Years before becoming the go-to organist for ZZ Top and Jimmie Vaughan, Mike Flanigin paid the bills as a lead guitarist. He’d play pick-up gigs and weekly shows in Austin, occasionally hitting the road as a sideman for touring groups like the Red Devils. One night back home in Texas, he was playing with the house band at Antone’s Nightclub when he began eyeing a Hammond B3 organ that occupied a corner of the venue’s stage.
“It was just sitting there,” he remembers, “so I hopped on it and tried to figure out how to play it. I didn’t know anything about playing piano; I still don’t. But I did teach myself how to play that organ, and two or three months later, I got hired to do it for someone else.”
From there, Flanigin transformed himself into one of the Lone Star State’s busiest organ players, kicking off a career that’s lasted more than two decades. He’s backed up blues legends, rock bands, songwriters and jazz combos. He’s made friends like Gary Clark Jr. and fans like Eric Clapton. What he hasn’t done, though, is focus on recording his own music, rather than somebody else’s.
At least until now.
The Drifter, which hits stores next Friday, finds Flanigin sitting in the driver’s seat for the first time. It’s a duets album, with the B3 player pairing up with a revolving door of vocalists and guitar slingers. On the guest list are luminaries like Gary Clark Jr., Jimmie Vaughan, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, Blondie’s Clem Burke, rock & roll lifer Alejandro Escovedo and songwriter Kat Edmonson. The result is a road trip-worthy record that veers from punk rock to desert pop to Bible Belt blues, its disparate parts glued together with the swirl and swoon of B3 organ.
“They quit making those things in 1974,” says Flanigin, who stumbled across his first electric organ as a four-year old churchgoer in Denton, Texas. “It’s so mysterious. It’s like a car. It has oil in it! You turn it on and crank it up like a Model T or something, and when it heats up, you can smell the oil burning. There’s just something about that sound that I can’t pass up. I only play real organs, which are big and heavy and hard to move. I’ve lost tours and gigs over it, because these things weigh so much, but I just can’t replace the organ with a keyboard. I don’t think there’s any substitute for it, really.”
Flanigin recorded the album over two years. Some tracks were tracked casually. Others came together quickly, with “Stop the World” — a bedroom-bound soul tune, anchored by Gary Clark Jr.’s guitar leads and falsetto vocals — whipped up during a two-hour whirlwind of songwriting and studio time.
“I was writing songs and imagining my friends singing them,” Flanigin says. “And lucky for me, my friends are these great singers, like Gary. He was busy at that time, so it took awhile to get him into the studio. He called me one day at the last minute, and we had about two hours of available time to track that song. I’d only written a chorus and a verse when I walked in, so I had to write another verse. . .and a bridge. . .and record it, all in that two-hour window. Which we did.”
On the album’s front jacket is a picture of Flanigin’s 1974 Dodge Charger, an old, beat-up drag-racing car that he found abandoned in a field. During The Drifter‘s creation, he’d often climb into the Charger and steer it out into the desert, looking for inspiration — or maybe just a temporary escape — in the dust and desolation of the Texas countryside. You can hear that inspiration on the album. This is day-driving mood music, with Flanigin creating his own version of atmospheric Americana.