Booker T. Jones came of age in the Memphis music scene in the 1960s, starting as a session musician at Stax Records when he was still a teenager. In 1962, Jones joined forces with Steve Cropper and a group of other Stax-hands to form Booker T. & The M.G.’s, and scored an immediate hit with the funky instrumental “Green Onions.” For the next decade, The M.G.’s remained Stax’s house band, while periodically recording albums that pushed beyond the label’s R&B roots to embrace some of the more freeform rock sounds that were sweeping the nation. In recent years, Jones—with and without the M.G.’s—has toured with the likes of Bob Dylan and Neil Young. Currently, he’s touring in support of a new album, Potato Hole, which he recorded with the help of Young and Drive-By Truckers. Jones spoke with The A.V. Club about his new album, what’s changed in the music business, and why his career wouldn’t have been possible without publicly funded music education.
The A.V. Club: What’s your favorite part of the process of making a new album: recording or touring?
Booker T.: Well, the onstage part of being on tour is really rewarding, and there’s a special energy onstage that you can’t get in the studio. You’re actually looking at people when you’re making music and it’s live, so that’s special. But the other part of the touring is really tough. Sitting in traffic, you know, checking in to hotels and all that stuff. That’s rough. But it’s great once you get up there and the people are there and everybody’s where they need to be.
AVC: Does working on a record still feel as fresh and exciting as it once did?
BT: It’s very exciting right now. The last few months have been exhilarating for me. I feel like I started over. I feel like I have a new life in a lot of ways, ’cause I’m able to do some new music and work with great people. I can’t ask for more than what’s going on with me right now.
AVC: How did you meet the guys from Drive-By Truckers?
BT: Through my manager. When we first got together a couple years ago, he mentioned them as someone I might want to jam with. He sent me some CDs of theirs, then he introduced me to Jason Isbell at South By Southwest and we had a jam session down there that turned out really well.
AVC: What was the collaboration like? Did you direct them on what to do, or did they come in with their own ideas?
BT: I made demos of all the songs. I started writing in March, writing all the songs on guitar. I went down there with songs on Sibelius. And I dumped the songs from Sibelius onto a MusicPad Pro, which I can operate with a footswitch, and I directed them from my chart, from a MusicPad Pro.
AVC: Is it easier now, with all this technology at your disposal?
BT: I couldn’t have made this record without the MusicPad Pro and Sibelius because like I said, I started writing the songs in March and we didn’t record ’til September. I hate to think about what I would have forgotten between March and September. Because I had all the music written out, I could remember everything. I just followed my own charts. The technology’s really helped me.
AVC: Some people complain that the new tools make it maybe too easy to perfect songs, and that you lose some of the warmth and spontaneity of the old ways. Does that concern you?
BT: Well just because you have the possibility to do something doesn’t mean you have to do it. I wrote this music from start to finish. I did try some stuff with Ableton Live, like for instance I would do a chorus, maybe, and a verse, and then try it with another chorus or verse to compare. But that doesn’t mean that you have to use all aspects of the technology or do it the same way every time. We went in and recorded just like we did in the ’60s. Everybody in one room, just like there was tape rolling.
AVC: When you’re composing a song, do you tend to fool around until something comes to you or do songs come to you fully composed in your head?
BT: I have a different method of composing now. For this album I was using visuals; I had a visual in mind for each song and I would sit there and write to the visual that I was holding in my mind. I’d never done that before. Back in the old days I would just sit and down and doodle and see what came to mind, and maybe put pieces of those ideas together. I feel a lot more connected when I write like this; it’s more coherent for me.
AVC: So when you had the visual in your mind, did you have the title in your mind too?
BT: Oftentimes, yeah. The whole thing comes from the visual. The title, the music, everything.
AVC: Perhaps you can explain what you were visualizing when you wrote some of the songs. What about “Native New Yorker”?
BT: First thing that came into my mind was the city street, the sidewalk, and how the steam comes up out of the grates, you know. I guess that’s just one of my memories. And then you have people walking over that. I was sitting there holding a guitar, so I was thinking about a young man who may have a job as a stockbroker or something, just kind of a random individual, someone born and raised in New York, someone who feels New York City. Someone who loves loud music, rock music, but who in his daily life would be pretty conservative, dressed in a suit. But he’d go upstairs to his 80th-floor apartment and play air-guitar all night, to Molly Hatchet or whoever. And this is the music that I would think he would be hearing in his head and that he would enjoy.
AVC: What about “Reunion Time”?
BT: “Reunion Time” came from all the family reunions that I would go to in Memphis at the Holiday Inns and airport Hiltons. You get out of the car and you walk in, and you see some young kids, you see some old people, and there’s a big bouquet of flowers in the lobby. It’s just that feeling of news about family members from Ohio or California… the feeling of getting together and how happy it is. And all the food, and then you take the whole thing out to a park. It’s just that warm feeling that I was thinking about when I wrote that.
AVC: How about the title track, “Potato Hole”?
BT: It was inspired by a little bit more of an epic journey. I like to think of this album, Potato Hole, as my personal potato hole. The journey that I’m speaking of starts with the slave days, when slaves had to dig a hole in an inconspicuous place in the cabin, just to keep the food cool. That’s where they would hide the food. The analogy for me is that this album is my potato hole, it’s where I put my goodies, where I have my stuff stored to keep it cool. But you might use your own imagination and go through the changes from then to now. Now there’s an African-American President of the United States, and we’ve come so far so fast. And it’s a good journey. It’s a good direction for a country to be going in.
AVC: Back in the ’60s when you were touring around with the M.G.’s, who were an interracial band, did you have much trouble in certain parts of the country?
BT: Well we didn’t travel over the whole country as a touring band. We spent most of the time ensconced at Stax in Memphis and eating in our own restaurants and sleeping in our own homes. But when we did travel, we often would switch off with checking in; Steve and Duck [Dunn] would check into the white hotel, Al [Jackson] and I would check into the black hotel. Same with restaurants. But we never did run into any actual confrontations. It was against the grain, we knew, but we did it anyway.
AVC: What was the mood at Stax back then? Did you guys think of yourselves as upstarts, compared to Motown or other R&B labels, or did you think of yourselves as peers?
BT: It didn’t seem like we were upstarts. I guess on some level we knew we were doing something unique because we made a conscious effort to keep it pure. We didn’t want the other musical elements to come into our own consciousness. But it seemed very natural to us; it didn’t seem like we were upstarts, no.
AVC: Did you push each other? Like say Isaac Hayes releases a big double album, does that push you to be more creative with your next project, that kind of thing?
BT: We pushed each other to continue to stay true to our own formula, our own simple formula. To stay funky, to stay straight ahead. That was our only sort of unspoken creed. We didn’t talk about it much but it was there.
AVC: What inspired you and the M.G.’s to record McLemore Avenue, your instrumental cover version of Abbey Road?
BT: I was in California when I heard Abbey Road, and I thought it was incredibly courageous of The Beatles to drop their format and move out musically like they did. To push the limit like that and reinvent themselves when they had no need to that. They were the top band in the world but they still reinvented themselves. The music was just incredible so I felt I needed to pay tribute to it.
AVC: Along those same lines, you do a cover of OutKast’s “Hey Ya” on the new record. What’s your philosophy on instrumental covers: Do you think it’s important to follow the vocal melody with your organ, or is it okay to extrapolate from it, like jazz?
BT: You could make up your own melody, but it’s easier for me to just put the lyrics in front of me and play the idea of the lyrics.
AVC: Do you keep up with contemporary music?
BT: Whenever I can.
AVC: What’s changed the most from when you started to now, both in terms of making music and the music business?
BT: Business-wise, there’s no set model like there used to be. It used to be there were record companies that put out 33s, and there was just no question about it. Now a record company can have many different forms, and exist in a lot of different places. Musically, the opportunities for new bands are shrinking somewhat because as far as kids growing up who want to learn music, the opportunities are less than they were for me. I’m gonna donate some of my old instruments to the Tipitina’s Instrument Program in New Orleans, ’cause the schools are not financed well enough nowadays to provide band instruments like they were when I was in school. States are not financing music education like they used to. Opportunities for new bands and new musicians are not as good now.
AVC: Do you think that might change with the new administration; might there be more focus on arts again?
BT: I think there needs to be. The administration can do some, but people like me need to step up too. I think it has to start on a statewide local level. People need to realize that what they do with their money is very important, and they need to invest it in the kids. Music is equally or maybe even more important than math and science as far as developing the mind. People just need to realize how important music really is for society.
You know, I was in fourth grade and my father was able to get bank credit and buy a clarinet for me. I played in the high school band, the Porter Junior High School band in Memphis, and they asked me to play oboe because all the clarinet places were taken, and oboe was the only instrument that nobody wanted to play. I used school instruments for the next eight years. I learned trombone, saxophone, baritone saxophone, all the reeds and drums and bass. All those instruments were provided free in the band room at Porter Junior High in Memphis and Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis. Even the first instrument I took over to Stax Records was a free instrument that I took over from the band room, a baritone sax that I used on Rufus and Carla Thomas’ “‘Cause I Love You.” That was my first recording session.
AVC: When you started out, did you see music as something you’d do for the rest of your life, or just something you’d do for a while?
BT: I can’t imagine doing anything else right now, but even now I don’t have any real big long-time plans. I’m kind of taking it day-by-day.