Booker T Jones Interview: Bye bye to the blues

BACK IN THE 19TH CENTURY, A "potato hole" was the place where slaves would stow their food to keep it cool. In 2009, it is the title of the new album by keyboard legend Booker T Jones of "& the MGs" fame.

"The album is sort of like my potato hole," he says, down the line from his home near San Francisco. "It's the place where I have all my ideas and my cool stuff."

Potato Hole is the first album to bear the Booker T name in 15 years. He describes the intervening years as a period of "languishing, unable to express myself musically" – though he expressed himself well enough backing Neil Young on tour with the MGs and as musical director on the 2002 Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young reunion tour. Young has returned the favour by playing guitar on all but one track on the album, which includes covers of Outkast's Hey Ya! and Tom Waits' Get Behind The Mule.

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Jones was initially reticent about recording again because, despite his wealth of experience writing for and playing with a host of soul legends and producing albums for Bill Withers and Willie Nelson among others, he felt ill-equipped for the 21st-century studio. So he took a course in digital recording and now talks with almost as much enthusiasm about various music software programs as he does about working with Otis Redding.

"I think I make the best use of both worlds now," he says. "We made a loop on Hey Ya! – I couldn't have done that in 1962 without having tape all over the place. The beauty now is that you can still use the old way to record, with everybody playing the song altogether, and all the advances of digital. It would be hard for me to go back to analogue now."

Jones has lived in California since 1970 but will forever be associated with his work at the legendary Stax label in his native Memphis. Founded (as Satellite Records) in 1957 by Jim Stewart, a white country fiddle player, and bankrolled by his sister Estelle Axton, the label became one of the giants of the 1960s soul boom, dubbing its premises Soulsville USA in reply to Motown's Hitsville HQ. Where Motown's slick soul-pop sound was conceived to appeal to a white audience, Stax's grittier rhythm'n'blues style achieved crossover success without courting a particular demographic.

Booker T & the MGs became the label's house band, backing such greats as Sam & Dave, The Staple Singers, Wilson Pickett, Eddie Floyd – and, most famously, Otis Redding. "There were some extremely poignant moments with him," says Jones, "times when I was just glad to be where I was and doing what I was doing."

Much is still made of the group's interracial make-up – Jones and late drummer Al Jackson Jr were black, while guitarist Steve Cropper and bassist Donald "Duck" Dunn were white – at a time when racial segregation was still legal in the South. Jones is sanguine about the ramifications for his band.

"There was an awareness that we were forging new territory, but somehow it seemed natural and right to be doing that," he says. "I do have a recollection of playing for our first integrated audience down in Alabama. But the issue of race came up more with lodging and food rather than performing, where the rules were cut and dried – the clubs we played in were either black or white, with some whites attending the black clubs. As musicians we were pretty much accepted everywhere."

Jones cites his mother as his earliest musical inspiration. She was a classical pianist and from an early age he displayed a desire to follow in her footsteps. "I would try to reach up to the keys and play with two fingers," he says of his pre-school days.

By the time he reached junior high school, Jones had taught himself to play clarinet, then switched to oboe in order to get a place in the school band. Soon enough, he added trombone, saxophone and euphonium to his repertoire, citing "curiosity" as his reason for taking up so many instruments. Later, he studied orchestration and conducting at Indiana University and performed his senior recital on trombone, even as the MGs' career was taking off and Jones became one of the most sought-after keyboard players of his generation.

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He first met Steve Cropper in the Satellite Records store, situated next to the Stax studios. Soon after, he was called into service by the label to play baritone sax on the Rufus and Carla Thomas hit Cause I Love You. "I was in 11th grade," he remembers. "That was a fateful day for me."

According to Jones, his association with the Hammond organ above all instruments came about simply because the MGs scored a surprise hit in 1962 with Green Onions, the classic instrumental based around Jones's groovy keyboard riff, which was originally slated as the B-side of their debut single. "I feel like I speak through the organ," he says.

It has only been in the past year that Jones has reluctantly accepted he cannot dedicate enough time to remain a proficient multi-instrumentalist and plans to give away many of his instruments so he can concentrate on keyboards and guitar.

Guitars feature heavily on Potato Hole. Although Jones's signature Hammond is all over the record, he initially wrote the songs (all instrumentals) on guitar to accompany an imaginary visual. "On (album track] Warped Sister I was thinking of a girl who has a big Marshall Amp in her living room and she gets emotionally attached to it and can't get away from it," he says.

He also switched bands for the occasion, inviting southern rockers Drive By Truckers – who have already demonstrated their rhythm'n'blues chops by backing Detroit diva Bettye LaVette – to dirty up the sound on what Jones is proud to call his loud rock'n'roll record.

"It's important to me to stay vital and to have the opportunity to reinvent myself every now and then," he says. "I feed on that."

• Potato Hole is released by Anti- Records on 20 April.