Posted January, 2012
In this line of work (interviewing artists), it’s always a personal thrill and honor for me to be able to hear icons share their thoughts and stories with me and to the Boomerocity readers. The icing on the cake is when an icon agrees to a second interview with Boomerocity. It’s happened a few times in Boomerocity’s 3+ year history and it’s recently happened yet again with rock and blues great, Johnny Winter.
My first interview with the veteran of Woodstock (here) took place almost two years ago prior to an appearance he was about to make in Dallas. Low and behold, the second interview took place under the same circumstances. I learned from my last interview with Winter - as well as from the research I conducted for both interviews - that he is a man of few words. However, like a well written song that has just the right amount of notes, Johnny’s words convey his thoughts crisply and succinctly. Nothing more. Nothing less. The man is not one to hide anything.
As he’s said in interviews with me as well as with many other people, pretty much everything there is to know about him is out there – especially in his authorized biography, Raisin’ Cain. You may wince and what all has happened in his life and the demons that he’s battled but it is what it is. Take it or leave it.
The rock and roll rollercoaster that was, and is, Johnny Winter’s life is well known and documented. Many people counted the prodigious guitarist down for the count many times over the years. While they certainly couldn’t be faulted for doing so, Winter has proved them all wrong and is enjoying quite a resurgence in his popularity thanks in large part to the caring, guiding hand of Paul Nelson. Nelson not only serves as Johnny’s manager but is also his wing man (2nd guitarist) on stage.
Nelson stepped into a very toxic environment that, if it hadn’t changed, would have surely resulted in the premature death of Winter. It was a long, gradual, methodical process but with genuine concern, patience and sound business and marketing practices, Johnny Winter’s career has taken a turn for the best and reaching a whole new group of fans.
In chatting with Paul about some background info, I complimented him on his solid job in helping Winter. He shared that, “You know, as a fan, I wanted to do what a fan would do for him and as a musician I wanted to do for him what I would want – what any musician would want to have done if they were having trouble. You have to wear a lot of hats in this business. There was a lot of stuff in his ‘system’ and a lot of stuff had to stop. It takes a lot of time and patience and you really can’t be swayed by other two cents… like, ‘Why isn’t he doing this? Why isn’t he doing that? You just have to keep focused like a horse with blinders. Then, all of a sudden, people turn around and say, ‘Wow! What happened?’ It took about six years since I’ve been managing him but now he’s off of everything, which is great!”
I caught up by phone with Johnny and Paul as they were on their tour bus in route to a gig in Massachusetts.
As Johnny and I make small talk in getting the interview started, I asked how the road was treating him these days, he responded with his characteristic brevity. “Pretty good. It’s the road.”
Well, with this particular tour, I assumed that Winter’s set is comprised mostly of tunes from your latest CD, Roots, and asked if that was the case.“Oh, we do a couple of songs off the record.”
And what is the reaction to the tunes from the fans?
“Real, real good. They’re likin’ Dust My Broom and Got My Mojo Workin’”.
According to my research, “Roots” is Johnny’s 18th studio solo album since 1968. He has observed a lot of changes in recording technology and process since that album, The Progressive Blues Experiment. While those changes are obvious, I was curious as to what is the same for him in recording blues today as compared to that first album.
“Yeah, it’s changed a lot but I still do it pretty much the same way. The technology’s changed but I don’t really deal with that.”
In one of the Winter interviews I had read, he was asked, when practicing, what scales he liked to play. He said something to the effect that he just copied the sounds of other artists and played by ear. I turned the scenario around on him and asked if he was aware of anyone who was copying his licks.
“Oh, sure, and it’s very flattering. There’s a guy out in California. He plays a lot like me. He sounds almost like me. It’s kinda scary.”
Back to the Roots CD, Paul Nelson (who both produced and performed on the record) said, “All those vocals on the new Roots CD, where all first takes! We couldn’t believe it. We were all just stunned! His singing was great! This album had to be good! The music doesn’t lie. If he wasn’t healthy enough, then people would say, ‘Oh, okay, maybe he’s gettin’ a little better but . . .’. Anyway he was phenomenal. He did a really good job. I knew it was time for him to record.”
Every artist, when planning to record an album, has their own process by which they determine what songs will go on their album. I drilled him about what guided him in his song selection for Roots, he said, “I just took songs that I really liked. I could’ve picked thousands more but I picked some of my favorites.”
When I asked if there’ll be a Roots sequel, Johnny tells me all I really need to know. “There probably will.”
As discussed in the Boomerocity review of Roots upon its release (here), there are a boat load of highly talented guest artists lending a hand. Great folks like Johnny’s brother, Edgar, Derek Trucks and his lovely wife, Susan Tedeschi, John Popper from Blues Traveller, country guitar slinger, Vince Gill, organist, John Medeski, and guitarists Sonny Landreth and Jimmy Vivino all lend incredible sounds to this project.
In commenting on the guest roster, Johnny “I knew everybody but John Popper. I had met everybody before except for Popper. My manager, Paul, brought ‘em all together.”
I was especially intrigued by Johnny’s inclusion of Vince Gill on the Chuck Berry classic, Maybellene. “Yeah, he is. He is good! Yeah, he’s a country guitar player but he’s a really good country guitar player.”
I expected that Roots to have taken a long time to put together with all of the talent that was on the album. However, I was stunned at the answer I received from Johnny when I asked him about it.
“It was about a month. I was only in the studio for about five hours but the whole thing took about a month.”
Five hours. I mean, seriously? Five hours? Unreal.
A recent high point in Winter’s resurgence was his January 12th appearance with his band on The Late Show With David Letterman. Paul and Johnny were rightfully still jonesing from the success of that appearance when Paul said, “He (Winter) looked great. He’s healthy. He was singing his butt off and playing great and to have (Paul) Shaffer and the horns kick in, it was a big event – really cool! We had a great time!”
As indicated in the Boomerocity review of Winter’s biography, Raisin’ Cain, the tome was given very high marks (see the review here). Winter is obviously very proud of the book judging by his comment to me about it. “Yeah! We’ve sold three or four editions out. The book is doing well. I didn’t write it. Mary Lou (Sullivan) interviewed me and pretty much wrote what I said. ”
As for what Winter’s fans can expect from the band during this year’s touring, Johnny replied, “I’ll do mostly blues and a little rock and roll.” Nelson added, “What happened was, after the Roots idea, and after Johnny picked the songs, I had to make sure that the band - the rhythm section - had learned all of the original versions of the songs that Johnny listened to when he grew up. Then, I had them learn a secondary version – a second version of each of those songs. What happened was that the group as a whole improved. We got more ‘simpler’. We got more pure into that traditional sound but then modernized the sound on Roots. We knew that we had to be a tight rhythm section for Johnny and the heavy hitters we would be playing for on the album.
“It improved our live show and the music is more driving. It’s more solid. The song selection is tighter now. Johnny has added Bony Moronie, Johnny B. Goode. He’s added School Girl – you know, some of the more rock’ish kind of songs mixed in with the blues. Highway 61. The show is actually now – finally – now that Johnny’s healthy, he’s starting to experiment more and improve and add more of the old catalog and new stuff. So, it’s a lot different. A lot more energy.
“Another thing: You’ll see a camera crew running around everywhere we are. We hired Greg Oliver – he just finished the Motorhead Lemmy DVD - the documentary – and he’s doing a documentary on Johnny over the next year. He’s going to do the in-story, we’re going to go by Johnny’s house in Beaumont (Texas), we’re going to go to the old high school there, the Vulcan Gas Company (a music venue in Austin, Texas). He followed us to Letterman – everything. So, it’s a big deal.”
When I asked if my personal favorite Winter cover, Jumpin’ Jack Flack, was being played, Nelson shed some interesting light on the tune with his answer. “We’re still working on it. He goes back to it but he doesn’t want to go too far back to his rock roots. He realizes that that period was important but he really felt that he sold out the blues so anything that resembles that, he shies away from. We put the riffs from it in the rhythm section – we sneak ‘em in and he wails over it and he cracks up. We’ll do Boney Moronie and, in the verses, we’ll sneak in a riff from Mean Town Blues and then the rhythm section will start doing the riff from Jumpin’ Jack Flash and he just smiles. It’s pretty funny. A lot of fun.”
When I told Johnny and Paul that the upcoming show at the Granada has been sold out, Paul was bubbling over with excitement and added, “He’s selling out everywhere. People are starting to realize – especially now that he’s healthy – that they don’t want to miss out on Johnny. He’s that hidden gem that deserves the credit that might have passed him by and went more towards a Hendrix or a Clapton. He’s our living Hendrix! I’m serious!
“People are starting to research him more now. Now that he’s having a resurgence, there’s more material out on him now – more of the Bootleg Series, the DVD’s . They’re getting it. Plus that Rolling Stone thing – top guitarist or whatever – he’s definitely having a comeback. When I tell Johnny, ‘Johnny your having a comeback’, he says, ‘But I never went anywhere!?’ ‘I laugh and say, ‘Just go with it. Johnny!’ He’s really having a good time.”
I asked what the biggest misconception about him is, Johnny laughed and said, “Only my close friends know what I’m really like.” I could hear Paul laughing in the background. And then, more seriously, adds, “ I don’t think there’s really any big misconception about me. People pretty much know what I’m like.” I added that he just puts himself out there and people can take it or leave it, he admits, “Yeah, that’s true.”
As he handed the phone off to Paul, I told him that I was looking forward to a good show at his upcoming Dallas appearance. He said, point blank, “You’ll get one.” As they say in his home state of Texas, if it’s true, it ain’t braggin’.
With the great vibe Johnny’s enjoying with his resurgence, I asked a question that I know has been asked and answered a million times but I wanted the latest answer: Will Johnny be doing anything with his brother, Edgar, and even with Rick Derringer?
Let’s just say that what I was told made me pogo-stick happy and you’ll feel the same way, too, when the news hits the streets. Keep your eye on Boomerocity for that news to break.
Until then, you can check out JohnnyWinter.net to see when and where he’s going to be performing near you. You’ll see that he’s keeping a tour schedule that would wear out an artist that is less than half his age so there’s a great chance he’s stopping at a venue in your town.