ZZ Top’s Billy F. Gibbons brought in 2019 onstage, playing guitar with his normal New Year’s Eve running buddies: Willie Nelson & Family. Gibbons has been a not-so-surprise special guest at a half-dozen of Nelson’s annual new year’s performances at Austin’s ACL Live. And while this year Gibbons unfurled a long solo on Nelson’s version of “Texas Flood,” the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer says he’s generally just happy to have the best seat in the house to watch Willie play guitar.
“I think he’s underrated as a soloist,” Gibbons told us on the first National Podcast of Texas episode of 2019. “A guitar solo from Willie Nelson is as pleasing as you’d ever want to hear.”
A few days after New Year’s, Gibbons left Austin for Houston to join bandmates Dusty Hill and Frank Beard to rehearse for the band’s first-ever residency in Las Vegas—an eight-show series at The Venetian that runs through early February. The Vegas gigs are the first real acknowledgment of the band’s 50th anniversary for 2019. Indeed, short of the first few singles and tours, it’s been what Gibbons describes as the “same three guys, same three chords” for a half-century.
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“Someone asked recently, ‘How did you three guys manage to stay together for longer than most marriages?’” Gibbons says. “Two words come to mind: separate buses. It’s made it all go all right. It’s a good team.”
On The National Podcast of Texas, Gibbons describes what it’s like to learn at the feet of the blues icon Lightnin’ Hopkins, details ZZ Top’s transition from the seventies blues act that tore up the University of Texas’s Memorial Stadium at its Rompin’ Stompin’ Barn Dance and Bar B.Q. to glitzy darlings of early MTV, and their roles as worldwide ambassadors of all things Texana.
Some highlights (condensed and edited for clarity):
On falling in love with music
Our [childhood] housekeeper kept us supplied with a handwritten list of records. And when our mom would go out shopping and say, “Kids, can I get you something?,” we’d say, “You going by the record store? Here’s the list.” And sure enough, it was Jimmy Reed. It was Larry Williams. It was Ray Charles. All the good stuff. My sister and I played the sides off of those records. We’d turn those 45 rpm singles white. And I remember my mom taking us to see Elvis Presley and that kind of did it … we had the music bug. And then my father took me down to a recording session at ACA, that was Bill Holford’s place. And he put me in a chair and he said, “I’ll be in the office if you need me. Stick around because there are some musicians gonna make a recording session.” And I was kind of enjoying it, and who should walk in but B.B. King and his band. So between seeing Elvis and watching B.B. King record, it was carved in stone.
On the early ZZ Top
ZZ Top always had one foot in the blues from the very inception. And the good part about this trio is that I inherited a rhythm section that had been together before, the rhythm section for Dusty’s brother, Rocky Hill. I inherited a powerhouse. I just had to walk in and start soloing.
On fifty years
The expression itself, ZZ Top’s 50th Anniversary, is a wake-up call. The same band members. And that’s kind of unusual. The concept is like, “Wow, where did it go?” Someone asked, “How did you three guys manage to stay together for longer than most marriages?” Two words come to mind: separate buses. It’s made it all go all right. It’s a good team.
On keeping it fresh
We’ve played some of these songs now going on five decades, and at the same time, the inside joke is always who’s going to make the first mistake. And if it happens, we call it “Going to the Bahamas.” You can get there—it’s getting back that’s problematic. So it’s not all muscle memory. There’s something to be said about getting comfortable within a composition and being able to predict where you want it to go. But it doesn’t always happen that way. But the challenge of keeping it fresh and alive allows for some great improvisation. I don’t think we play the same song the same way every night. There’s always some twist that keeps it fresh.
On the vitality of the blues
Dusty comments rather often, “Did you hear, the blues is being rediscovered? It’s back!” I think about every decade or so there seems to be this return to the blues because what was once thought to be a rather simplistic art form is revealed not to be. The complexity within all these expressions that fall under that blues umbrella allows for some very interesting expressions. I don’t know right now if there’s one thing you could point at and say, “Oh, that’s the blues!” The expressions have become so varied and wide that it stands a chance of being a mainstay forever.
This mysterious place is perceived around the globe as what it is—giant. And at the same time, it has the ability to morph into the next thing, whatever that may be. All you have to do is travel outside of Texas to appreciate Texas. And if somebody were to venture a question, “Where are you from?” and you tell them Texas, they treat it as another planet, which it is. And a lot has changed. For instance, take the capital city’s Sixth Street. At one time, you could buy half a block for a pittance. But sure enough, the energy cloud floated by Austin, Texas, and changed the town dramatically. And now it’s Disneyland for hipsters. For years, the quietude of Austin was playing tricks on everybody. I don’t think there was any indicator that a giant change was coming until let’s say 1979 or 1980. But it’s still a great, great spot. Texas will always maintain this kind of autonomous weirdness, a high state of difference.
On stage fright
I think the anticipation of the unknown can be a bit unsettling if you let it. But if you stay the course, if you just march out there and do what you do and what you like doing, it’s going to be okay. B.B. King said, “Learn to play what you want to hear.” And if you can get that far, you’ve got one foot that’s going to follow the other.
On the MTV era
MTV added a visual element to the things that used to be simply an aural experience. Now you’ve got what you hear and what you see. And I think from that early inception, by opening doors into music and sonic fields that had yet to be traversed, it really widened everything. I don’t think we had time to worry about anything. If there was any worry, it was maybe, what’s going to be the next experiment and is it going to work? I don’t think many folks realize the impact of ZZ Top getting to meet and work with a group like Depeche Mode—kind of opposite ends of the spectrum. But that’s what keeps it interesting. And, as you know, there’s more music accessible to everybody on the planet than ever before. And aside from this temporary bit of confusion, there’s more to like. And it’s, it’s really rewarding to reach out and understand how vast and different it can be.