By Kevin Porter
Blues guitar legend, Walter Trout is one of the lucky ones, and he knows it. After nearly dying due to liver failure and receiving a liver transplant in 2014, Trout has been traveling the world, preaching the importance of organ donation and supporting organizations such as Donate Life America and the British Liver Trust. His last album from 2017, We’re All in This Together, became Trout’s first #1 album on the Billboard Blues Chart and won four awards for Blues Rock Album of the Year. Trout is back with a new album, Survivor Blues, and will soon launch a joint tour with fellow guitar legend Eric Gales. Trout was kind enough to talk to us from his home in California.
Kevin Porter: Congratulations on the new album, Survivor Blues. It’s great. What prompted you to do a blues cover album this time around?
Walter Trout: For a long time, I’ve thought that there’s this rich history with great blues songs and artists, yet a lot of the songs and the artists have been forgotten. It seems to me that every band that does a blues album, they are going to do “Got My Mojo Working,” and “Messing with the Kid.” It’s like the blues’ greatest hits, with everyone doing the same 10 songs. I almost started to get kind of pissed off like, wait a minute, haven’t you looked into the history of this genre and really dove in and checked out all the amazing pieces of work out there? This was kind of a labor of love for me. When I was doing the research, I had a list of 50 songs I wanted to cover and I had to narrow it down. There’s so much great stuff. I really hope that people will listen to the originals and maybe discover some great artists and some great work that they’re not aware of.
KP: How you did you do your research and how did you come up with your list?
WT: I started going through my record collection. The first thing I did was– I have a huge vinyl collection of the Alan Lomax field recordings, and I started with that. And then I kept doing research on the internet. There’s just so much great stuff, man. Hey, people, you’re missing out. There’s more to life than “Got My Mojo Working.”
KP: Were there particular websites you’d go to?
WT: I’d go on YouTube, and say okay, I’m going to listen to some stuff by Charlie Patten. I’d be listening to his stuff, and down below, there’d be these other videos that would turn up by other artists, like Big Bill Broonzy. And it was really fun. I spent three months exploring the history of the blues, and I ended up with 50 songs.
There were certain tunes that spoke to me that I chose not to do. Here’s an example: Willie Dixon, one of the greatest songwriters in the history of blues. Everybody does the main Willie Dixon tunes and he’s written so much great stuff. I find this song he wrote called “It Don’t Make Sense If You Can’t Make Peace.” He’s got lines in there about organ transplants. I had a liver transplant. He’s got a line “We take one man’s eyes, and we give another man sight. We take one man’s heart and we give another man life.” I’m like, oh my god, I have lived this. This is right up my alley. But I looked it up, and my dear friend Robben Ford covered it a few years ago and before that, Styx covered it. So, as much as that song spoke to me, I decided not to do it because it had already been covered quite a bit and I was trying to find songs that had not been covered, at least not much.
KP: I had to laugh, you talk about going through your record collection. I went back and listened to some of the original versions of the songs you covered, like “Sadie,” by Hound Dog Taylor, and I realized I had that album. I had completely forgotten about it.
WT: The thing is everybody, including me, has recorded, “Give Me Back My Wig” by Hound Dog Taylor. I did it on an album called Hardcore (2007). Stevie Ray did it. Who hasn’t done it? It’s an awesome song. Let’s find another song by Hound Dog that hasn’t been covered. I thought the lick on “Sadie” was just super cool and the only version I could find was by a guy from Belgium and he tried to imitate Hound Dog. He had the treble low on the guitar, he had the guy playing second guitar instead of bass. My goal wasn’t to imitate Hound Dog but to take the song and do it Walter-style.
KP: Let’s talk about doing the songs Walter-style, because that was one thing that really struck me. I was listening to the originals and then listening to how you did them and that you did put your own style on them. In others, you rocked it up a bit. In some cases, it sounded like it had a little bit more swing, more jazz, if you will. Was that just something that came out as you played it?
WT: After I had the tunes, I would go in the studio with the band, I would play them the original and I would say, “Now, this is how I envision us approaching this.” For instance, the song, “God’s Word,” by J. B. Lenoir, the one that ends the album. J. B. Lenoir does it all by himself with his guitar and there’s hardly even a time signature to it. He plays a lick on the guitar and he sings a line. He plays a lick on the guitar and then he sings a line. It’s just him. I took it in and played it for the band and said, “Now this is what we’re going to do, we’re going to take this song and turn it into Jimi Hendrix.”
KP: I was going to ask you if you tried to emulate the Hendrix-Finnegan kind of interplay on Electric Ladyland.
WT: Yes, we did. I did my best kind of Jimi Hendrix guitar playing. I told the band, “We’re going to turn this into Electric Ladyland. We’re going to take J. B. Lenoir and Jimi Hendrix it out.”
KP: Wow, you just made my day, Walter. Because, I’m telling you, here is my question 11: “Tell me about ‘God’s Word’…It almost sounded like the riffs that Hendrix and Finnegan traded off in ‘Still Raining, Still Dreaming’ on Electric Ladyland.”
WT: (laughs) That’s what we were doing. (Laughs harder). You nailed it, man. You know, J. B. Lenoir was John Mayall’s biggest influence.
KP: I didn’t know that.
WT: Yes, after J. B. Lenoir died, John Mayall wrote two songs about him. He wrote a song called “The Death of J. B. Lenoir,” which is really an incredibly dark and deep blues song, and then later he wrote “I’m Going to Fight for You, JB.” That song is about John trying to make sure Lenoir’s family got the publishing royalties that they were due. John has deep integrity and he went to Chicago and met with Lenoir’s family to help them try to receive the publishing royalties that they were due from JB’s estate.
KP: Since you brought up Mr. Mayall, he’s played a huge role in your life and you covered “Nature’s Disappearance.” I confess I hate it when a song that’s 40-50 years old still has relevance.
WT: The song is even more relevant now than it was in 1970, don’t you think? With what’s going on in this country in getting rid of all of the environmental regulations, starting to drill in national parks, subsidizing coal and let’s get rid of clean air and water and let’s pull out of the Paris Accord – that’s the reason I picked that song.
KP: Were you trying to make it fairly faithful to the original?
WT: I was trying to make it kind of faithful to the original, as well as paying homage to it. I was very nervous doing this song because John Mayall is kind of like a surrogate father to me and he’s still a dear friend. He has been playing it live with his band and he does it much heavier than the original and I wanted to do it like the original. We played it really quiet, and I almost whispered the vocal. It was really a stretch for my band. We worked on playing it subtle and understated. John loved it, and he wrote to me in an email: “As you’re aging, your guitar playing is becoming much more economical.”
WT: I said: “John, I’m attempting the ‘T’ word – taste.” I’m really not known for being economical in my playing, but I did it there and he remarked on it.
KP: Tell me about recording, “Women Don’t Lie” with Sugaray Radford. That song was so much fun for me because you guys were doing what sounded like a sing-off.
WT: Well, we were and we did the vocals together. We stood in front of one microphone, both of us with headphones on, and we just went and had a ball. He couldn’t come the day we did it with the band, so we recorded the music and he came a couple of days later. We had a great time doing that song and we’re having a lot of fun, and I think you can hear it.
KP: Going back to the song “Sadie,” for a moment. I mentioned earlier that I kind of detected some jazz elements here and there, and to my admittedly uneducated and amateur ears, the guitar solo you did sounded like something that Jeff Beck would do on Blow by Blow or Wired.
WT: That’s a compliment because I think Jeff Beck is the greatest guitar player that ever lived. I think he’s in a class of his own. I think he’s Mount Rushmore and then there’s the rest of us. So, that’s a very good compliment. Thank you.
KP: You’re more than welcome. Was that kind of what you were going for or did I just dream that up?
WT: I had a few things I wanted to achieve with my guitar playing for this record. I wanted to play bluesy, I wanted to try to steer clear of too many clichés and I also wanted to make it my own style. A lot of guys get stuck into playing Albert King riffs all night and they say, “Well, that’s the blues.” But you can do more than that and still be the blues, you know. I wanted to stay in a certain framework, but I also wanted to experiment and stretch within that framework. It was really fun.
KP: You’re doing a tour with Eric Gales. That’s going to be fun. How did that come about?
WT: We’ve been good friends for a long time. He’s a great man and an amazing musician. In our own right, we’re both survivors. We’ve both been addicted to lots of substances in our life and came out of it on the other end. We love doing shows together. Part of the fun is hanging out. We hang out together in the dressing room and there are a lot of laughs and he’s just a great guy.
KP: I almost forgot to ask about playing with Robbie Krieger. Growing up, I was a big Doors fan, I’m aging myself here. What was that like?
WT: That was a lot of fun. We did this album in his studio in Los Angeles that’s just state-of-the-art. His favorite music is old country blues and he told me his favorite artist is Reverend Gary Davis. We started talking about playing something together and we ended up with that Fred McDowell song (“Goin’ Down to the River”). We kind of talked about it and said, “Let’s do a Muddy Waters slide lick” (hums a blues lick). We played it live. What you’re hearing is us playing it live, it’s not over-dubbed.
KP: You don’t do over-dubs on your records, I take it.
WT: Not if I can help it. There are a lot of times when you’re singing and you’re more concerned with getting the instrumental part right while you’re doing it and you forget the words, or you do a real crappy vocal, so you go back and redo the vocals. There are a couple of tunes on here that I went back and over-dubbed the rhythm guitar, on “Please Love Me” and “It Takes Time,” so the songs had some fullness. But I didn’t over-dub much.
KP: Let me ask you about “Me, My Guitar and the Blues,” by Jimmy Dawkins, which is the first track on the album.
WT: I’ll tell you what, it is as great and iconic and deep as a blues song that has ever been written by anybody and why it hasn’t been covered more, I don’t know. But here’s what I’ll tell you. You go back through history – people look at the Gettysburg Address and they say Abraham Lincoln summed up the entire Civil War in two minutes. It’s the ultimate statement of what was happening. Well, Jimmy Dawkins summed up the entire history and essence and meaning of the blues in two sentences: “And now that you don’t love me, all I have left is me, my guitar and the blues.” That is the essence of what blues is. It’s one of the most beautiful pieces of music that I have ever heard. And when I found that song on the Internet, I almost had a nervous breakdown. I’m almost having one right here talking about it. That is a deep piece of work. I didn’t want the label to put it first because I told them: “How are you going to follow that? That’s one of the greatest pieces of writing that’s been done.” And they said: “No, it will draw people in.” And so, I agreed. When I do it live, there are a lot of nights I just break down. I just stand there and cry. My hope is that people will go back and listen to the original.
KP: How did you come up with the album title Survivor Blues?
WT: That was my wife, who has also managed my career for 25 years. First, we were talking about that everybody in the band is a survivor. There’s me, I had a liver transplant and I’m in recovery. My drummer and my bass player are also in recovery from drugs and alcohol. Skip Edwards, who plays keyboards on the album, he’s had a triple bypass. We’re all lucky to be alive. She said that these songs are survivors, and they remain beautiful, eloquent, immediate and relevant. She asked, “How about Survivor Blues?” I told her she just named the album and I thanked her.
KP: I was going through your Facebook page to get some inspiration for today’s interview, and I thought I read that in addition to recording this covers album, you recorded something else? Did I read that right?
WT: Not quite. The day that this record was mastered and finally sent off to the label, the band and I went back into Robbie’s studio and began recording an album of all original songs, and we’re still working on it. We’ve got about six of them recorded so far, and this should come out at the end of the year. We’re not rushing through this one. We’re working on these songs and we’re changing them around. I don’t know the title of it yet.
KP: Let’s talk about your interest in supporting organ donation.
WT: That’s now my mission in life is to spread the word. I’m going to give you my rap: You’ve got eight life-saving organs. You can save eight lives. But there are actually 50 body parts that can be used. For instance, your skin could go to burn victims. Now I’m about to tell you a story that’s the God’s honest truth. I have met and heard from three different people – three different people who were born blind, they received cornea transplants and they now have 20/20 vision. The medical technology is incredible. The only problem, not enough people have signed up. Here in the good old USA, there are 120,000 people on the waiting list and every month we lose between 1,500 – 2,000 of them. Now if you’re looking for a humanitarian crisis, there’s one. Every month, upwards of 2,000 people die because they can’t get the organs they need.
KP: Well, if I may say so, Walter, you’re one of the lucky ones.
WT: Believe me, I know I’m a lucky one. I feel like I’ve been kept here for a purpose, which is to spread the word about organ donation. I love doing it, because every night I’m on tour, I have an audience and I can preach about this.
KP: I, for one, am grateful that you do that. Any small contribution we can all make to reduce that way too large a number is worthwhile.
WT: A year or two ago, there was a young SWAT team member in Los Angeles. He was 22 or 23 years old. The SWAT team did a raid on a crack house and one of the people in the crack house shot this young SWAT team member and killed him. The organs his mother donated saved seven people’s lives. And his mother went on the news here in Los Angeles and she talked about it. She said, “I’ve lost my son, but he has saved seven different people’s lives.”
KP: So, her son lives on.
WT: Yeah, in seven different people.
KP: God bless her. That is tremendous. Is there anything that we did not cover that you’d like our readers to know?
WT: No. I think you’ve been great, man.
KP: It’s been fabulous talking to you. Good luck with the new album and the upcoming tour.
WT: It was a pleasure.