Although blues musician Howard “Guitar” Luedtke has reached the destination in his 50-year search for his musical idol, he’s still enjoying the journey.
Luedtke’s 2016 album, “Goin’ Down to Alabama,” told the story of how he met highly respected but underpublicized guitarist Travis Wammack.
Now, three years later, Luedtke has released “Meet Me in Muscle Shoals,” which also grew out of his friendship with the influential musician.
Both of Luedtke’s albums were recorded at MSMM Recording at Tuscumbia, Ala.
“Meet Me in Muscle Shoals” shows not only why Luedtke reveres Wammack, who again plays on and co-produces the effort; it also showcases once again the Southern musicians and their ties with the legendary Muscle Shoals music scene.
“It’s really amazing to me,” said Luedtke, long known in the Chippewa Valley and beyond for his fiery guitar playing and singing as leader of Blue Max. “I still can’t believe that I found this guy that I envisioned in my mind for so many years.”
Luedtke said he didn’t expect to record another album with Wammack.
“I was really happy to do the first one, and I just hadn’t had enough with the Muscle Shoals scene,” he said. “One wasn’t enough; three would probably be too many; so two should be just right.”
“Meet Me in Muscle Shoals,” which has the subtitle “The Muscle Shoals Sessions II,” follows the same musical approach as the first effort.
“It just kind of picks up where the other one leaves off,” Luedtke said.
For the new album, Luedtke had a request for Wammack.
“I told Travis for this album: ‘Produce me. Pick out a couple songs that you think I should do, pick the key, you arrange the tunes, tell me how to sing it. … I’m putty in your hands.’”
Two songs emerged from that suggestion. One is the opener, “Breaking Up Somebody’s Home,” written by Al Jackson Jr. and Timothy Matthews and popularized by Albert King; the other is “The Jealous Kind,” the Bobby Charles-penned title track of a 1980 album by Delbert McClinton.
“This is a ballad I never would have picked out to do,” Luedtke said of the latter song. “And it turned out quite well.”
Coincidentally, Luedtke said, “Bad Brad” Guin, who plays saxophone on the song, recorded with McClinton the day after recording with Luedtke.
Another song, a bluesy reinvention of the rock ’n’ roll standard “Johnny B. Goode,” prominently features Wammack’s guitar playing. Luedtke gladly shared the spotlight.
“I play a little rhythm in the background and sing, but I’m perfectly comfortable with my guitar idol playing leads for me on my album,” he said. “I’m confident enough in my own abilities that I do not feel threatened.”
Two other “Meet Me in Muscle Shoals” highlights for Luedtke were songs on which he did a vocal duet with Wammack: “Long As I Can See the Light” and “Cookin’ on the Front Burner.”
Luedtke also expressed great respect for other collaborators.
“I love feeding off their ideas,” he said. “It’s just magic to sit around with those guys in that little studio and record.”
The following musicians, besides Luedtke, Wammack and Guin, have appeared on both the albums: Jan Gullett, guitar and background vocals; Jan Gullett’s husband, Donnie Gullett, bass; Jim Whitehead, piano and organ; and Wayne Chaney, percussion and background vocals.
On “Goin’ Down to Alabama,” Luedtke’s drummer was Roger Clark, whose name might be recognizable to anyone who watched the 2019 Grammy Awards telecast last month. Clark was among those who had passed away in the previous year who were honored by having their names called and a picture flashed on a big screen.
According to the obituary of Clark in Billboard magazine, he was known for playing on albums by, among others, Lou Rawls, Paul Anka, Tom Jones and on “Family Tradition,” the breakthrough 1979 album of Hank Williams Jr.
Replacing Clark on the new album is Mike Dillon, who was a longtime drummer for the band led by Allman Brothers guitarist Dicky Betts and also made some appearances with the Allmans, Luedtke said.
Another guest on “Meet Me at Muscle Shoals” was Memphis harmonica player Eric Hughes. Luedtke said he had met Hughes in Wisconsin and hoped to record his song “Blues Magician.” But he later decided to invite the harpist to the session. “I got the idea of, ‘Hey man, meet me in Muscle Shoals and we’ll do a duet on one of your songs,’ and he was nice enough to do that.”
The album title also came, indirectly, from Hughes. When they met, Hughes brought Luedtke a copy of his new album, which is titled “Meet Me in Memphis.”
“I said, ‘I’ve been looking for a name for my new album, Eric,’” Luedtke said. “‘Thanks for coming down and meeting me in Muscle Shoals. Would you mind if I used that?’ He said go right ahead.”
MSMM recording is co-owned by Donnie and Jan Gullett, along with Donnie Gullett’s brother Mike Gullett and his wife, Vanessa Gullett. Wammack serves as the session guitarist for MSMM Recording and produces albums.
On both of Luedtke’s albums recorded there Donnie Gullett shares producing duties with Luedtke and Wammack.
Wammack has recorded all his albums this century at MSMM Recording, Luedtke said, and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Percy Sledge made his last two albums there.
Among of the joys of the recording sessions, Luedtke said, were the conversations among the musicians he worked with.
“They love to talk,” Luedtke said. “That’s all we do there is play music and eat. And we go out couple times a day, and I’m just awestruck with the stories they tell.”
In a reflection of how good the food is, Luedtke said he usually has to go on a diet when he returns to Wisconsin.
Those who catch Blue Max live can count on hearing most of the songs on the two albums. But not all of them.
“This is a nine-piece band,” Luedtke said of the recording lineup. “I play in a three-piece.”
During the recording of the first album, Wammack told Luedtke, “‘By the way, you know you won’t be able to perform this live this way.’ I said, ‘I don’t care. This is a studio album.’”
The difference is worth noting, he said.
“Nowadays everybody wants a studio album sounds like it’s live. And they want a live performance to sound like a studio album,” he said.
Asked if Wammack, for all his talent, has been under the radar for music fans, Luedtke replied with a laugh, “Oh yeah. Mine included. You’ve listened to him all your life. He’s sold 60 million records for other people.”
According to Wammack’s website, the lengthy list of musicians he’s recorded with include Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Paul Anka, Liza Minnelli, Little Richard, Tom Jones and Bobbie Gentry.
As Luedtke talked, his respect and admiration for Wammack were obvious. He enthused about Wammack’s role in the roots of Memphis rock ’n’ roll, his studio prowess, including innovations related to reverb and distortion, and his some of his nonmusical exploits such as prodigious hunting totals and his ability to take out a rattlesnake with a marble and a slingshot.
Feeling like home
Even if Luedtke doesn’t make another record at the Muscle Shoals studio, he still expects to continue the friendships/musical alliances he has made.
“(I)’ll always keep going down there and doing a gig once in a while and just keep in touch with all the friends I’ve made down there,” he said. “It’s like one of my homes now.”
One trip Luedtke is especially looking forward to is a party to celebrate Wammack’s 75th birthday in November. The celebration will be at the 700-seat Shoals Theatre, and Wammack has invited Luedtke to join him onstage.
During a phone conversation Luedtke asked Wammack if the festivities were still on and got an affirmative answer and a compliment as well.
“I called him and I said, ‘Is that still on for your birthday gig?’” Luedtke recalled. “And he said, ‘Yeah, why don’t you do a song with me onstage, Howard? You’re a good friend, you’re a good player and we play well together.’”
It seems as though Luedtke has been treated to Southern hospitality in Alabama, and during one of his trips he got confirmation of that.
“I walked into a restaurant early in the morning to have breakfast, and I heard somebody shout from the other side of the restaurant, ‘Howard, welcome home.’
“So yeah, they really make you feel at home down there.”