A Conversation with Tom Hambridge (Part 2 of 2)

Continued from Part One

Do you get involved in artistic decisions about things like track sequencing?

I have. I’m a record guy. You mentioned Susan Tedeschi’s record: I remember her saying to Rosey, “We’ve got to start the record with ‘Rock Me Right.’”’ He said, “Oh, no, no, no. I don’t want to start the record with that; it’s got the word ‘rock’ in it. I have a blues label, and I don’t want to offend. Right off the bat, I want Susan to be known as a blues artist.”

I said, “Number one, I don’t give a shit. I want the blues people to love her, and they will, but I want the world to love her.” And then, the other thing is “Rock Me Baby” by B.B. King. It worked for him!

How does being a drummer gives you a unique perspective as a producer?

I’m playing drums on probably 99% of all the records that you hear that I produce. [With other producers], the band’s over there in the tracking room, and the producer’s behind the glass. When I’m producing a record, I’m in the war zone with the musicians. I’m discussing everything with them. I’m also feeling the tempos, feeling when it should get the dynamic, when it should get loud, and when it should get soft. And they can read off me.

If I’m really in tune with the songs, and these amazing session players are hearing the songs for the first time, by my playing right there I can show them where I want it to go. Because I’m the drummer; I’m motoring it. When things get exciting, I’m able to be right in there with them as opposed to [waiting until] after they do a take to say, “All right, guys: I think it’s way too slow. I think it needs more energy in the bridge. I think we need to come down after the last chord.” And I think that really helps.

Were the songs on Blu Ja Vu written with the idea of having the guest players?

Sometimes. On this particular record, of course, I wrote “Brother John Boogie” for James Cotton. That song is about my older brother who turned me onto James Cotton. He used to sneak me into clubs to see him play. He passed away, so I wrote this song and I went to James and said, “This is a tribute to my brother. Would you play on this?” I was producing [2013’s] Cotton Mouth Man at the time, and James said, “Oh man, I’m happy to do that.” So that song had to be him.
I wrote “Ain’t It Just Like Love” with Richard Fleming, and I thought, “This would make a good duet. Maybe someday I’ll ask Buddy [Guy].” I played it for Buddy, and he said, “Oh, I’d love to sing that.”

There are times when I’ll just record a song with a friend who comes over, and it’ll just sit, because I’m in the middle of producing all these other records, so I don’t have time to make my next record. Then somebody’ll ask me, “What about that song you did with Jonny Lang?” or something. I go, “I should do something with that sometime,” but I don’t. But, in this particular case, I said, “Yeah, I’m going to put this on my Blu Ja Vu record.”

I wrote “Blues Don’t Care” on a Buddy Guy record called Rhythm and Blues [2013]. I went to New York and recorded it as a duet with Gary Clark Jr. and Buddy. It’s a deep track on that record.

When I was recording with Kingfish and I was discussing my record, he said, “I’d love to be a guest on it.” I said, “Well, we could write something.” He said, “That song that Buddy did with Gary Clark, we could do that!” He was on fire about that.

I specifically wanted “That’s My Home” for Joe Bonamassa, and he graciously said “Absolutely.” He sang the heck out of it. And his guitar solo in that song is spooky; it’s crazy.

This being the 2020s, so much is done remotely. Did you work with the guest artists physically in the same studio, or was there file sharing?

I did it in the same studio. I’m so old school; I’m totally about being there. I flew to England to record with Jeff Beck on one song for a Buddy Guy record. I went to New York to record Mick Jagger or Keith Richards.

I’m constantly about being there, but I totally understand when you can’t. But fortunately, in this instance, I was in the studio with Kingfish, I went to Chicago and [recorded] with Buddy Guy in the studio, with Joe Bonamassa at Ocean Way. Josh Smith, the same.

The list of people that you’ve worked with is staggering. Is there someone you haven’t worked with yet that you’d really like to?

I always say this. It’s Paul McCartney. I’ve been fortunate to meet him, and we’ve almost done a few things. But it didn’t work out because he was busy. I’ve worked with pretty much all of my dream-come-true artists, but it would be wonderful to work with McCartney.

What can an artist who chooses you as their producer expect the experience to be like?

Hopefully it’s going to be pleasant. It’s going to be inspiring. Every artist that comes to me, I want to make the best record they’ve ever made. They could’ve made 20 records, but I want to make the best one. I’m like, “What would I want their record to sound like? If I just ripped it open, got it at the record store, I was putting it on, what would blow me away?” And that’s where I start.

I push the songs: “Can we write a better song? Is that the best song?” I’m constantly pushing everybody in the studio to be creative, to bring all your creativity in. “There’s nothing you can do that’s wrong, but let’s up the bar as best we can.” When [my artists] win awards, people ask me, “How do you know? How do you do that?” I say, “I don’t know anything about the awards. It’s great that they win them, but if I’m making a record for Kenny Neal or Joe Louis Walker, I’m just trying to make the best record for them.”

I make it sound the best I can make it, and I never to take my foot off the accelerator until I think we got it. And then, it goes out into the world, and then whatever happens, happens, you know?