Two years ago, Booker T. Jones went to South by Southwest and ended up performing with his old band and connecting with a new one. After playing a showcase with the MG's—the Stax Records house band that backed Otis Redding, Sam & Dave and others and became famous for instrumentals like "Green Onions"—Booker met a member of the group that would back him on his first solo album in almost two decades.
The band he found is one that few would associate with soul music: the Drive-By Truckers.
"I knew I wanted that attitude before I found the band," Booker, 64, says over a glass of red wine at a bar in Manhattan's East Village. "This album has a lot to do with attitude. The MG's were never an in-your-face band—the MG's is a groove band. But this is in your face, this raw, gritty sound that's too loud."
"This" is "Potato Hole," Booker's new album, which Anti- will release April 21. It's every bit as raw as Booker says, thanks to layers of guitar from the Truckers and Neil Young, who plays on nine tracks. The title track has five guitarists—three Truckers, Young and Booker, who writes on guitar even though he's famous for playing organ.
Like classic Booker T. & the MG's albums, "Potato Hole" consists entirely of instrumentals, which have melodies and funk rhythms to balance their grit. And like those classics, "Potato Hole" also includes instrumental covers of pop songs—Tom Waits' "Get Behind the Mule" and a down-home take on OutKast's "Hey Ya!"
Booker hasn't released an album since "That's the Way It Should Be," his 1994 reunion with the MG's. But he never stopped performing—as a backup musician for singers like Young, as a solo artist with his own group and as a member of the MG's, who have served as the house band for high-profile gigs like Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions. And he never stopped writing, at least "not mentally."
Booker came to Anti- through his manager Dave Bartlett, president of 525 Worldwide, which also manages Mavis Staples. As Staples prepared to release her 2007 comeback album on Anti-, which has guided several heritage artists to critical and commercial success, Bartlett introduced Booker to Anti- president Andy Kaulkin.
"They think about how they're going to market their records from the beginning," Bartlett says. "It's not just trying to take a record and push it to radio—they try to really tell a story about an album."
Booker says that Kaulkin asked him what kind of album he wanted to make, then sent him new CDs that he thought might inspire him. In 2007, Kaulkin took Booker to Coachella, where they spent a couple of days walking around, listening to bands and talking about music.
"He doesn't need someone who's young enough to be his child to tell him what a cool record is," Kaulkin says, "but maybe he was able to see the possibilities."
Booker says that all of this outside input helped him make the album he had in his head. "It just made it more accessible," he says. "If you don't think you can get it out, I don't think you're going to start it. I felt free and open, so when I went into the studio, I wrote what I wanted to write."
Anti- plans to focus its promotional efforts on media, especially magazines and newspapers—the same strategy it has used to raise awareness of comeback albums from Porter Wagoner, Merle Haggard and Staples, whose 2007 Anti- album "We'll Never Turn Back" sold 55,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. The label will also try to introduce Booker to a new generation of listeners when he performs with the Truckers at three of this summer's major concerts: Coachella, Bonnaroo and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
After those three gigs, Booker says he'll spend much of the summer touring with his own band. "I'm trying to hold myself back from a second album right now," he jokes.
"I love the album, I love the sound," Booker says, less out of ego than enthusiasm. "It's like rock'n'roll but it's like having a symphony. To be 64 and come to that place in my life, it's like arriving at a new shore."