Boz Scaggs' Head Music

Plano soul man's found his groove at 70

For decades, Boz Scaggs remained best known for 1976 smash Silk Degrees, his seventh LP, which featured Top 40 radio staples "Lowdown" and "Lido Shuffle." He grew up in Plano, then moved to San Francisco in the late Sixties where he joined the Steve Miller Band. Now 70, the rightly heralded singer, songwriter, and guitarist hit a creative high note on 2013's Memphis.

Working with producer/drummer Steve Jordan (Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, John Mayer) and a backing band including bassist Willie Weeks (Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder) and guitarist Ray Parker Jr. (Ghostbusters!), he paid tribute to that city's soul heritage, especially the tandem of Al Green and producer Willie Mitchell. Newly issued Fool to Care follows the same blueprint, Scaggs hinting it's the second of a trilogy. This time, he and Jordan traveled to Nashville with the same band and employed Music City sidemen like steel guitar all-star Paul Franklin and guitarist Reggie Young.

People are immediately drawn to the pair of duets on the disc, one with Bonnie Raitt and the other starring Lucinda Williams, yet the songs, some familiar, some not, and the way Scaggs puts them across takes the listener on a tour of the South, with the sounds of Texas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Louisiana all mixed into something characteristically smooth and listenable. He spoke by phone from his home in Sonoma County, California.

Austin Chronicle: One surprising aspect about Fool to Care is little-known songs written by artists people would recognize. How did you go about deciding which songs to record?

Boz Scaggs: The main criteria is whether it's a song I can sink my teeth into, one that suits my voice and that I can give an interpretation that it's perhaps not seen before. I look at material from all genres just out of curiosity and a general passion for music. I have a small studio that I can flesh them out in. I try out my voice and see how it feels in there. That's part of the process. Then Steve and I pitch songs at each other before we start recording. I've gone through this process for a number of years now. It's become sort of a general pastime. So I have a list that I've compiled for various reasons, like when I performed with Michael McDonald and Donald Fagen as the Dukes of September.

AC: Y'all played Austin in 2012.

BS: That was an extended process of looking for material with two aficionados. That was a great pleasure. That got me started and kept me going at it, so I have these lists. I'm not sure how many songs I considered for this project, probably less than 100, but a lot of things pass under my nose sorting these lists out. I collaborate with Steve and when we hit the studio I probably have 15 or 16 songs from day one. It's a pretty intensive process.

AC: The last record was recorded in Memphis. This time you moved to Nashville. What was the reasoning behind those choices?

BS: We went to Memphis for a very specific reason: Royal Recording Studio [home of Green and Mitchell]. It had a sound. There are very few decisions to be made in recording there to get that sound. After working there with a core group, it made sense to try and expand the sonic palette, and be a little more far reaching in the material. That led us to consider New York, Los Angeles, and Nashville. Because of the nature of the song list, as it took shape, it looked like Nashville would be the place. It was comfortable. I'd never made a record there. Steve had, and he recommended a studio that had a lot of goodies that recording artists like.

AC: There's a series of songs in the middle of the album where the mood seems to change. You cover Huey "Piano" Smith's "High Blood Pressure," a fun rock & roll number, then segue into Al Green's "Full of Fire." The latter reminds me of some of your best-known material, like "Lowdown." It's funky yet smooth, and after the rhythm and blues sounds that precede it, I found it surprising to hear you slip so easily back into that.

BS: With that rhythm section, I felt like I could go anywhere I wanted to go. Jordan brought that song in. He and I have a particular affinity for Al Green songs. Over the course of my career I've recorded a handful of them. I feel like sometimes he's a lucky charm. But it's always a mountain to climb for me. He's one of the great singers. I don't think I would have chosen that song for the record, but Jordan made me do it. To walk in Al Green's footsteps is formidable.

AC: Also surprising is the falsetto you go into on Curtis Mayfield's "I'm So Proud." Was that a difficult song to tackle?

BS: I've been singing that song since I first heard it. It's one of my all-time favorite songs. Curtis had a thing called a head voice. It's something between a natural voice and a falsetto, technically. It takes a singer to an unusual place. It takes getting used to hearing your voice back like that, but it has to be done when you're doing Curtis Mayfield.

AC: You grew up in the Dallas area.

BS: I moved to Plano when I was about 10.

AC: I understand one of your early influences was a radio show from Dallas called Cat's Caravan. What do you remember about that? That was the beginning of the rock & roll era, wasn't it?

BS: That's right. In the Dallas area, as in urban areas everywhere, we had all kinds of radio, but Top 40's king when you're 11. At WRR, they had a disc jockey named Jim Lowe, who had a regular late-night show. He was some sort of professor or academic. He took the roots of the music and talked about where it came from, like New Orleans or Memphis. Some originated in the Mississippi delta. It was fascinating for me to learn where the music came from and it gave a lot of us an appreciation. It influenced a lot of musicians I know.

AC: You're doing something similar with these last two albums you've made – turning people on to different styles.

BS: Opening doors is a lot of what music is all about.

AC: Did you know Doug Sahm when he was in San Francisco?

BS: I did. I ran into him about a year after I got there in 1967. He came out with the Honkey Blues Band, he called it. There were so many musicians that came there around that time from Texas, Chicago, and New Orleans as well.

AC: Recently you were quoted as saying, "What I'm doing now is part of what I've been looking for since I got started."

BS: I feel strongly about that. I have a freedom that I never had. I'm a better musician. I feel closer to my voice, closer to my guitar. I'm beginning to realize that I'm closer to the music. It's not just an external part of me. I've internalized it in a very satisfying way over the years. I'm at a point in my career that I have a sense of what my style is and I can go for it. I'm still curious and I feel free. I found a great collaborator in Steve Jordan. We're always looking for those collaborations. I'm in a good place.

Boz Scaggs plays ACL Live at the Moody Theater Sunday, May 10.

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Boz Scaggs, Steve Jordan, Al Green, Willie Mitchell, Lucinda Williams, Curtis Mayfield, Dukes of September, Michael McDonald, Donald Fagen, Doug Sahm

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