In his 1995 autobiography, Under a Hoodoo Moon, Dr. John writes about his tumultuous music career, a decades-long heroin addiction and the time he spent in prison on a drug-possession charge. The book is candid in a way that most of his music is not — until now. On his new album, Locked Down, Dr. John takes a more personal approach.
The album is the brainchild of 33-year-old musician and producer Dan Auerbach, the singer and guitarist for the indie-rock group The Black Keys. He says Dr. John was a big influence on the band's music.
"I'm such a huge fan," Auerbach tells NPR's David Greene. "I think he is sort of underappreciated. I knew the timeless quality of what he did. I just felt like, if I went down and met him and his head was anywhere near where it used to be, it just might be fruitful."
With that vague idea for a record, Auerbach got on a plane for New Orleans to track down Dr. John.
"I knew that I wanted to pick the musicians," Auerbach says. "I wanted to surround him with younger guys. To test him a bit. I didn't want anything to be too comfortable, or too comfortable about the record ... and I also wanted him to talk from the Mac Rebennack [Dr. John's real name] perspective — lyrically. I didn't want him to talk from the Dr. John perspective."
In any case, the two hit it off, and Dr. John agreed to join Auerbach in his Nashville studio.
"I think Dan wanted me to tell my story in some kind of way," Dr. John says. "And he put this record together so it kind of started in one place and just kept going through chunks of stuff that I experienced in my life."
The music evokes the seedy streets of New Orleans, where Dr. John cut his teeth as a musician. The title track is about prison. Other songs deal with drugs. But as the album progresses, the songs become more uplifting. A standout deals with his effort to reconcile with his children.
"I been trying to clean up my act with my children for a long time," Dr. John says. "And I pretty much got them all talking to me now. And they accept me as a humanoid again."
Auerbach says Dr. John has never written something so personal — "and I really pushed him to go there," he adds. "And he did. And I think he felt really good about it."
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