Walter Trout is the elder statesman of blues rock, with a solo career going back some 28 years. Sixty-six years old and just three years on from a liver transplant that saved his life, he says that he feels like he’s “in the best years of my life right now.” He says he “has a whole different appreciation of being alive, of the world, of my family, of my career, and that he wants “life to be exciting and celebratory.”
And that’s why his new album, We’re All In This Together, sounds so joyful. It’s fourteen songs, with a guest on each song, trading licks and runs with Walter. All but one are original songs – the odd one out is the outstanding The Sky Is Crying, with Warren Haynes. The songs are upbeat, melodic, feature blistering, smouldering guitar work and are hugely enjoyable, each tailored by Trout to the style of each guest. His guests – all friends – are all musical stars in their own right, and include John Mayall, Joe Bonamassa, Sonny Landreth, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Joe Louis Walker, Robben Ford, Mike Zito, Eric Winter, Charlie Landreth, Eric Gale, John Nemeth and Randy Bachman. Walter’s son Jon Trout, himself an exceptional guitarist, also features on one song.
Walter Trout has been hard at work, on tour with the new album, but Down at the Crossroads caught up with him before he takes his show to Europe in October.
DatC: Hello Walter. Thanks very much for taking the time to talk to us. First of all, I take it that you’re well and healthy? Hale & hearty, as they say!
WT: Hearty as I can be! Yeah, I’m feelin’ great.
DatC: Congratulations on the new album, Walter, which is only just out, but which has already got great reviews from both critics and fans. I loved one of the Amazon reviews, which described it as “a face meltingly amazing blues rock album.” You’re pleased with how it’s been received?
WT: Oh I’m very pleased. I think it’s getting the best reviews I ever got. I’ve done 26 albums, and this was my first album that in the United States was at number 1 on the Billboard Blues Chart. And it was also number 1 on Amazon and on iTunes Blues. So that was the first time I hit number 1 on the triumvirate on the market over here. And it felt great!
DatC: Tell us what you were hoping to achieve with the album – because it’s very different from your previous one, Battle Scars.
WT: Well, how do you follow up Battle Scars? That was my dilemma. That album was so personal and so intense and so…dark. How do you follow that up? I put a lot of thought into what do I do now. Do I just write 15 more songs and play ‘em with the band? And what do I write about? So it was a bit of a dilemma.
Then I did a gig at Carnegie Hall with Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Edgar Winter. And I was hanging out with both of them and I said, “Why don’t we record something together,” and they were both like, “Yeah, OK, let’s do it.” And then I got this idea that that was what I needed to do – something completely different, where I just jam with my friends and we have fun. And it’s about the guitar playing and the music, it’s not all these deep depressing lyrics. So, I wanted to do something that was the exact opposite of Battle Scars.
DatC: And that comes across. You’ve got a stellar cast of musicians on this album– was it difficult to organize such a diverse set of people?
WT: You know, it wasn’t difficult to get in touch with them and talk to them. Two weeks after Carnegie Hall I played in Toronto with Sonny Landreth and Randy Bachman and I talked to them and they said, “Yeah, that’d be great.” And then a week after that I had a dinner in LA with Warren Hayes and Robben Ford we sat around for about four hours and had a great evening, and I talked to them [about it].
So it was easy to get in touch, but the difficult part of this album was the logistics. My wife handled that. ‘Cause all these guys are touring, they’re hard working players, so she had to schedule with each guy. A lot of ‘em were on tour – so she had to talk to them, get their schedules, “when do you have a day off? Do you think you could get in the studio?” And one guy would say, “In two weeks I have a day off in Cleveland.” So my wife would have to find a studio in Cleveland, set it up, find an engineer, go through all that stuff and then get in touch with Eric the producer, and have him get through to the engineer and send him the track. It had to be done with so many – what I don’t understand – so many bits and megabytes – all this stuff that I don’t get! And she really had the rough part of it. I just talked to my buddies and I had to write some songs and then go in and play! But the logistics of this were kind of a nightmare. She really put it together. I couldn’t have done what she did.
DatC: Did you write each song with the particular artist in mind?
WT: Yes, of course. I had to sit down and think – what do you write for Kenny Wayne Shepherd? OK, I got Kenny Wayne. I listened to a lot of his current stuff and it’s very blues-rock, like what I do. But then I think to myself – you know what, his roots are the blues. And my roots are the blues. So instead of writing some rocking thing, let’s play an up-tempo blues. Let’s play a shuffle, that’s where we come from.
So then I had to come up with some lyrics. And I thought about when I was a drug addict, what it felt like when you run out of drugs. I’ve been sober for 30 years, but I thought about when I was young and when I was addicted to drugs, and what was it like when they ran out. It felt good for a little while but then it hurt like hell. So, OK, I got a song here.
But yeah, the songs were written with the person in mind. For instance, Eric Gales. To me Eric is more of a kind of a funk fusion guy. He doesn’t really come out of the blues, he’s from a different genre. So I need to write something for him that he can jam over, but it’s got a bit of a funk feel to it. So I just approached each artist like that.
DatC: Walter, as you say, the album is great fun, it’s good time music, But there are some serious bits here and there, aren’t there? Crash and Burn with Joe Louis Walker is a quite hard-hitting song. “Are we ever gonna learn, I’m getting mighty worried…” Is that a commentary on what’s going on in the United States at the moment?
WT: Well, of course, that’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? If I get going on this…That song is directly about what’s going on.
DatC: And then We’re All in this Together with Joe Bonamassa. “It’s up to you and me – black and white, left and right” speaks to the divisions in the country?
WT: That‘s exactly it. And you know what’s really funny, is three days ago my wife became an American citizen, and I went to the swearing in ceremony. And there were 5,000 new citizens being sworn in, and a lady got up and gave a speech, and she said, “All of you, you come from different countries, but now you are all American citizens, and I want you to remember something: we’re all in this together!”
DatC: Cue guitar solo!
DatC: It’s such a pleasure to hear you and Joe Bonamassa playing together. That interplay between both guitars at the end of the song is really something.
WT: Well, I’ll tell you, that was a lot of fun. What you’re hearing on there is the rehearsal! The only time we played the song! We were rehearsing it and I said to the band, “Here’s how the song goes,” and I said to Joe, “Here’s the lyrics I want you to sing.” Let’s see what happens. And at the end of it, I looked at Eric in the control room, because we were rehearsing, and I said, “Did you record that?” And he said, “Yeah.” And we all looked at each other and laughed and said, “There’s no reason to do that again!” So that was one take, spontaneous, no fixes, no overdubs, no nothing. And that’s the first and last time we played that song! And I think it gives it a real urgency.
DatC: So looking back, Walter, you’ve been immersed in the blues for a lifetime; you’ve played with John Lee Hooker’s band, Canned Heat, John Mayall, and artists like Big Mama Thornton, Lowell Fulson, Bo Diddley and the list goes on – what, for you, is the blues – is it the form of the music, is it the lyrics, is it the feeling? And what is it about this music that has such enduring appeal?
WT: To me it’s the feeling. You know Count Basie said, “Blues can be approached in many, many different ways , but it still remains the blues.” So, when I run into purists that say the blues has to be played a certain way, I just start laughing – you need to broaden your vision. I think the reason it’s enduring – and the reason it’s in a very healthy state – there’s a lot of young, great blues players coming up through the ranks – is that it’s the basis of modern music. It is about human emotion and human feelings and I this era we’re in of corporately produced computer stuff that has absolutely no soul to it, the blues is all about human feelings. It’s a person with an instrument playing and singing from their heart, and there’s always gotta be an audience for that, for music that makes people feel something. That’s what it’s about. It’s about making people feel it.
DatC: Let me ask you this, Walter: There’s a spiritual dimension to some of your music, Walter – whether it’s Gonna Live Again, or Fly Away or Bottom of the River, Turn Your Eyes to Heaven. How important is that dimension of life to the blues or to you as a person?
WT: How important it is to the blues – that I can’t answer. But I know that to me it’s very important. Something that I feel very deeply. I don’t want to call it religious; I want to call it spiritual, that’s a great word. I believe we all have a soul, there is more to life than what you perceive with your five senses. There are things we don’t understand, and we are all connected. We are all in this together.
I want to produce music that reaches out to all of our common humanity, and the common problems that we share, and our common joys, our common concerns. And to me blues has the potential to go very, very deep. And I strive for that and I aspire to that.
DatC: And let me ask you about one of my favourite songs in your catalogue, Brother’s Keeper, on Blues for the Modern Daze – where you’re quoting Genesis, you’re quoting the Gospel of Matthew. It seems to me that you’ve got right to something very important here about Christian faith in this song – that is a quite remarkably spiritual song, would you agree?
WT: The teachings of Jesus have been very prostituted and perverted over the years. And especially right-wing evangelicals over here forget what it’s about completely. There was a video put up recently of me doing that song. And somebody went on there and said, “You’re a heathen, you’re putting down Christianity.” I’m actually a Christian and I’m calling out the hypocrites.
The right wing in American who go around talking about God and Jesus – are so far away from Jesus’s teaching. Health care for the poor? – no, no way. Feed the hungry? – no way. You’re on your own. Well, that’s not what Jesus had in mind. And then they go to church on Sunday. It grosses me out, really.
DatC: Over quite a number of years, you’ve written songs bemoaning the way the world is going (e.g. Can’t Have It All, Welcome to the Human Race), culminating, I suppose in your 2012 album, Blues for the Modern Daze – songs like Money Rules the World; Turn Off Your TV; Lifestyle of the Rich & Famous and so on – you get a lot of the modern world in your sights there, Walter. Whether it’s getting trapped by technology, or global warming or corruption in politics or the corporate world – that’s the way of the world – how do we escape it? How do we live in such a world?
WT: I don’t have any answers for that. But I do know the sooner we realize that we are all in this together, the better. I hate to keep quoting that phrase – but the sooner we figure that out and we get past our divisions and past our tribal mindsets, the better it’s going to be. I don’t want to be pessimistic but I’m not sure there’s really much hope for mankind – because we don’t seem to learn from our mistakes. I’m hoping the younger negation is going to do a much better job handling the world than my generation has done.
I’m from the sixties hippy generation and we had all these high ideal, but it all turned to s**t. And we have done more to screw up the world than any other generation. It’s sad to me, it’s embarrassing. Because the hippies had a wonderful idea – they were really talking about the teachings of Jesus. Let’s love each other, let’s help each other. And then they grew up and went out in the world and it turned into the quest for the almighty dollar. And my generation has really screwed up the world royally, and I’m just hoping the younger generation is going to do a better job.
DatC: And the thing I always think about when I listen to the blues, is that often the song starts off when things are very bad – you know, Trouble in mind, I’m blue – but at the end of the song there’s that little note of hope – Sun’s gonna shine in my backyard someday. And you gotta hold on to that, I guess.
WT: Yeah, well, I believe that too. You have to hold on to hope. And my hope is in the younger generation. I see a lot of great kids out there.
DatC: Thank you, Walter.