The unexpected passing of ZZ Top’s Dusty Hill in the summer of 2021 brought an end to the first chapter of one of rock ‘n’ roll’s oldest bands. They continued, however, with the intervention of longtime guitar tech Elwood Francis.
Hill reportedly asked his bandmates Billy Gibbons and Frank Beard to carry on with Francis in his place. Now Gibbons tells UCR the band will be making new music with Francis, something he calls “an interesting excursion into the unknown.”
First, they bring things back to the beginning in a way that suits a band more than five decades away from releasing their debut album. Rawa new live album, will be released on July 8. The set was recorded at the time of the band’s 2019 documentary, This little band from Texasat Gruene Hall – the oldest concert hall and dance hall in Texas.
ZZ Top sifts through a loose collection of classics, while pushing deeper into the depths of their catalog to pull out lesser-heard tracks like “Certified Blues” and “Brown Sugar,” both from 1971. ZZ Top’s debut album. Diehards will appreciate the many priceless moments put to tape, from the Texas shuffle of “Thunderbird” to the beer-soaked guitar thumps of songs like “Blue Jean Blues.”
We spoke with Gibbons in the middle of ZZ Top’s ongoing tour as they prepared to play a show in Tucson. He discussed the new release and the emotional experience of moving forward with Francis, while sharing some humorous memories of willie nelson before their concerts together this summer.
Watch ZZ Top perform “Brown Sugar” at Gruene Hall
The fact that you were able to record these performances at Gruene Hall is pretty awesome. This place has so much history.
I have to give credit to Sam Dunn, who was the director of the movie. Initially, we felt like Sam wanted to take a snapshot of the three of us against the backdrop of a location that might suggest elements of ZZ Top’s origin, however humble that might be. When we arrived we found that no one had told our team and technicians that this was just a practice for a photo shoot. They went ahead and set up the whole stage with equipment – which, to our delight, was in Gruene Hall. This place has been around for so long that every grain of sawdust in this crazy wooden structure has fallen into place. It now serves as a large resonant speaker. [Laughs.] So in addition to posing for a photo, we decided to work on the guitars and let Frank [Beard] take the drum stand. We started playing while the cameramen were setting up their equipment. We were just knocking, about the way we started. Things went pretty much the way they always have, three guys struggling.
“Certified Blues” is not the one that is found very often in a setlist. What is the story of this song?
We were going to California at first. We had booked recording time at a west coast studio. As we crossed the desert sands, far into West Texas, we passed a gas station. They had a decrepit neon sign and the only word that was on was the word “certified”. [Laughs.] In the middle of nowhere, we definitely got the blues. There was nothing. I said, “Well, that just about carves him in stone. We have the ‘Certified Blues’. It was inspirational. Even today, we have fond memories of those humble beginnings.
The album really gives a good context to the unique eras of ZZ Top and how it all fits together.
Just recently, we were thinking a bit about the two sides of ZZ Top. One being the rather eccentric and weirdly weird perception that has gone on with the weird beards and funny hats, a bit out of step with fashion trends. But coming from Houston as well as Frank and Dusty coming from Dallas, we had a very strict set of guidelines as we learned to play and play. I think this measure of seriousness is a good balance that still exists today. You can have a humorous experience going out with a ZZ Top party and the underlying tone is very serious. We take this part very seriously. This part has not changed and it may be a good balance! [Laughs.]
How do you relate the eras and the diversity of things like “Just Got Paid” versus “Sharp Dressed Man”, from your point of view?
Although we were labeled as a blues rock band, we took this piece of blues as our performer. Lord knows that the great American art form that the blues remains to this day was established long before we began. At the same time, it was so influential. We decided to give it a shot as nothing more than performers. I think that’s the best way to describe it.
Watch ZZ Top perform ‘La Grange’ at Gruene Hall
You and Frank made an admirable transition, the way you moved forward with Elwood.
I credit Dusty. Not only was he a great performer and a great friend, but he had a thread of wisdom. When he felt a little uncomfortable, he asked to see his doctor. He said, “Listen, if I’m late getting back to the show, make sure Elwood, our guitar tech, wraps his hands around my guitar. I said, “Okay.” He said, “Look, he’s more than a family member. He was a solid substitute for over three decades. “It adds a pretty serious side of making loud sounds to five decades. It’s on point. It’s kind of an interesting twist, but the balance remains. We’re crazy characters, almost a cartoon, but deep down , we are all very devoted and serious musically.
I imagine those early shows with Elwood were emotional. How did they feel?
The emotions were strong. To Elwood’s credit, he made sure that Dusty was in an ethereal sense always present during the experience. Elwood grabbed Dusty’s hat and placed it over the microphone and made sure there was a point of connection throughout the night. You know, I think he took it in stride. He certainly accepted Dusty’s directive. It was, “Hey Elwood, pick up the guitar.” He said, “OK, look, I’m the mercenary. If that’s the direction, I have to take it.
ZZ Top is doing shows with Willie Nelson this summer. What is your favorite Willie memory?
It’s kind of an interesting aside. I was invited to join Willie for a New Years Eve appearance in Austin. We made seven consecutive appearances with Willie on New Years Eve. One of the more recent moments on stage, someone said, “Damn, you’re pretty much in tune with what Willie is doing. Do you want to go talk to him? Maybe there’s something different about this go-around. We boarded the bus backstage. I said, “The ball will drop shortly. Is there anything we should prepare for? He said, “Let’s do something different. Let’s start with “Milk Cow Blues”. I said, “Oh yeah, ‘Milk Cow Blues’, what key? He said, “Let’s do it in the key of C.” I said, “Sure, I’ll be ready.” And the ball started falling and when the new year came around Willie walked up to the microphone and started with, “The Whiskey River takes my mind …” [Laughs.] In the key of E, watch out! But it’s Willie for you. He calls her on the spot. Just stay on your toes and be ready to rock.
Willie weed is legendary. Do you have a good story?
You know, we missed three different New Years Eve, thanks to this crazy world event. But this decision to just check with Willie, I had to peek through a cloud to make sure I was talking with Willie. I said, “I think I can see you. I can certainly hear you. But is it you? [Laughs.]
There would have been a fair amount of leftover music from The Futura. Have you looked to release new music beyond Raw?
Oh yeah. In fact, it would be an interesting excursion into the unknown – especially with Elwood now the bottom end. We’ve got the makings of a band that’s partly a long-time proven track record with something this fresh, and [there’s] sort of uncharted territory that is broken. We find this rather intriguing. It’s a vocation that makes us smile from start to finish.
Top 25 Southern Rock Albums
For all its woolly, trapped imagery in the ’70s, the genre proved surprisingly resilient.
Check out Billy Gibbons’ Guitar Hero Album of the Year