Photo by Jeff Katz
If you’ve been into the blues for very long at all, no doubt your attention has been directed to the tremendous work of blues great, Walter Trout. Whether you heard him during his days with Canned Heat or during his tenure with John Mayall and the Blues Breakers or during his lengthy solo career that continues today, you would be left being blown away by this man’s monster talent.
I first interviewed Trout three years ago this month (here). Having watched him perform and then later interviewing him, I developed a hard core fondness for the man and his music.
Like the rest of his fans around the world, I was saddened to hear last year that he was in need of a very expensive liver transplant. Those legions of fans contributed the badly need funds for that transplant. Trout’s lovely and devoted wife, Marie, kept fans apprised of his progress and kept him informed of the continuous outpouring of love and support from family, friends and fans.
Walter had this to say about his bride:
“We’re coming up on twenty-five years (being married). When I met my wife, I talked to her for probably forty minutes. I said to her, ‘You’re going to move to America. We’re going to get married. We’re going to have children and get old together’. I’d only known her for forty minutes. She, of course, told me I was crazy, but here we are twenty-five years later, madly in love, with three beautiful kids. She really kept me alive. She’s the one who convinced me to fight when I was packing it in. It was very difficult and incredibly painful. She kept me going and fought like lioness for me. The doctors performed miracles on me, but the one who really kept me alive and saved my life was my wife.”
As Walter began to heal and gain strength, he started to make plans to hit the road again. As the plans were solidified, the opportunity to chat with Trout again presented itself and I grabbed it.
Our chat began with Walter sharing how he feels after such a harrowing health experience.
“I’m glad to be here. It’s been a hell of a year and a half. I’m feeling great. I feel reborn. I have plenty of energy, and I’m putting weight back on.
“The last couple tours I’d been getting these incredible cramps in my hands, especially my left hand and forearm. I tried everything- physical therapy, acupuncture, and magnesium. I was going out on stage not knowing if I’d make it through a song. And I got to the point I couldn’t bend strings. If I tried to bend the string, my whole hand cramped. I did the last tour without bending a string. How do you play blues without bending the string? I managed to pull it off by playing a bunch of fast stuff. I had to totally re-think how I play. It turned out it was from my liver, which I didn’t know at the time. Now I’m playing again and don’t get any cramps. I’m strong. The band has been rehearsing, and we’re kicking ass. I feel great and very, very excited about the future.
“I’m going to make another album at the end of May. It’s going really good. I’m a wonder of modern medicine.”
As for what has been his biggest realization or lesson through this whole ordeal, Trout said, “My whole perspective on life has completely changed. I see beauty where I didn’t see it before. I don’t take anything for granted. I wake up in the morning, open my eyes, and just start laughing. I go, ‘Wow, I have another day here.’ It’s amazing. Little things that used to bug me just don’t bother me anymore. I don’t care.
“I see things very differently, and I’m very happy and blessed to have some more time. I see the majesty of being alive, and I didn’t really see that before. A lot of things I took for granted, and I don’t anymore. It’s a whole different way of viewing a lot of things. My wife, my kids, and my music mean more to me than they ever have. I didn’t think that was possible, but it’s a whole new perspective.”
I asked the blues great if there has been any change in his playing style as a result of his transplant.
“I think I can actually put more meaning into every note. I rehearsed with the band last week out in my garage. I played a long solo, and I just closed my eyes. Even though it was rehearsal, I just got really into it. At the end, I had a breakdown. I was weeping halfway through the song. I put more into it, and I feel it more. I realize how lucky I am to get to do that, because I really didn’t think I’d get to again.
“I went for at least a year where I was getting the cramps, and I thought it was over. When I was in the hospital and was so sick, I had lost 120 pounds. My oldest son came to the hospital in Nebraska, and he brought me a Stratocaster. I couldn’t play it. I couldn’t get a note to come out- I was too weak. I could not press the string to the fret. I didn’t have the strength. I thought, ‘That’s it. I’m done. Even if I live through this, I’ll never be able to do that again.’
“I’d lay there in the hospital, and on my phone, I’d watch YouTube videos of myself. I couldn’t relate to it: ‘Did I do that? Who is that guy? Is that me? Did I actually do that?’ So I thought it was over. I’m actually playing better now than I have in a long, long time. It’s joyous to get to do that.”
When “The Blues Came Calling” was released, I reviewed it, and we all thought Walter would be hitting the road but he didn’t. I asked him if his need for a transplant was known while he was working on the album and what was his frame of mind at the time.
“I was really sick when I did that album. I got sick when I started putting it together. That April before I’d gotten really sick, we’d gone in the studio and done a couple basic tracks. I had a couple licks in my head, and I just got some guys together and said, ‘Let’s go in the studio, play some stuff, and see what happens’.
“We did a few basic tracks, and then right after that, in May, I got incredibly sick. I swelled up, and my body filled up with fluid. I looked like I was in my ninth month of pregnancy. It was insane. I’d go in the hospital, and they’d put a drain in my abdomen. At one point, they drained out twenty-five pounds of liquid. I would have that done every once in awhile. Twenty-five pounds of fluid I was carrying around- in my legs, in my feet. It was called ascites, a result of having liver disease. Some people get it, some people don’t. Ascites means you swell up with this fluid, and I had it really bad. But that’s when I wrote and recorded the album.
“I couldn’t walk. I would drive up to L.A. and stumble into the studio. I had a cane, and at one point, I even had a walker. I would go in, play and sing for maybe an hour and a half or two hours. Then I’d have to come home. If you listen to the lyrics, there’s a lot on there that’s pretty dark. ‘Blues came calling/All night long it told me/You’ll never be the man you used to be.’ And that was the frame of mind I was in. ‘Bottom of the River’… same thing. That’s a metaphor for what I was going through. It was pretty tough. I didn’t know if it would kinda be my last will and testament. I had a feeling it would.
“If you listen to the opening track, ‘Wasting away/Looking in the mirror/I don’t know who I see/I take another look/It don’t look like me’, I wrote that after I’d lost 120 pounds. One day I got up and stumbled into the bathroom with my cane or my walker. I looked in the mirror, and I was a skeleton. I came out and wrote those lyrics. It was pretty tough, you know? Plus, I did all the leads on there with the incredible cramps in my hands. I just went in and would play until I couldn’t play anymore. I was good to play a couple solos, and then it was like, ‘I gotta go home’. My hands just closed up. I can’t move, can’t straighten my fingers out. My forearm feels like somebody stabbing it with a knife. It was hard album to make.”
When I asked Walter, aside from the health issues, what made this album different for him compared to his previous albums, he said, “I have a technique for making an album. For instance, let’s go back to “Blues for the Modern Days.” I was not sick. I kinda go through a little period of writer’s block. It’s like, ‘Ok, I’m going to be in the studio in three months.’. I’m going through this right now, as a matter of fact, because I’m going to be in the studio in May. I start saying, ‘I gotta write this thing.’ I go through some writer’s block, then I have this revelation. It’s kinda weird, but it always happens.
“One day, I hear the voice of my dear, departed, beloved mother. She says, ‘Hey Walter, my son. You wanted to be a musician. That’s all you ever wanted to be. You are a musician, so just quit freaking out. Quit belly-achin’, and just make some music. All you gotta do is make music- that’s what you do. So do it.’ I hear that, and all of a sudden, the flood gates open. On “Blues for the Modern Days,” I wrote the whole thing in two weeks. There were times I wrote four songs in a day.
“But I have to wait for that to happen. I’m waiting for it to happen right now. I’ve got a bunch of musical ideas, but I’m just kinda floundering around… to make a fish joke.
“First, I rehearse for, say, two or three days with the band. I show them the songs, then we go in the studio. We take about four days. We do the basic tracks: bass, drums, keyboards. The rest of the time I’m in there playing and singing. We maybe put an acoustic guitar on, and I’ll sing the song. We might have some background singers come in. I’ll bring in, like, Deacon Jones, who is the keyboardist I play with in John Lee Hooker’s band. The great B3 player… I always have him play on my records, ‘cause he’s my mentor. He brought me up through the ranks and got me in John Lee Hooker’s band. I always have him come in and play on a song or two. Normally, within about ten days, the thing is done. Then it’s time to mix it.
“This last album took me a year, because I could only do an hour and a half to two hours a day. There were many, many days I couldn’t record. We would have to, maybe, do one day every two weeks. The rest of the time, I was too sick. I’d get up and call Eric, my producer, and say, ‘I feel ok today. Can we get the studio later?’ He’d call the studio, and if they said, ‘Yea, we’re open.’ I’d drive up there and spend two hours. There were a lot of days I had the studio booked, and I’d have to call Eric to say, ‘I can’t do it today.’ It was a chore. I was determined to do it, and I soldiered through it.
“By the end, I was pretty much in a wheelchair. I didn’t have any breath, so it was hard to sing. You can hear that on there. The vocals don’t have the power I used to have, but I did my best. I was determined to do it. Maybe the vocals are not as powerful or as deep as they used to be, but there’s a lot of urgency in them. I’m pushing myself to even get a note to come out. The last vocal I did was ‘Nobody Moves Me Like You Do’, and it was really hard to just get anything to come out of my throat.”
In sharing how has the transplant has affected Trout in being able to prepare for the tour, he said, “There’s a little bit of apprehension. I’m going to make my return to the stage on the 15th of June at the Royal Albert Hall in London. It’s a Lead Belly festival, and I’ll be on the bill along with Van Morrison and Eric Burdon. They have another big name that they haven’t announced yet. I’m going to fly over there, and that’s going to be my return to the stage. I’m going to play with a great, young British guitar player named Lawrence Jones. I’m going to come out and play with him and his band. I played on his first album, and he’s a really great friend of mine. Mike Zito produced Lawrence’s first album, and I played on it. So I’m going to go do some tunes with Lawrence and his band on this festival.
“I’m a little apprehensive since I haven’t been on stage in so long. Am I going to be ok? I know I’m going to be ok, but there’s always that little voice in the back of your head that goes, ‘Am I going to walk out on stage and start weeping like a baby?’ I think it’s going to be really emotional for sure. I’ll get through the tunes then probably walk off the stage and have a nervous breakdown. ‘My God, I did it! I can still do it.’”
Here’s what Walter said about what fans can expect for the rest of the tour:
“We have a brand new bass player who is just awesome, and he’s taken the musical level of the band up a notch. This guy has played with everybody from Steve Winwood to Slash to Branford Marsalis. He can play anything. We’ve been rehearsing with him, and right now, we’ve gone back through my old catalog. We’ve pulled out some tunes we haven’t done in a long time, even a couple we’ve never done live. We’re going to go back and try to do a bit of a different show, and we’re also doing tunes off of “Blues Came Calling,” which we’ve never done live. I think the band is killin’ right now. I think it’s the best it’s ever been.
“Like I said, I’m sort of a reborn musician in many ways, and one of them is that I don’t have problems with my hands and the muscles in my arms that I had. I’m working out with weights, and I’m riding a recumbent bike. I’ve put on fifty pounds since the transplant, and I feel great. I have some off days. I have days I get up and have dizzy spells, but they say it takes at least a year to get back to normal after a transplant. I’m at nine months, and I’m kickin’ ass.”
Three years ago when I interviewed Walter, I asked him this question and this was your answer:
"As we were wrapping up our chat, I asked Walter how he wished to be remembered when he goes to that great blues gig in the sky."
Your response was, “I would hope they look back and go, ‘He was a dedicated artist who tried to say something with his art. Whether he succeeded or not, that is up to interpretation. That’s a guy who devoted his life to being an artist and was serious about it and also, helped a lot of young people get going.’ I have a lot of young guitar players that I mentor and that means a lot to me.
"Of course, I would want my wife and my kids to look back and say, ‘He was a good husband and a good father.’ That’s incredibly important and probably the most important- three kids! But as far as how the world would see me, a guy who just gave everything he could have to try to be the best artist he could be.”
I asked him if there was anything he would change about that answer.
“I couldn’t say that any better. I would also like to be remembered as a man who was devoted to his family. One who realized that the art is ultimately important, and the family is ultimately important. Those are the two things that keep me going in my life. I have to say there was a time when I was close to death that I would tell my wife, ‘I’m ready to go. This hurts too bad.’ And she would say, ‘No, you have to stick around. You leaving is not an option. You need to be here for me and for our kids.’ At that point, I really decided to fight. There was a time I said to her, ‘If I’m never able to play guitar again, I’ll be sad, but I’ll be okay as long as I can still be your husband and be a father to our kids.’ My family is the most important.”