Walter Trout and the blues are here to stay
Just a few years ago, popular blues guitarist Walter Trout nearly met his maker. A lifetime of good times and some bad timing led to Trout lying prone in a hospital bed, unable to move or speak as his liver was failing.
After receiving a life-saving transplant in May 2014 and suffering through a difficult recuperation process, Trout began the long and torturous process of healing with the help of his family and friends. “At first I wasn’t strong enough to play a single note on the guitar,” he said in 2015, “but as I regained my strength, the music came back to me. Now when I pick up the guitar, it is liberating, joyful, and limitless. I feel like I’m 17 again.”
Bouncing back, Walter hit the road again that year with a new lease on life. He released the critically-acclaimed album Battle Scars, a chronicle of his showdown with the reaper and his extraordinary will to survive. Trout was already a hallowed blues veteran when he took ill; arriving in Los Angeles in 1973, he was schooled in the ways of the blues playing behind legends like John Lee Hooker and Big Mama Thornton. The guitarist burnished his bona fides first as a member of blues-rock legends Canned Heat, then moving on to play five years as part of British blues legend John Mayall’s famed Bluesbreakers band. Trout launched his solo career with his 1989 debut album, Life In the Jungle, and has since become one of the most beloved artists in the blues genre, touring constantly to sold-out venues across the planet.
Walter Trout / Photo by Austin Hargave
Flash forward to 2019 and Walter Trout is bigger and bolder than ever! A true survivor in every sense of the word, Trout has followed up on his Blues Music Award-winning 2017 album We’re All In This Together with a record that pays tribute to the blues artists and craftsmen that inspired and influenced his award-winning career. Produced by Trout and longtime producer Eric Corne, Survivor Blues offers up a dozen vintage blues tunes delivered in Trout’s indomitable style, the guitarist backed in the studio by seasoned his touring band – bassist Johnny Griparic, drummer Michael Leasure, and keyboardist Skip Edwards.
With Survivor Blues, Trout eschews the well-worn blues standards covered by every nickel-and-dime bar band in favor of ‘deep tracks’ by his favorite artists. “I’ve wanted to do a strictly blues album for a long time,” Walter told Rock and Roll Globe in an email interview, “but it seemed to me that there were so many great songs that were pretty much unknown. I think the last thing the world needs is another version of “Got My Mojo Working” or “Stormy Monday.” There are so many great songs that have just fallen by the wayside. For example, when I heard “Me, My Guitar, and the Blues” by Jimmy Dawkins I thought to myself ‘this is an iconic song and people need to hear this.’”
Survivor Blues opens with this track by underrated Chicago blues fretburner Jimmy Dawkins, as Trout inhabiting the song with his soaring guitar solos while his soulful vocals wring every ounce of emotion out of the lyrics. Dawkins’ blues gem was just one song from nearly a century of blues music from which to choose.
“I started by going through my record collection, and then I went on the internet,” Trout says of the selection process. “I didn’t want to do the ‘blues greatest hits’. I wanted to do old, obscure songs that have hardly been covered. And that’s how Survivor Blues started…
“I found so many great old songs that have been forgotten,” he continues. “At one point, I had over 50 [songs] and I had to whittle that down to just enough to put on an album. I can’t really tell you what it was about each song that grabbed me, but each one of these tunes stood out to me. For instance, when I heard “Red Sun” by Floyd Lee, the lyrics floored me and I thought they were as good as anything I had heard by Leonard Cohen or Dylan.”
Trout tried to bring something different to his performance of each song. “I didn’t want to just copy the originals. I wanted to do them in my own style. I would take the tunes into the studio with my band and I would start jamming on them and we would try them a couple different ways until we hit on something that we liked.”
Trout tackles legendary pianist Sunnyland Slim’s socially-conscious “Be Careful How You Vote.” Another talented Chicago bluesman, Sunnyland played behind legends like Muddy Waters, Little Walter, and Howlin’ Wolf. Slim recorded “Be Careful How You Vote” in the early 1980s but it wasn’t the first time the pianist had looked around at society and asked ‘why?’ Slim had recorded topical songs like “Broke and Hungry” and “Bad Times (Cost of Living)” as far back as the 1940s. Trout’s band imbues the song with a deep, loping groove that sways like a strong breeze while Trout delivers the lyrics with conviction, the words ringing as true today as they did almost 40 years ago, Trout punctuating the song’s message with stinging guitar licks.
Soul-blues singer Sugaray Rayford joins in on “Woman Don’t Lie,” a song that guitarist Luther “Snake Boy” Johnson recorded in 1972 for his solo album Born In Georgia. Johnson was a sideman to artists like Elmore James and Muddy Waters, but his solo stuff had more of a Southern soul feeling which is perfectly captured by Rayford’s silky voice singing in contrast with Trout’s grittier tones. The band delivers a rockin’ soundtrack and, of course, Trout’s devastating fretwork rides high atop the din.
Trout honors his former boss John Mayall with a reading of the environmental ode “Nature’s Disappearing,” taken from Mayall’s underrated 1970 album USA Union. Mayall was experimenting with jazzier influences at the time, and Trout and crew manage to capture the slinky vibe of the original performance, his nuanced fretwork dancing alongside a bass-heavy rhythm. Speaking of the song, Trout says “I think it’s even more relevant now than it was when he wrote it in 1970. I was very nervous covering a song by my ex-boss and mentor. After it was done and mixed, I sent it to him and he sent me an email telling me that he loved it and that he had to listen to it over and over; that just felt great to get the approval of the maestro!!”
The aforementioned Floyd Lee’s “Red Sun” is delivered as a pure blues-rock stomp ‘n’ stammer, with a heavyweight rhythmic track embroidered by Trout’s classic rock riffs and blustery vocal delivery. At one time not so long ago (late ‘70s?), “Red Sun” could have been a chart contender, Trout bending the strings with the arena-rock ferocity of Robin Trower or Pat Travers. “I also love “Red Sun” because of the intensity of the lyrics,” Walter adds. The late Chicago bluesman Otis Rush – a favorite of blues and rock guitarists worldwide – is represented by “It Takes Time,” a song the West Side legend recorded as a B-side to his 1958 Cobra Records single “Checking On My Baby.”
Rush would later reprise “It Takes Time” for his soul-drenched 1969 Muscle Shoals recording Mourning In the Morning. Trout’s reading of the song skews closer to the traditional Chicago blues of the 1950s-era single with foot-shuffling, jump ‘n’ jive rhythms and heartbreak vocals above some sporty piano-pounding and gorgeous guitar playing. The great Magic Sam’s “Out of Bad Luck” is another Chicago blues dirge with lyrics that lay bare the singer’s emotional betrayal. Originally released by Cobra Records in 1966, Trout’s version provides plenty of scorched earth guitar – patterned after, but not mimicking Sam’s original fretwork – coupled with a laid-back but effective rhythmic backdrop, updating a classic blues tune for the modern era.
Guitarist Robbie Krieger of the Doors joins Trout on Mississippi Fred McDowell’s country-blues classic “Goin’ Down To the River.” Trout’s hypnotic guitar riff and deliberate pacing elevate the song above its humble origins, Krieger’s elegant solo providing a distinctive tone and texture to the song while the rhythm sections nuanced time-keeping keeps the performance on the tracks. Trout was chuffed to get the classic rock legend to play on Survivor Blues.
“We recorded this album in Robbie’s studio in Los Angeles. He was coming in every day and hanging out and listening to us play and as we would sit listening to playbacks, he would sit on the couch with an acoustic guitar and play along. One day I said, ‘hey man, why don’t you just play with us and let’s do something’.” Trout adds “he and I really became friends on this project and we bonded over our love of country blues.”
Trout recorded Survivor Blues with producer Eric Corne, who has worked with the guitarist on several albums over the past twelve years. The founder and President of the independent Forty Below Records label, Corne is a talented songwriter and performer in his own right, and he has worked on recordings by artists as diverse as John Mayall, Joe Walsh, Kim Deal of the Pixies, and John Doe of X, among many others. The pairing of the blues-rock guitarist and the artist-friendly producer has proven to be serendipitous. “When I was planning on doing the album Full Circle in 2004, I wanted to find a studio that had a big room where we could all set up in a circle and bring in all of our guests and play live,” Walter remembers. “My wife Marie and I went and looked at a lot of studios.”
“One day, we walked into a studio, and there was a young engineer there and when I mentioned to him I was going to do a blues album, he lit up! I was happy to find a young engineer with new sensibilities but who is versed in the old-school blues and rock ‘n’ roll,” says Walter. “Eric and I have now done around 12 albums together and we have really become musical partners. He just seems to intrinsically understand what it is I am trying to do and he knows how to get the best out of my band and myself…he has a big future ahead of him, and I love working with him!”
With Survivor Blues, Trout has delivered a red-hot record that provides not-all-that-well-known blues tunes with a new coat of paint that pays tribute to the original artists while also displaying all the fire and energy that Walter brings to every performance. With a new album on the shelves and the inevitable worldwide tour being scheduled, one would think that Trout would have his hands full. Yet the guitarist is working during his “off time” to record a new studio album that he hopes to release later this year. “I’m in the studio off and on these days recording some original songs which I hope will be released sometime soon,” he tells Rock and Roll Globe. “I’ve got a major backlog of songs – literally hundreds!! I want to get them recorded, so the band and Eric and myself are doing it,” he says, adding “but at a very leisurely
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