The blues is many things to many people: a genre, a feeling, a tradition. It is also a community, one that wears faces of all shapes and colors and exists anywhere and everywhere. No listeners rejoice in the tight-knit nature of this community like blues fans, and no one recognizes the web of support and appreciation it offers like blues musicians. Recently, the renowned guitarist and songwriter Walter Trout felt the warmth of the blues community firsthand. While facing a life-threatening illness, Trout welcomed support and encouragement as fans around the world rallied for his cause through fundraisers and tributes, simultaneously rooting for his swift recovery and admiring the way his music marched on as his latest album The Blues Came Callin’ met its scheduled release in June. Two months after receiving a new liver, Trout spoke with Blues Rock Review over the phone from a physical rehabilitation facility in Omaha, Nebraska to share insight on his latest record and provide updates on his ongoing recovery.
Before we get to the music – how are you today?
I’m doing a lot better. Except for the fact that, when this liver disease kicked in, I lost 100 pounds in about six months. That was all muscle mass – I literally became just skin and bones, like a walking skeleton. Now I’m starting to put a little of that weight back on, but I need to work really hard for a long time to get my muscles back and my strength and my endurance. But other than that, I feel pretty good. My body is working great; I’m just very, very weak right now.
It’s great to hear that you’re feeling so much better after the struggles of the past few months.
Yeah, and I’m going to come out on the other side of this and I’ll be fine. It’s just going to take a while.
In the documentary you released alongside your latest record The Blues Came Callin’ you mention the incredible outpour of support from the blues community. Did you ever imagine the support would be as substantial as it has been?
No. I had no idea. It was actually quite overwhelming. It brought me to tears quite a few times, realizing how much love was out there. So it’s really been a sustaining force for me through all this. I want to get back out there and play for those people again, you know? Because it obviously means something to them. They get something out of it, and I’d like to go back and give them more.
I have seen quite a few examples of the blues community reaching out to enlist support in your battle with liver disease: emails from blues festivals, fundraisers put on by musicians close to you…
It is quite a community. It’s not a gigantic mass-market thing, it’s never going to sell millions of records; but it is a very tight-knit little community of people that seems like they’re behind everybody else – they have their back, you know. That’s a beautiful thing.
Let’s talk a bit about your musical roots. Who were some of your early inspirations?
The original guy that made me want to play guitar, believe it or not, was Bob Dylan. I got an acoustic guitar and started learning. Like his first album, my brother brought that album home, and it was 1962; I guess I was 11. I just decided I wanted to learn some chords and sing Bob Dylan songs. Then I heard Michael Bloomfield with the Paul Butterfield Band, and I realized I wanted to get an electric guitar and play electric blues. I think that Butterfield album came out around ’65. Mike Bloomfield remains one of my main influences, but I went through the sixties where there were all these incredible musicians. You had Eric Clapton and Cream, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and you had all these great innovators, really. So I was influenced by all of that.
What’s your favorite Bob Dylan album?
I still think his second album The Freewheelin’, it’s just him and an acoustic guitar. And that one I think is just an incredible statement.
Last year you released a tribute to the American blues guitarist Luther Allison called Luther’s Blues. What’s your connection to Luther?
I met Luther at the Montreux Jazz Festival back in ’86. I was there with John Mayall, and Luther was there to lead a jam session. We went up to Claude Nobs’ house – Claude was the guy who put on the Montreux Jazz Festival. He was immortalized in “Smoke on the Water” as “funky Claude.” He had a villa up at the top – he was a very rich man with this beautiful villa, and he had a lunch for the musicians. I was sitting there at a table with Luther Allison and Buddy Guy and Junior Wells and Koko Taylor and Otis Rush and Robert Cray…I mean, this list goes on. Dr. John was playing acoustic piano and singing to us, and it was a beautiful day.
Luther and I talked a lot, because we ended up sitting next to each other. We kind of bonded. He couldn’t really get going in the States, though he was a big star in Europe. He was trying to get going in his own country. Years later when I went solo, I had the same problem. Anytime I’d see Luther, we would get into some gabfests about, you know, “Is there something in our music that genetically offends Americans?” [Laughs] Or something like that, you know – we couldn’t figure it out! But both of us have overcome that now – I do great in the States and when Luther died he was doing great in the States, too.
The title track on your new record explores a scenario in which the blues takes hold of an individual and never lets go. When did the blues first call to you?
When I was a boy. I came from a pretty crazy childhood with violence – a lot of dysfunction in the family. That’s really when I felt it and discovered it; I realized that if I picked up a guitar and played it, it was therapeutic for me. It would help me through difficult times, and it’s still therapeutic for me. I can get things off my chest: if I have pent-up emotions or pent-up things, I can get ‘em out through that guitar. I can take it out on the guitar. The guitar will respond to my every little wish or command, and it’s quite a beautiful experience.
My dad had John Lee Hooker albums and B.B. King albums. My dad was already sort of into it when most white people in the ‘50s – because I grew up in the 1950s – they didn’t know who B.B. King or John Lee Hooker were. But my dad had their albums, and so I grew up hearing this music and feeling the blues.
“The blues” are often speculated upon by blues historians as coming from mythology and mysticism, from the “blue devil” creatures to the magic created through specific cultural ceremonies. What are “the blues” to you?
It’s music with emotion and soul. It’s actually very simple music. It’s a simple format, it doesn’t have to be the 12-bar thing – a lot of people think it’s 12-bar, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be one chord. But it provides a framework for this incredible expression of emotion. It gives you a kind of foundation to build on – as a musician, a player, singer or writer. I can’t stand posers, people who come out in sharkskin suits and try to act like they’re somebody out of a different era. I just want people to be real. I think blues music in its finest form is about as real as you can get.
How has your approach to the blues as both a listener and musician changed since your career began in the late 1960s?
I don’t know if it’s changed. I’ve gotten better at it and I’ve refined it. I think I play with more finesse now than I did when I was young. I don’t feel like I have anything to prove anymore. On some of the early recordings I did, I sound like a frustrated kid who has something to prove. But I don’t feel like that anymore at 63. I don’t think my approach has changed – when I’m live with my band sometimes, I still do a couple of the songs that I did with my band in New Jersey back in 1970. I just think that, with age, I play with a little more finesse and a little more authority. I’ve been through a lot more since I was 20, and I can put all that into the music.
The liner notes for your new song “The Bottom of the River” paint a vivid picture for what you were feeling at the time. Obviously, this track was written before your liver transplant took place. Do you hear the song differently now when you listen to it?
No, because it takes me right back to where I was when I wrote it. That song came out. Lyrically, I’m probably the proudest of that song out of anything I’ve ever done. And it literally took me five minutes. I just got this inspiration, you know. I had this condition called ascites, which is where your liver is not processing and you fill up with fluid. I was swelled up from head to toe – like twice my normal size. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t breathe, and the fluid in my abdomen was pressing on my lungs and my diaphragm so bad that I was losing my breath. I had to go in and they had to stick a drain in my stomach and drain the fluid out. I started feeling like, “This must be what it feels like to drown,” because there was this liquid and I [couldn’t] breathe. I started thinking about drowning, and all of a sudden: boom. Out that came. I still have the original paper. There aren’t even any cross-outs on there, it just came out as it is.
The Blues Came Callin’ seems to fit you and where you are at this stage of your life. Of its 12 tracks, which would you say best fits your mood or state of mind today?
How about the last one, the song I wrote for my wife. Because the rest of them…I mean like that first one, “Wastin’ Away.” Hopefully within a year I won’t feel like I’m wasting away, you know? You’ll never be the man you used to be, like on “The Blues Came Callin.’” I’ll do my best to get back as close as I used to be. But the one I wrote for my wife is eternal. It’s an eternal love we have.
Speaking of Marie, I learned from one of her blog posts on your website that her personalized ringtone for you is Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild.” Is this a favorite song of hers or yours?
[Chuckles] No, she just thinks I was born to be wild. She thinks the song fits me. She knew me 25 years ago, and I was quite crazed. I was sober, but I was really out of my mind.
I also learned that your son Jon will soon begin touring with your band.
Yes he is. He starts the tour this week, yeah.
Each of your sons seems to have a strong interest in music. Do they have plans to pursue the blues and play professionally like you do?
They all kind of took the blues for granted, because it’s what dad does and they were brought up just immersed in it. They heard it around the house all the time. Then they’d come out on tour with me for the whole summer, and they’d go to all my summer shows and a lot of blues festivals, and they’d hear band after band. They both went through a phase – the two older ones – where they would get into electronic music – you know, Skrillex and all this stuff. All of a sudden Jonathan, a year or two ago…it’s like a bug bit him, and all he wanted to do was play blues guitar. That’s what he wants to do with his life now. He wants to front a band, play the blues and do exactly what I’m doing. He’s going at it hot and heavy, practicing all day. And Michael, the middle son who’s 18, he’s an awesome, awesome drummer. I mean, he could get up and play with my band and do great. But he also wants to play guitar and bass. There’s a music college in Minnesota that he really likes, and his goal is to go there. The 12-year-old is probably…well, technically he’s one of the best of the three as a drummer. He’s a child prodigy drummer. So all three of them just have it. I would never, ever push my kids into it. I never said, “You’ve got to sit down and practice,” you know. I never pushed them – I said, “You guys figure out what you want to do and then do it. Whatever’s going to make you happy. If your passion is cars, go out and be a mechanic or something; do something that’s your passion, that’s your love, that brings you joy to do.” Now all three of them have turned to music.
It must be exciting for you to watch them discovering the music that has inspired you all these years.
I’d like to ask a question about an anecdote mentioned in the documentary recently released about your life and career. The story is about your first meeting with Carlos Santana and the conversations the two of you had in the days following about pursuing sobriety. Was it an unusual experience at that time in your life to get advice on overcoming addictions from a fellow musician?
You know, there were a couple musicians who had been pushing me to sober up. One was John Mayall, my boss. The other was one of my dearest friends, Richie Hayward, who was the drummer of Little Feat. They had both gotten sober, and I had known both of them in their party days. They had sobered up and they would come and say their lives were going so much better, and they had such a better perspective on things. I kind of fought it for a long time. They’d give me the rap, and then I’d run out and back to the club and snort a line of coke, you know.
Carlos sat me down and gave me this book to read; I read it overnight, and then we spent the next two days talking about life. It finally put me over the edge in realizing that it was time to make a change. Basically what he said to me was, “If you have a gift from God, it’s your responsibility to take that very seriously and share it with the world, and to do it with the utmost of your ability. That way you can make the world a little bit of a better place. If you’ve been given a gift from God and you’re up onstage that drunk and that high, you’re flipping the bird at the one who gave you the gift, and you don’t deserve the gift at that point – you’re squandering it.” So that really hit home. I had sort of been leaning in that direction for a while, because I had seen some of my good friends sober up.
After everything you’ve been through in past years and more recently, what advice would you offer aspiring musicians?
Play from your heart. I really believe music has to be about emotion and expression. Don’t worry about being clever and don’t worry about trying to come up with something new, because there really isn’t anything new – it’s all been done. I hear bands on Letterman and Conan that are trying to do something new, and it might sound new, but it sucks. I don’t know what else to say. If you can come up with something new – and by that I mean some sort of new form or new genre or new approach – just play from your heart and try to communicate with people through your music. Try not to be too intellectual about it. Use your heart and not as much of your brain.
What are your goals for recovery in the coming months?
Well, I just have to get strong. It’ll be a lot of exercise, a lot of work. I’ve got to work on my balance, I’ve got to work on being able to stand – I still can’t just stand in one place for more than about three seconds before I start to fall over. My legs won’t hold me up. I just need to do a lot of work physically on myself to get back to playing. I haven’t played the guitar in so long, I have no callouses whatsoever. I know that when I start playing, it’s going to be like when I was 10 and picked up the guitar and my fingers bled. It’ll be like that, I’ll have bleeding fingers. But I’m ready. I’m ready to do it because I need to get back to being who I really am.
When do you hope to return to the stage?
I hope to be back onstage in 2015. I cancelled two tours this year. I had a big, huge tour of Europe at the end of the year with some of the best shows ever. We were going to play the Royal Theatre in Amsterdam, and we were going to do all this stuff and I cancelled all of it. Because there’s no way I could go onstage right now and try to play or sing. Most of the festivals I cancelled have booked me back for next year, so I’m hoping to be able to go out next year and start kickin’ butt.
Interview by Meghan Roos