On Monday, January 21, 2019 I spoke with Walter Trout about his brand new Album, Survivor Blues, which was released on January 25, 2019. Survivor Blues is Walter Trout’s 28th album since 1989 and it’s an amazing collection of music and artistry. The album consists completely of covers of older, less well-known blues songs featuring Walter’s take on music from Jimmy Dawkins and Sunnyland Slim, to John Mayall, Luther Johnson, and Mississippi Fred McDowell, to name a few. “This is something I’ve thought about doing for a long time” Walter told me. “I’ve often wondered why people seem to be covering the same twenty songs quite a bit, and I’m thinking that this incredible history, rich with artists and music and songs that go so far back, there’s this massive catalog of beautiful stuff out there. What I did when I started to do the research is, I went back to Charlie Patton who is kind of considered the beginning of this stuff. I went back to the Lomax field recordings and the Muddy Waters Stonewall Plantation recordings. I went back to all the old stuff and I worked my way forward. There are so many artists who really have not been heard and are rather obscure but they have done some amazing work. I had a great time. It was journey through the blues.”
[RRB] How long did the album take?
[WT] Well, the recording went rather quick, it probably took two weeks, but doing the research probably took me a couple of months. It was fun! I was on tour doing the research, listening, and I ended up with a list of about fifty songs. Then I had to narrow it down to twelve.
[RRB] I was going to ask what tunes may not have made the cut, but it seems like there is another three albums worth of music there?
[WT] Well, yeah, but I don’t think I’ll just keep making albums of obscure blues tunes. As a matter of fact, I’m already half way through recording an album of all originals. We are taking our time and going through my list of unrecorded songs. We go in the studio and record a couple of tunes every few weeks.
[RRB] Tell me about the song “Woman Don’t Lie” on the new album and the other singer on that song.
[WT] That’s Sugar Ray Rayford, you know, he’s the real deal. I think he has three or four blues award nominations this year. He was the lead singer for the Manish Boys and he sang gospel before he sang the blues. He’s the real deal and it was a ball. He came in and we just sang that together. We just stood around a mic and went for it.
[RRB] I had to listen to that tune two or three times to make sure that was you singing with him. You have a different kind of vocal sound working on that.
[WT] Well, if you’re going to try and keep up with someone like Sugar Ray Rayford you better belt it out.
[RRB] You did too. Its sounds great!
[WT] Well, thanks. I do have to say that after we sang the song, I had a hard time talking [laughing].
[RRB] So Walter, you seem to be just a wellspring of music. I don’t want to call it a formula but there must be some method to the madness?
[WT] No. There is no method to it. I can tell you, when it’s time to do another album, sometimes I think to myself, ‘Do I have anything left to say? Am I out of ideas? What am I going to do?’ So, this is a true story: Sometimes I get pretty despondent. ‘Am I done? Am I the dishrag that’s been rung out and has nothing left to give?’ And then I hear the voice of my sweet mother and this is what she says, ‘Walter, you always wanted to be a musician. That’s all you ever wanted to do. You are a musician now. So just quit your bellyaching and make some music. That’s what you do is you make music. That’s what you’re here to do, so just do it.’ Then all of a sudden it gets pretty easy. But I have to wait for that voice, because she’s got a point.
[RRB] So your Mom was a big [musical] influence in your life?
[WT] Well, she supported my music. She’s the one that, when I was a little kid, took me to see James Brown and Ray Charles and Ahmad Jamal and Ella Fitzgerald, and on my tenth birthday she arranged for me to spend the day with Duke Ellington. She knew I wanted to be a musician and she nurtured that in me.
[RRB] Tell me about “Goin’ Down To The River” by Mississippi Fred McDowell that’s on the album. You recorded that with Robby Krieger of The Doors? Did you know him before recording the album?
[WT] I didn’t. We did this album in his studio in L.A. It’s one of the nicest recording studios I’ve ever been in. It’s this awesome place. He’s got an entire room full of vintage amplifiers. He has every kind of keyboard imaginable. He has a whole closet full of vintage drums. The walls are covered with gold and platinum Doors albums. He has a big room to track in where you can set up in a circle. It has tons of ISO booths. It’s just a great studio. We went in to record and he started coming in to listen and he’d hang out and started having meals with us and he’d be listening to playbacks and he’d sit on the couch with an acoustic guitar and play along. We started bonding over country blues. He said, ‘God I love this stuff!’ We started talking about country blues and we both bonded over our love of Reverend Gary Davis and Mississippi Fred McDowell and I found out that Robby’s favorite stuff is old country blues. One day I was said to him, ‘Let’s do something together’ and he said, ‘Yeah, that’d be great.’ So we picked a tune by Fred McDowell and we decided that we weren’t going to do it like him. Let’s take a kind of Muddy Waters-esque slide lick but do the Fred McDowell song. So we did. We went out and played it live. What you hear is me playing my guitar and him playing slide with the band backing us up and off we went. One take, and there you go.
[RRB] One of the things that always strikes me about your work is that you always come right out of the gate cranking. Is that intentional?
[WT] Well yeah! I think I’m pretty much always cranking, even when I’m doing an acoustic ballad, I’m putting everything I have into it. We did start this album with a slow blues [tune], “Me My Guitar And The Blues”, which is kind of unique. Most albums I start with an upbeat, high-energy thing. I just want to immediately kick some ass, right? This one we started with a slow blues. Well, I have to say, it was my wife that said that we have to start with that one because it would draw people in. I wanted to start with something like “Be Careful How You Vote” or “Please Love Me”, some up tempo, but that was her. She thinks that’s the best thing I’ve ever done, that song, “Me My Guitar And The Blues”, as far as emotional impact.
[RRB] I’d have to say that it works. There’s no doubt when you are listening to a Walter Trout album who you are listening to.
[WT] That’s good. The new album we are doing with originals has a couple of real production numbers on there…where we take a lot of time and we work on it and we bring in some other players. I don’t want to say anything but there is a possibility you might even hear a ballad with a string section.
[RRB] That would be different.
[WT] I’m a big fan of Neil Young and Bob Dylan because you never know what they’re going to do. Neil Young puts out an acoustic album and the next album he sounds like The Sex Pistols. He is fearless and I love that.
[RRB] The next time I’ll be seeing you will be at The Hamilton in DC.
[WT] I love the club. I think it’s a great place. I believe we will be back at Rams Head in Annapolis as well.
[RRB] Is there anyone who is still around that you’ve never played with that you’d like to?
[WT] It would be a trip for me to get to play a song with the Rolling Stones. I remember thinking to myself ‘God would I love play a song with Little Feat’ and like 15 years ago they brought me up and I played two songs with Little Feat and I thought that was a bucket list item for me and the same for the Stones. I’m just a mega fan. When “Satisfaction” came out, I was working as a caddy in Summers Point, NY and I was in the caddy shack (laughing), and I’m waiting for somebody to pick me to carry their golf clubs, I think I was 13 or 14, and on came “Satisfaction” and I’d never heard it. I said, ‘Oh my God! Listen to that’ and I ran over and turned it up. The main caddy, who about twenty said, ‘That sucks. Turn that down.’ and he turned it down. I ran back over and said, ‘No, I gotta hear it!’ and turned it back up and he fucking nailed me. That was my last day working as a caddy. I never went back. So I’ve been a fan of the Stones ever since I got punched in the face trying to hear “Satisfaction”.
[RRB] Wow! That’ll make a memory for sure (both laughing), and a mark. Well Walter, I could talk with you for hours. I want to thank you for everything, everything you’ve done for music in general, the blues particularly, and for taking the time to talk with me again today. What I’ve realized after doing interviews for some time now, is that musicians are just regular people following their dreams.
[WT] That’s it man. I’m still a guy who is trying to make a living playing guitar. If I am able to do that and able to take care of my family, I am a lucky and very blessed human being.
[RRB] Thank you again Walter, for taking some time to chat. I’ll be seeing you very soon. Have a great day.
[WT] Ok, thanks Steven, I’m looking forward to it.