With a history dating back to 1969, Texas blues-rock legends ZZ Top have the distinction of being the longest running rock band with an unchanged lineup. So what’s the trio’s secret to longevity? “We’ve been asked that question a number of times,” says vocalist-guitarist Billy F. Gibbons, 71; vocalist-bassist Dusty Hill, 71; and drummer Frank Beard, also 71. “And it’s one set answer — separate buses.”
The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees had planned to spend much of 2020 on the road in those buses, playing a Las Vegas residency at the Venetian hotel and touring with Cheap Trick, all of which have been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“On the other side of the coin,” Gibbons says, “we’ve been able to get into the recording studio with three buses and three guys, playing the same three chords.” When it all comes together, it will be the band’s first album of new material since 2012’s La Futura, produced by Gibbons and Rick Rubin. The acclaimed producer is once again on board for the new project. “I really admire Rick’s methodology,” Gibbons says. “He’s listening for something of value. When it appears, that’s when we stab a stick in the ground and go from there.”
While it’s too early to say exactly what the new album will sound like, you can bet it will be steeped in the influence of Texas blues legends such as Lightnin’ Hopkins, Lead Belly and T-Bone Walker, whom the members of ZZ Top heard on Mexican radio while growing up and chronicled in their song “Heard It on the X,” from 1975.
“I still hearken back to listening to XERF, which was one of the great border [radio] stations that blasted across the planet,” Gibbons recalls. “Much of the music that ZZ Top was raised on came from early ’50s and ’60s days. We were all youngsters, just hiding the transistor radio under the pillow, listening to the late-night stuff, and that’s where it all started.”
When ZZ Top rose out of the ashes of Gibbons’ previous band, the psychedelic blues combo Moving Sidewalks, the trio didn’t have high expectations. “We were never certain about a career,” he says. “We were just three guys playing loud noise, hoping we could get free beer and good-looking girls.” However, that all changed in 1973, thanks to a stunning piece of Texas boogie. “We heard ‘La Grange’ on the car radio,” Gibbons recalls. “It’s one of our favorite songs, and we still play it to this day. When it came on the airwaves, we thought, Wow. Maybe we should stick to this.”
That initial rush of fame and nearly nonstop touring in the mid-’70s left the band burned out, with Beard battling a substance abuse problem. It was during a hiatus when Beard got sober that Gibbons and Hill grew out what became their trademark beards to outrageous lengths. (Beard, ironically, is the only member without one.) “It comes back to one simple word — lazy. We all threw our razor blades away and low and behold, when we returned, we all had these chin whiskers. And we said, ‘Well, let’s let it fly,’” Gibbons recalls.
ZZ Top created their best-selling album in 1983, thanks to an updated, revved-up sound influenced by punk rock, and incorporated synthesizers and striking music videos that brought the trio to the attention of a new generation. “What we started in the ’80s seems to be returning in the 2020s,” Gibbons says. “This hands-on experience of using anything and everything to make great music, and that’s the bottom line. When you listen to Eliminator, the ZZ Top signature sound was based on good tuning and good timing. And those two elements seem to be important as we move through to today.”
When he’s not making music with ZZ Top, Gibbons devotes his time to some of his other passions. He published an expanded version of his book, Billy F Gibbons: Rock + Roll Gearhead, which looks at his wildest cars and guitars. And with his bearded songwriting pal Tim Montana, he launched the Beez & Teez Whisker Bomb line of pepper sauces — which includes the Whisker Bomb Original and Whiskey Bomb Have Mercy ¡HOT!, which could be paired nicely with some chow and the scorching playlist of Texas blues that Gibbons compiled exclusively for AARP.