Shane Theriot on the making of Dr. John’s final album

Grammy-winning guitarist and composer Shane Theriot hails from the New Orleans area and has been playing guitar since the age of 11.

Theriot’s versatility in the studio and on stage has led him to work with many artists in virtually all styles of music, including Willie Nelson, Rickie Lee Jones, Hall & Oates, Boz Scaggs, Branford Marsalis, Randy Brecker, Sammy Hagar, Allen Toussaint and many others. At age 25, he joined the world-renowned Neville Brothers, touring and performing internationally as a member for eight years. He’s currently working as the music director for Daryl Hall’s award-winning TV show Live from Daryl’s House.

When Dr. John died of a heart attack on June 6, 2019, the legendary pianist known as the Night Tripper was in the final stages of a new album, Things Happen That Way. Nearly three years after the Zu Zu Man’s death, the collection of country covers, reworked classics, and new originals has finally been posthumously released. On the album, Dr. John is joined by a number of special guests, including Willie Nelson and Aaron Neville.

Theriot, who co-produced Things Happen That Way with Dr. John, joined us in the Gumbo Kitchen to talk about the making of the record.

To me, this is a record that you listen to and you keep coming back to it. It sticks with you, doesn’t it?

Obviously, I’m coming from a more [subjective] point of listening, because that record is very emotional to me. It really wasn’t supposed to be out posthumously. It was not meant that way at all, although those are some of the headlines I’m reading. For whatever reason — red tape and stuff — the record got held up until [after] Mac [Rebennack, a.k.a. Dr. John] died. It’s a statement, and it ended up being Mac’s swan song.

There’s a country element to it.

This process started in 2017, and he said he was interested in either making a Fats Waller tribute record or a country-western record. Mac loved country music, and one of his favourite singers was Hank Williams. Same thing with Aaron Neville, actually — Aaron loved Gene Autry. Those guys, you wouldn’t think it, but it was a big influence. There was a TV show in the 1950s called Louisiana Hayride that influenced a lot of people. Elvis Presley performed there, and Hank Williams. Mac was there. I don’t know if he performed, but he was definitely side stage because he told me he watched Hank Williams and saw Elvis, and he told me all these stories. So, country music was a big part of his formative years. I know people that knew Mac much, much longer than I did; for example, John Scofield played with Mac in the early ’80s, and he said Mac was talking about making a country album back then. He always wanted to do this record.

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As far as the song selection, did Mac bring you a whole bunch of songs? How many songs were on the table in the beginning?

It started with the initial demos, and I remember Ramblin’ Man being one, and I think we did My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It, but for some reason we didn’t stick with it. It was more about the singers, like Johnny Cash and a couple other people that we talked about. We sat at my house in New Orleans and I set up a makeshift studio with keyboards and everything, and Mac would come over every day — this was in October of 2017 — and we’d just listen to songs. Some days we’d play stuff, some days we’d just listen. We’d listen to all kinds of stuff. One day, Mac brought over a binder full of lyrics. There was stuff written on hotel stationery from 20 or 30 years ago. There was a sentence or two here, maybe a paragraph there. To answer your question, it was a combination. I don’t remember having the whole record at one time. There were maybe five songs that we thought would be great, and the rest of them came later.

And then you wrote Holy Water with Dr. John as well.

Holy Water was the first song we wrote together. That was a collaborative effort. Mac had some of the lines. He had a lot of really cool “Mac-isms,” with the way he would phrase things.

There seems to be a underlying theme to this record. 

That’s pretty perceptive on your part. Originally, no. We were just going to pick some good songs and make a record. But as we kept working, it was just this thing that happened. I hate to use the word “organically” because it’s such an abused word, but it just happened very naturally. They all started to take on this form where they all dealt with time, retrospection, looking back. It wasn’t on purpose. Unfortunately, Mac’s health at that point was on the decline and it was happening pretty quickly. All of those things came about at one point. So there is a theme of looking back, and that’s the thing that I feel needs to be presented about this record in context. It’s not a Night Tripper record. He did that. He lived that life. This was about a guy who lived a hell of a life, a legend, and he’s looking back.

This interview has been edited and condensed.