Posted March 2019
Blues, and in rock, has been losing some of the foundational artists of the genre. Greats like B.B. King and Johnny Winter left us far too soon. However, we still have many blues greats touring and putting out great blues.
Trout has a new CD out entitled, Survivor Blues, and will be hitting the road in support of that album. It was about the disc that I called up Walter at his home. It had been four years since we last spoke, so I asked what has been happening since our last chat.
“I’m doing great, man! I’m feelin’ great! I’m very, very – almost shocked to be still alive and kickin’ ass. I had the transplant four years ago and this is the fourth record I’ll be putting out (since the transplant). I just feel lucky and blessed and grateful and it’s an all new thing to be alive after what I went through.”
After we last spoke, his wife, Marie, came out with a great book, The Blues: Why It Still Hurts So Good. I asked how the book was received.
“Well, the reception has been great. She had a lot of awesome reviews. All the profits from that book go to the Hart Fund at the Blues Foundation which is a charity that helps blues musicians get health care when they can’t afford insurance. It’s done some really wonderful work and she’s been able to contribute from sales of her book. I think she’s up to around six or seven thousand bucks that she’s been able to send to them. So, it’s been awesome. It goes to really good cause.”
Walter was in my neck of the woods last year, but I had to miss his gig. It was an intimate show in Maryville, TN, that was put on by a local blues organization, of sorts. I asked him why he doesn’t hit the region more often.
“I don’t know. I’m really busy playing all over the world. But I am getting back to Tennessee. I don’t know if it’s near you but I’m playing in Pelham at The Caverns – in the cave there . . . I think maybe in April. I’m going to double-bill with Eric Gales.
“Let me tell you a story. My high school girlfriend - who I was deeply in love with after she graduated from high school in South Jersey – and went to Maryville College and studied piano there. In 1970, I used to hitchhike down there from South Jersey, and I used to stay with her in the girl’s dorm and they used to sneak me in and I literally – literally – would climb the ivy and sneak in the window. So, I got a lot of history in Maryville. I know it well. I spent a lot of time there with my girlfriend.”
Turning to his new CD, I asked him for his “elevator speech” about it.
“The short version is: All my life I have thought there’s all these amazing blues songs that have fallen by the wayside. And when people decide they’re going to do albums of blues covers or they’re going to play covers when they’re playing love, they come out and do ‘I Got My Mojo Working” or they do ‘Stormy Monday’ or they do ‘Caledonia’ or ‘Hey Hey The Blues Is Alright’ and ‘Missing With the Kid’ – all these songs that have been covered 853,000 times, you know? And I’m, like, ‘Wait a minute, here. There’s this vast catalog of these incredible songs that are just kind of forgotten.
“So, that was my goal with this record was to find songs that spoke to me and that I thought had something to say and that were classic blues tunes but have been kind of overlooked and to bring attention to these tunes. My hope is that people will go listen to the originals, you know?”
As a major player of the blues, I asked him what he thought the state of the genre is today.
“I think it’s doing great! I mean, there’s a lot of places to play. There’s a lot of festivals. The festivals are always well attended. There’s a huge group of young musicians who are into this music and who are carrying it on and who are just coming up through the ranks.
“One of the things that I think, though, is that the audiences – the majority of the audiences – and this is what my wife addressed in her book – the majority of the audiences are sort of the baby boomer generation – my generation; people who grew up in the sixties and seventies. I think it speaks to them, in a way, because it’s also they’re the people who grew up in era of sort of like classic rock and the blues boom of the sixties where you had bands like the Stones and the Animals and people like that.
“So, I’m hoping that a younger crowd is going to latch on to it. But I do see it happening slowly. I do see that there are younger people who kind of are looking for something else than a rapper or some music that’s corporately produced, you know what I mean? When they see somebody, ‘Wow! There’s a human being and he’s playing an instrument and he’s singing something from his heart, and this is incredible!’ I don’t think that’s ever really go away even though the mainstream media has done their very best to destroy it by just pushing corporately mass-produced shit onto people.
“Radio in the late sixties and early seventies, you could turn it on and there were these incredibly creative musicians. The Beatles and Hendrix and Bob Dylan and The Stones and Procol Harum and Pink Floyd and all these incredible, creative titans. Now, they just want to push this crap on people.
“You can say, ‘Well, you’re not open-minded.’ But a lot of it doesn’t speak to me and, yeah, I reserve the right to be moved by what I’m moved by and I’m moved by art that has an intent to having some feeling and some emotion and some creativity and not something that is produced almost by a computer to appeal to a certain demographic.”
Trout completed his answer by adding, “Boy, you really got me going on that! Ha! Ha! I think the blues is in a good state and I know that there is a huge group of young musicians that want to carry it on. And as they come up through the ranks, they’re going to have fans that are their age.
“Joe Bonamassa did a lot to bring this music to younger people, too.
Walter recorded at the studio owned and operated by the Doors’ Robbie Krieger. He shared how and why that came about.
“This is the first time I’ve worked with him. The way that this happened is my producer, Eric Corne – this is our 12th or 13th album together. We’re kind of a team. When we were going to do this, he knows the kind of studio that I want to be in. I want to have a big room. First of all, I want to have a big tracking room where we can set up in a circle and play the majority of the stuff live. I want to have that feeling.
“He came and he said, ‘You know, Robbie Krieger’s got this studio. It’s kind of a private studio across town but it’s awesome. Let’s go over and see it.’ We went over and the place is beautiful.
“So, we started recording there and Robbie – who loves blues; that’s his main love in life is the blues – he was coming in and hanging out. He’d be listening to playbacks. He’d be having meals with us. We’d be playing back – listening to a playback. He’d be sitting on a couch, with an acoustic guitar, playing along. One day I said, ‘Hey, man! Let’s do something together!’ He’s like, ‘Yeah! That’d be great!’
“We talked about his love for old country blues and his two favorite guys were Reverend Gary Davis and Mississippi Fred McDowell. He told me that. He said, ‘Those are the guys that really spoke to me when I was young and that’s still the stuff that I love to listen to.’ That is what he told me.
“We picked the Fred McDowell tune and we kind of arranged it together and we decided to take kind of a Muddy Waters style slide riff and base it on the slide riff that Robbie played. The track you hear on there we did live. We didn’t even really rehearse it. We kind of talked about it. We sat with acoustic guitars and then we went out in the studio with our electrics and counted to four and off we went. So, what you hear on there is one take live.”
I asked Walter if the recording was done digitally or via analog.
“Well, we can do both, but we did this on ProTools. They have tape if you want to use it, you know?”
When I asked Walter if there is a track that he would point to as a calling card for the whole album, he shared:
“The cut that I think is the ultimate statement on that album is the opener, ‘Me, My Guitar, and the Blues’ by Jimmy Dawkins. When I heard that, I was completely devastated. I thought to myself, ‘This song that this guy wrote – which has basically been forgotten and unheard – this is as good a blues song as anyone has ever written. This is classic. He, basically, took the entire genre of the blues and summed up the whole thing in two lines: ‘And now that you don’t love me, all I have left is me, my guitar, and the blues.’
“You know how the Gettysburg Address summed up the entire Civil War in two minutes? Well, this guy summed up the entire scene and history and feel and essence of what the blues is. He summed it up in two lines of lyric and I was devasted, man! I was weeping. Even talking about it – I mean, it’s deep shit. So that one, to me, sums up – they wanted to put it at the beginning of the record and I’m, like, really? Because how do you follow that song? But they convinced me and said, ‘No, let’s put it on at the beginning because that will kind of pull people in, you know?’ But, to me, I don’t know how you follow that tune. That tune – and singing it! I sing it every night and at the end, sometimes, I have to leave the stage for five minutes and go gather myself because of the intensity of those lyrics.
“Another one that got me lyrically was ‘Red Sun’ by Floyd Lee. Floyd Lee is a very unknown, unheralded, internationally, at least, blues man. I know he’s played around New York quite a bit. He was still playing around New York in, like, 2012. I’ve tried to reach him. It was one of his band members that wrote ‘Red Sun’ and I’ve tried to reach that guy and can’t reach him. I don’t know what’s happened to them.
“But, the lyrics on there reminded me of things I went through. He goes, ‘Sittin’ on top of the mountain, looking out at the sea, sittin’ on top of the mountain, and an angel talkin’ to me. I got an angel feather in my pocket, it’s gonna take me far away. I got an angel feather in my pocket, it’s gonna carry me to my grave.’
“I heard that and I’m, like, ‘Is this by Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan?’ I mean, that’s incredible and it’s an unheralded piece of work and I’m like, there’s so many of these great songs! You go all the way back to Charlie Patton; you can go back to Blind Willie Johnson and you can go back to Blind Lemon Jefferson or Big Bill Broonzy or any of these people and find these astounding songs that have just been forgotten. It’s kind of a shame, you know?”
As to whether there is going to be a follow-up to this with the same kind of deep-track tunes, Trout said:
“I don’t know. I can tell you that right now I’m in Robbie’s studio. I was just there yesterday and I’m doing an album of all original songs that will be out at the end of the year. That’s the latest project. We’ve got six songs recorded and we’re gonna do, probably, ten to twelve. I’ve got to go on tour for all of February. So, in March, we’ll be back in Robbie’s studio and we’ll finish this new album.
“After doing an album of all covers, I wanted to do some of my own tunes. Literally, the day that we sent this record off – we mastered it; we sent it off to the label; the same day, we went back in the studio and started the next record.”
Wrapping up our chat, I asked Walter a question I asked him during our previous two chats: When he steps off the tour bus of life up at that great gig in the sky, how does he want to be remembered and what does he hope his legacy will be?
“I would probably say he was somebody who tried to be the best and most honest artist he could be and tried to create something of beauty; to bring some joy into peoples lives. He was kind of a deeply flawed individual, but he did his best and really gave it everything he had to create to the best of his ability.”
Walter Trout is certainly doing exactly that.
Keep up with the latest with Walter at WalterTrout.com.