Walter Trout: Thriving With The Blues

Jim Worsley By

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I considered using the word surviving, instead of thriving, in the title. However, as you will see, Walter Trout has done much more than "just survive" his real life blues. Trout speaks candidly about his struggles and near fatal experience with liver disease and the ensuing transplant. He also spoke with humor, vigor, and a renewed energy and zest for life. Oh, and we talked about music too.

All About Jazz Thank you so much for taking the time to talk today.

Walter Trout: No problem. Just give me a minute to put my guitar down.

AAJ: Of course, while you do that let me say that the first time I heard you play was way back in 1987 at the legendary Golden Bear in Huntington Beach, CA with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers. I didn't know who you were walking in the door, but I sure did by the end of your set. That had to be a blast playing with Mayall.

WT: Well, you know, people sometimes ask me about my sideman years. I was a sideman for seventeen years. The most fun I ever had was playing with John Mayall. It was a blast. He is ridiculously funny when you're out on the road with him. His humor is incredible. Being a bandleader is a talent in itself. He has the knack for keeping things lighthearted. He's one of the best. The music was always very free. He gives you a free range. I can tell you that when I first played with him I had grown up being a student of his older albums with Eric Clapton, Mick Taylor, and Peter Green. The first couple of gigs we were doing some songs that he had done with Clapton. I was in awe of the tradition and playing the Clapton solos. So I played the solos and afterwards John says to me, "If I had wanted Eric Clapton, I would have hired Eric Clapton! I love the way you play and I want you to give this your own approach." He freed me and I really grew as a musician after that. It was like going to the Harvard University of the Blues. But, you know, with every band you are dealing with personalities and sometimes guys end up hating each other. John was very aware of that and tried to keep things fun. The band may be on stage for two hours, but the guys are basically living and traveling together all the time.

AAJ: It must have indeed been a great education playing and learning with the Father of British Blues.

WT: I can tell you a good John Mayall story. When I did my first solo tour I was still in his band. He was going to take about four months off. So this promoter in Europe says if I put a band together he will book me a little tour. Before I left, John gave me a cassette tape wrapped in brown paper. He said, "Two weeks into the tour you guys are all going to start hating each other. When it reaches a breaking point you unwrap the tape and play it." Sure enough, two weeks into the tour we're all starting to fucking hate each other. So, I unwrapped the tape and played it. It was forty-five minutes of him farting. He went around with a little recorder and every time he needed to fart he recorded it. He had labeled the tape "The Farter of British Blues." So, minutes into the tape, we were all dying of laughter, and it completely broke the ice. Then, when I got sober, John was very proud of me. I gave up cocaine, stopped drinking, and stopped doing blow. Later in the mail I received a package from John. Turned out to be an espresso machine. It came with a note that said, "This will keep you wired." I just love the guy.

AAJ: That's hysterical. It must have been a kick then to have Mayall on your latest record, We're All In This Together. Can you talk about the song "Blues For Jimmy T" that you wrote, and the two of you did together?

WT: Jimmy T was Jimmy Trapp. If you look on like my first ten records or so, you'll see that he was my bassist. Jimmy came up through the ranks playing in bar bands in Orange County back in the early 70's. We were best friends for thirty years. He died in 2005 at the age of 52. It has taken me a long time to even be able to write about him because I really miss him deeply. So, to be able to play that song about my old buddy with my surrogate father is probably, for me, the most emotional number on there. Sometimes it is hard for me to listen to it, because it brings up so many feelings.

AAJ: The diversification of fourteen guest artists on the record provides wide-ranging layers of the blues genre. Was it a challenge to write compositions to best fit their individual styles?

WT: It was a challenge, but it was also fun. It was something I took on joyously. Many of the artists are good friends of mine and I was very familiar with their work. Others I took pleasure in getting into their catalog to get a better feel. For Kenny Wayne Shepherd I had a few selections to choose from. So, I still have some in the can. There is one that is kind of an Elmore James kind of thing and another that is a slow minor blues. It was the same with Joe Bonamassa. I decided that we were either going to do some heavy rock deal, or let's do kind of a slow blues. I ended up with the title track. Edgar Winter does such a wide variety of styles of music that I told him I wasn't sure what to do with him. I loved his quote. He said, "Well, my first love is the blues. But when I heard my brother start playing the guitar, I figured he had the blues covered, and I needed to do other stuff."

AAJ: Perhaps the only drawback of having Johnny Winter as your brother.

WT: Exactly. I can just picture them as kids, and Johnny getting better, and better, and better! Anyways, Edgar really loved the song, and I think it came out real well.

AAJ:Changing gears, you may understandably be tired of talking about your battle with liver disease. It's a remarkable story.

WT: No, I'm happy to talk about it, especially if it can help somebody. I found out I had Hepatitis C. I don't know how I got it. Most musicians that are of my age and generation have had it. It's actually pretty prevalent. I did have an insane lifestyle while doing a lot of drugs in my youth. I started getting dizzy spells and incredible cramps in my hands. I would play, and the cramps would close up my hands like claws. It was excruciating. I couldn't really play. I did a tour sitting down. I spent half the set playing harmonica because I couldn't play guitar. So, I just thought I needed magnesium or something. We were in Germany. I woke up at 4 A.M. and I didn't feel right. I got up and walked into the bathroom and looked in the mirror. My stomach was swollen like I had just swallowed a basketball. I looked like I was nine months pregnant. My legs were swollen to the size of an elephant's. I really thought it was because I was taking too much magnesium for the cramps. I came home to see a doctor. I was told that my liver was failing and that I would need a transplant, or that I was going to die. I was worried that my wife and kids might have the Hepatitis C. Fortunately, none of them did. I had lost 120 pounds in three months. This was more than half of my body weight. I was taken to UCLA and put into intensive care. The doctors there told my wife that I was going to die, and that she best start planning for that. The way the transplants were divvied out, I surely wasn't going to get one. Finally, a great blues singer named Curtis Salgado talked to my wife and said that he had gotten a transplant in Omaha, Nebraska. He gave my wife his doctor's number. A call was made, and the next thing I know, I'm off to Omaha. I was carried onto an airplane at LAX. They lifted me into a seat. I ended up being in Omaha for eight months. While I was there waiting for a transplant, I lost my ability to speak and had brain damage. I died a couple of times while I was there. There was one day that I was bleeding profusely, and they just couldn't get it to stop. They poured twenty-two pints of a blood into me to replace what was going out. I was in a coma, so I don't remember any of that. I was still there for another four months after the transplant. I needed lots of therapy to relearn how to walk and talk. When I finally got home, I realized that I didn't know how to play the guitar anymore. It was gone. So, I had to start over. I worked 5-6 hours a day, every day for a year, and it came back.

AAJ: One would think that your first gig back after not playing for two years wouldn't be at the Royal Albert Hall in London. How on earth did that come to be?

WT: Most guys would go down to the corner bar and see what happens. Not me, I went to the Royal Albert Hall. It was a Lead Belly Festival featuring lots of guests. They had Van Morrison, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Eric Burdon, and a bunch of other guys. I only played two songs. I didn't want to play a full set. They had a backing bar band there that we all shared. I counted to four, and that band kicked in, and I was home. I was where I felt the most alive.

AAJ: Go big or go home, right?

WT: Yeah, man. I went big.

AAJ: Seems that you are still going big in the fight against liver disease and creating awareness. Talk a little bit about the British Liver Trust and your involvement with that organization.

WT: Let me say that in addition to the British Liver Trust, I do benefits and advertising for Donate Life America right here in the States. They determine who gets the livers and work with the doctors. I do the same thing for an organization in Norway. It's a mission to get people to sign up to be organ donors. It's my mission to get people to signup. I know what a miracle it is. There are eight life savings organs. So one person could save up to eight people. I've had two different people tell me that they were born blind and had cornea transplants in their twenties. They now both can see perfectly. We just break down and weep when I see them. Every month we lose two thousand people because there are not enough donors. It's a real tragedy.
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