September 9, 2022

You know where you stand with Walter Trout. When the American guitarist and singer/song-writer releases a new album – and with the release of Ride in August 2022, there are now 30 of them to choose from – you know you are going to get close to an hour of rocking blues. It can come as a bit of a surprise therefore, to chat with him and find out how wide he casts his musical net. For example, Trout had shown a precocious talent as a jazz horn player in his youth, a pursuit that saw him hang out with none other than Duke Ellington and his band at the tender age of ten years old. I demand a quick backtrack – say that again – you got to hang out with Duke Ellington? He says it’s kind of along story, but basically it goes like this…

“I was going to be a jazz trumpet player; all through school, I played in the orchestra and the marching band, and I sang in the choir, because that meant I I didn’t have to go to gym. I didn’t have to go run around a track and play football with all these athletes and shit. I could just do music; it was great. But when I was ten, my mother said Duke Ellington and Tony Bennett are playing at the theatre over in Cherry Hill tonight, shall we go see them? And I said, Yeah, let’s go! So she said, Well, let’s go buy tickets, if they’ve got any left. It’s like two in the afternoon, right? So we’re at the box office, and these cars drive up and these very well dressed, well groomed, beautiful black men get out of the cars and they’re carrying horn cases. So she goes, that’s them there; that’s the orchestra, look at that! Walter, come with me. And she takes me around and knocks on the door and says, My son is an aspiring jazz trumpet player. Do you think he could get an autograph? And at that moment, Paul Gonsalves, the saxophone player, walks out the back door and lights a cigarette. And I looked at him, a 10-year-old kid, and I said, you’re Paul Gonsalves! He went, Yeah? And I said, I love the solo you do on Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue. And he went, WHAT? This little white kid knows our music? And he said, Come with me. And he took us into the dressing room. And I went, Hey, Johnny Hodges! I love the way you play Mood Indigo. And Sam Woodyard, you’re my favourite drummer, man! Hey, Cat Anderson. I’m a trumpet player. How do you play those high notes?” Anderson was famous for that, by all accounts. “Then Cat Anderson got out his trumpet, and he gave me a lesson, and let me play his trumpet. Duke Ellington was sitting on a little white couch in the corner, and he goes, come on over, sit down, man. And I sat there with Duke Ellington and talked for a while and we stayed there till the gig. My mother was off at the other end of the dressing room, kind of drooling over Tony Bennett you know, and it was an incredible day. Incredible.”

Nevertheless, life was no picnic for the young Walter; his stepfather was unpredictable and their home life troubled. When Walter discovered the blues, it spoke to him on an intensely personal level. “Let me tell ya, when I was 14, I said to my mother, I don’t care about school anymore, because I’m going to be a blues guitarist and that’s what I’m going to do with my life.” I ask what it was about the genre that really hooked into him like that. “It just grabbed me, man,” he says, “The possibility of emotional expression over such a simple form. People think it’s just three chords, but it ain’t easy. It’s not easy to play it with any authority and feeling. There are lots of guys who can come out and imitate Albert King on the guitar; there are lots of guys who get up and try to play like Stevie Ray Vaughan. But both Albert King and Stevie Ray Vaughan were originals, and they were playing from their heart. And that’s what separates the men from the boys – you’ve got to immerse yourself in the possibility of expression over such a simple basis. It’s limitless, really. And what I look for in any kind of art is emotion, human feeling. I don’t care about being clever. I don’t care about technique. It’s about human feeling. I’d much rather listen to BB King than Steve Vai – I think Steve Vai is amazing, incredible; what he does is superhuman, but it doesn’t rip my heart out of my chest. But BB plays one note and I find myself crying. But that’s just me. As Big Lebowski would say, that’s just my opinion, man.”

Photo by Alex Solca

The subsequent decision to relocate from his New Jersey birthplace to West Coast USA started paying off early, as Walter played in the bands of a number of the foremost blues artists of the 1960s and ‘70s, most notably a spell with John Lee Hooker. After a period with classic LA blues-rockers Canned Heat in the early ‘80s, Trout stepped up a gear, joining John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, which had previously boasted Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Mick Taylor amongst others. There was a massive downside to this environment though, as Trout immersed himself in a self-destructive cycle of alcohol and substance abuse that would extort a heavy price in the years to come. His liver was irreparably damaged; in 2013 it packed up completely and his family were advised to prepare for the worst. Trout pulls no punches about the seriousness of his condition.

“I was – dead. I was in a hospital bed for eight months. I got brain damage. I lost 120 pounds. I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t talk. I didn’t recognise my children or my wife; I didn’t know who they were. I didn’t have a bite of solid food for six months. I had a hose in my nose. There were many nights where they would tell my wife, he’s not gonna make it through the night, and then the next morning, they’d come in and there I was, still breathing, you know.” His life was saved by a last minute liver transplant, supported by a fundraiser organised by his family and fans. Walter feels the prickle of tears behind his eyes as he continues, “I’m living proof of the miracle that it is, because I was basically dead. And here I am, I’ve just put out my 30th album, I just played on the Blues Cruise with Joe Bonamassa and Tommy Emmanuel, and I’m just in the best part of my life now. And it’s all due to that liver transplant. It has changed my perspective on life; I think I know more about what’s important now, and what’s not. And I am so deeply grateful to be here and thankful to the people that saved my life and to the person that had to donate – you know, that in their loss of their life, they gave me new life. It’s quite heavy. It’s quite a heavy thing to think about.” In view of which, Walter is now heavily involved with a number of transplant-related charities, including the British Liver Trust in the UK, Donate Life in the USA, and both the Danish Liver Foundation and Ja Tak (Yes Please) in Denmark, where he and his Danish wife maintain a second home in a little fishing village on the coast.

Read Velvet Thunder’s review of Walter Trout’s new album Ride

When he was well enough, Trout picked up where he had left off, doing the only thing he ever wanted to do, playing music. “I got out of the hospital in 2014. I had to relearn how to play the guitar; that took me a year,” he laments. His gaunt, haggard looking face stares out of the cover of his 25th album Battle Scars from 2015, almost a concept album, with the songs centred around the story of a dying man whose life was saved at the eleventh hour by a semi-miraculous operation – his own story. The lyrics are harrowing, but there is no hint of disability about the playing. This was followed by a live album, after which the studio albums just kept coming. Walter’s wife and Manager Marie completed her PhD thesis, on the role of blues music in the lives of its fans. She published a book based on the research, The Blues: Why It Still Hurts So Good, in 2017. Walter, unsurprisingly, is enthusiastic about it. “It’s not about the history of the blues; it’s about blues fans and how the blues was picked up by white college kids. They kind of resurrected it in the ‘60s, because the blues was not really addressing things like the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and stuff like that, so it was kind of dying out. It was resurrected by these white kids going out and finding Skip James and Son House and Muddy Waters, and then Paul Butterfield coming along, and John Mayall, and this huge boom in the ‘60s. It’s really an amazing book. She researched it for five years. It’s incredible.”

Just as his own career started to regain momentum though, he suffered the same curse that has smitten every performing artist over these last few years – the Covid lockdown. In Trout’s case, it was arguably more serious, because he simply couldn’t afford to get sick, given his recent medical history. “When the pandemic kicked in, we were in Los Angeles, and we’re like, well, let’s go to the little fishing village. We’ll be safe there. And we thought we’d be there for a couple of months. Well, it’s been two years.”

As healthy and protective as their isolation was, there were no facilities for rehearsing or recording; for that, he needed to get back to LA. And for that, he had to wait for the health risk to die down and the travel restrictions to be eased. When that happened, he decamped back to his echoing, empty house in California and started to write. This time though, his mind reached back, past the life-changing illness, past the mad years of self-destruction, and all the groovy blues, to his early years in New Jersey. The title song of the new album, Ride, was rooted in the old freight train that used to lumber past his childhood home, and drew him to just get on and ride out somewhere, anywhere in that big wide world. And the country-rocker, The Fertile Soil, with its refrain, ‘The fertile soil is calling me home’, which , it turns out, isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. And the funny thing is, Trout didn’t even realise he was reaching so deep.

“I gotta tell you, I didn’t set out to do that. I was in the house alone, was sitting around, but I had to write a record. So I started writing songs and I didn’t realise – until literally after I got the CD, which was just a few weeks ago, the actual CD – OK, it’s done, here it is – and I put it on. Then I realised 90% of the songs are about my childhood, even songs that you wouldn’t know are about my childhood. For example, there’s a song called The Fertile Soil. Yeah, that sounds like I’m singing about some farmland or something. Well, my two best friends in high school had a band, and they would let me come and sit in, and sometimes I’d play harmonica and sometimes I’d play guitar, but I wasn’t good enough to get in the band. The band was called The Fertile Soil, and my two best friends were the drummer and the bass player; they’re both dead now. And it’s really a song about thinking about them.

Photo by Alex Solca

Trout gathered his usual band around him for rehearsals and recording, except for one, as he explains: “My regular bass player, Johnny Griparic, was in Sweden visiting his mother, and because of the pandemic, he could not get back into America. So I used my regular drummer Michael Leasure and my regular keyboardist, Teddy ‘Zig Zag’ Andreadis, but because Johnny couldn’t get back to LA, I used a fella named Jamie Hunting, who’s played bass with Roger Daltrey and Eddie Money and David Lee Roth and all sorts of people. He’s an amazing bass player. He was actually recommended by Johnny; he said to me, call this guy. He goes as close to what I would play; if you want somebody who plays like me, call up Jamie Hunting. And if you listen to the bass tracks, the dude just nailed it, man. He did a brilliant job.”

Trout plays the blues harp himself, and there’s a lot of it distributed throughout the album. An experienced harmonica player, Trout played harp when he was in Canned Heat, which was a large part of their sound. Checking back through the Heat’s discography, I couldn’t find any records from the Trout years, but he corrects me on that – with a caveat: “There’s a lot of live stuff. There’s a there’s an album called Live In Australia, and there’s also an EP called The Heat Bros, which is horrible; I don’t recommend it. We were all really, really, really high, and it sucks!”

Well, the man’s clean now and more hale and hearty than would be expected, given his years and his history; and he’s still itching to play. “I’m going to Norway in two days; I’m going to play there, then I’m flying back to California. I’ll be in my house there for a week; I’ll rehearse with the band over there, and then I’ll go do a three week tour of America.”

And sure, the new album is an hour of electric rocking blues. But the other influences are audible for any who would listen. The aforementioned title track, for instance, is rooted in old hobo blues, with a rocking railroad rhythm and a wailing harp. Fertile soil is country-based, and ends with a four-part harmony vocal in the style of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Leave It All Behind owes everything to Chuck Berry. About the only thing you won’t find is down-home, acoustic, front-porch blues, and Trout will tell you why.

“I can’t, in all honesty and authenticity, come out and try to play old traditional blues. I’m not a black guy from Mississippi; I’m a middle class white kid from New Jersey, and I have to be honest in my music.” Surprisingly though, this is the only limitation Trout imposes on his own output; sure, blues is a given, but everything else is also up for grabs. “I like rock and roll too; I like Crosby, Stills and Nash and AC/DC as much as I like Lightnin’ Hopkins. I like it all.”

For Walter Trout, it is summed up by a cryptic message from one of his old heroes. “’ll give you a quote from Duke Ellington,” he says. “He never called himself a jazz musician, he just called himself ‘a musician’. He wrote church music, he wrote pop songs, he wrote symphonic stuff. He wrote everything, and he did not want to be put in a category. But you have to think about this quote. Here it goes: ‘Categories exist to give the work of the artistic cripple an attractive gloss.’ And here’s what it means. You got a guy who only knows how to play Albert King licks all night, so he puts himself in a pompadour and a Sharkskin suit and acts like he’s the real deal, when in actuality it’s all he knows how to do. I like James Taylor as much as I like BB King you know, it’s all beautiful to me, and I want to be able to do all of it and not be stuck in a box. And that’s why blues purists hate me. And I couldn’t give a flying f*** if they do, you know?

And that, people, is a policy that resonates with me; I too, would love to play it all, and if there was enough life, I would, and I’m sure that applies to a lot of folks out there. Walter Trout has paid his dues and earned the right to play whatever he wants. But most of all, he wants to play the blues.