started making noise and it started percolating right from the get-go. It started feeling…I hate using that word, but natural.
FGPO: Was there a first song or two that put the album on its path?
Gibbons: The good news is Joe Hardy had the tape rolling when we fired up. We were just kind of jamming on blues standards just to get warmed up, having a good ol’ time. After we’d been at it for about three days he said, “Would you like to hear some of the stuff? I’ve been recording the whole outing.” I said, “Omigosh, yeah…” That’s where the Muddy Waters number came in, the Bo Diddley track. It felt pretty good. So I got busy and started writing some originals, and all in all I think we hit on something alright.
FGPO: How did you become so infatuated with the blues way back when?
Gibbons: Well, there were two really significant things that I remember vividly. One was going with my mom and my little sister to see Elvis Presley play in Houston. My mom was just a huge fan and she dragged us along, and I was really touched by it. I said, “Man, this is something.” And then, I must’ve been about seven, my dad instructed me to hop in the car. He said, “Come on, we got some business to take care of.” He was going to ACA Studios, that was Bill Holford’s joint down there in Houston. We got in and he said, “There’s a chair over there. I want you to sit down. I’ll be in the office, then I’ll come get you.” There was a session going on and it was none other than B.B. King and his band. B.B. started tearing up the guitar and I said, “This is for me…”
FGPO: What’s the key to playing blues guitar the “right” way?
Gibbons: We’ve tried our hand at a lot of different ways to go about it. Before ZZ Top took hold I’d been traveling with the Moving Sidewalks, and that was about as far from the blues…well, we had some bluesy background to it. But I think when you speak of the blues it’s about a feeling more than anything. It’s not so much about technique. It’s not so much about style. I think it starts with a feeling, and you can hear it. I went out to hear Jimmie Vaughan just recently, playing down in Austin, and he does a thing with a trio, organ and drums, and they took a break and we were outside hanging out, and whenever I’m around Jimmie it’s always coming around to the blues and what it means.
FGPO And what does it mean?
Gibbons: (laughs) It’s that notion, playing with feeling. I don’t know if it can be described other than just using that one word. It’s just a simply done thing — three chords. It’s the simplicity of the art form, but it’s not simple. That’s why when you listen to a Jimmy Reed record for the one thousandth time you still hear something different. There’s some magic in the madness.
FGPO: Texas being one of the ground zero for blues really gave you a leg up, too?
Gibbons: I’ve wondered about this for the longest time, and it may go back to where there was nothing much else to do but pick up a guitar and kill some time and get good at it. But I don’t know. We travel around the country, and it doesn’t matter, even if we’re overseas…It’s like, Texas, what is it about? Is it something in the water? It must be, ’cause there are so many great players — Albert Collins, Freddie King, Jimmie Vaughan, Eric Johnson. I find it fascinating, but I can’t really explain it.
FGPO: What’s ZZ Top up to now?
Gibbons: Well, I got off on The Big Bad Blues tangent, and Frank (Beard) and Dusty (Hill) wasted no time in taking over the other studio — we’ve got two rooms in Houston. They said, “Go ahead and finish that thing up. We’ll be enjoying our holiday.” But they impressed me; they were in the studio writing up some starter pieces. I think they were just getting a little bit of a head start, and it sounded really good. They’re so tight. I can’t ask for a better rhythm section.
FGPO: Do you think that gets lost sometimes?
Gibbons: I do. What a lot of folks don’t’ realize is Frank and Dusty played in a band together for a couple of years before I met them, so I inherited this great rhythm section. All I had to do was walk in and start riding on it. It was good.
FGPO: Next year marks 50 years for ZZ Top. Does it feel like 50 years? 50 minutes? 500 years?
Gibbons: It feels like 50 minutes. We were scratching our heads going, “Man, this doesn’t even sound right…50 years. Really?” But I think one of the secrets that’s kept us together is, number one, we enjoyed doing it more than anything we could think of, and in staying with it we still stumble into some unusual, uncharted waters. We call it “going to the Bahamas;” We’re still playing stuff from the very first album in 1970, and one of us will kinda get lost in thought and drift into a different place and say, “Yeah, you’re in the Bahamas…We don’t know how we got here, but we’re trying to figure out how to get back,” and that’s a lot of fun for us.
FGPO: Are you planning anything special for the anniversary?
Gibbons: We’re talking about it. I know there’s quite a bit of excitement. It’s such a rarity to find out that there’s the same three guys playing the same three chords and you look up and say, “Gee, it’s 50 years.” That’s pretty wild. So I think it’s cause for celebration. We’ll certainly pull out all the stops. And it gives us a good excuse to go back and relearn some of the stuff we’re supposed to already know.
FGPO: Before that, of course, you’re doing a solo tour to promote The Big Bad Blues. What’s that going to be like?
Gibbons: I’ve put together a nice little outfit. It’ll be a bit different from what I did with the Cuban excursion. I’ve got Matt Sorum, and not only is he a great drummer, he’s a surprisingly enjoyable vocalist. He can sing the sides off these things, as does Austin Hanks, and Elwood Francis will blow a little harp with me. So there’ll be a lot of the new stuff and, of course, some ZZ Top stuff done our way. It’ll be fun.