As we catch up with blues guitarist Walter Trout, he’s working in Robby Krieger’s studio on new music, just “blasting away," as he puts it.
“After the last [album], I thought it was time to write some songs again,” he explains in a phone interview.
Trout performs with Kristine Jackson at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, April 24, at the Beachland Ballroom
Trout released Survivor Blues
in late January. On the surface, it’s your traditional covers record, but a quick scan of the track listing reveals that this is in fact, not a quickly tossed off collection of Trout’s versions of the tried-and-true standards that have been done to death. Instead, he took the road less traveled, something which is immediately evident listening to the incredible version of “Me, My Guitar and the Blues” that leads off the album.
“I think that is an iconic, stunning song by Jimmy Dawkins,” Trout says. “And it’s just forgotten. I’m like, ‘No, you people, you’ve got to hear this song.’ I don’t understand why that song is not one of the standards. You know, everybody’s doing ‘Got My Mojo Workin’’ and ‘Stormy Monday,’ and I don’t understand why that song by Jimmy Dawkins is not in the greatest hits list. Just the other day, I was driving, and I was listening to XM Radio and on comes a brand new band, and they’re doing ‘Got My Mojo Workin’’ and I was just like, ‘Well, here’s the 835th version of this song,’ and there’s so much great music in the history of this genre. There’s so much great stuff. It’s just, you know, let’s not let it be forgotten.”
So from the get go, Trout had a specific agenda in mind for the project and a pretty good idea of where he needed to go as he was going through potential songs for the album.
“When I came up with the idea to do [this album], I figured, start at the beginning of recorded blues music, which as pretty much any musicologist will tell you, it probably started with Charley Patton in the '20s,” Trout says. “I went back to Charley Patton, and I just kept working my way forward. I went through all of the Lomax field recordings, and I went through all of the prison chain gang recordings, and I found a lot of obscure artists and obscure tunes. At one point, I had about 50 songs. I had to whittle it down to those 12. But it was fun. I discovered a lot of stuff. I’d never heard of Floyd Lee before, who wrote ‘Red Sun,’ which is one of my favorites on that record."
Trout and his band cut the bulk of the album’s tracks live in Krieger’s studio, careful to try to bottle the magic that often emerges in the first few attempts that are put to tape.
“We might do a couple of takes, and we might say, ‘Yeah, that sounds pretty good, let’s go play it again.’ There was one tune, I can’t remember, which we did about four takes over the course of a couple of days. Because normally, if you do two takes, you don’t want to do more because then you start thinking more and feeling it less. Over the course of a couple of days, we revisited one or two of those tunes. But pretty much, I’d bring the songs, we’d kind of talk about it, we’d maybe rehearse it once or twice, and boom, there we go.”
Another standout, Luther "Snake Boy" Johnson's “Woman Don’t Lie,” features additional vocals from Sugaray Rayford. It’s one example that illustrates another important focus point that Trout and the members of the band kept in mind as they were working on the songs — they wanted to take each one to a different place than what had been done on the original recording.
“We decided if we’re going to have [blues singer and songwriter] Sugaray on there, let’s turn it into kind of a funk tune. Sugaray came in, and he and I stood around a microphone, and we did that live together, singing off of each other, back and forth. It was just a blast,” he says. ”That guy is the real deal. He’s incredible. I gotta say, I was trying to keep up with him, but that’s a very difficult thing to do. Standing there next to that man, trying to sing, you’ve got to give it everything you’ve got. We did it in two or three takes, and I was like, ‘I can’t even talk anymore.’ [Laughs] I was like, ‘My throat is done for four or five days here; I can’t even speak!’ But it came out real cool, I think."
Since Trout was working at Krieger’s studio, eventually, the Doors guitarist wound up lending his own skills to Fred McDowell’s “Goin’ Down To the River.”
“Robby started coming in and hanging out and listening to playbacks and talking and having meals with us. We would listen to a playback, and he’d sit on the couch with an acoustic guitar playing along,” Trout remembers. “One day, I said, ‘Man, let’s do something together! Let’s pick an old tune, and let’s do it.’ We kind of bonded over our love of country blues, and he actually told me that his favorite artist is Reverend Gary Davis, who is an old blues guy. I said, ‘I love him. Believe it or not, I used to open for him in Philadelphia, back in 1970.’ He’s like, ‘You did?’ I said, ‘Yeah, yeah. I got to know him pretty well near the end of his life.’ So we ended up picking a Fred McDowell tune, and we just kind of talked it over, and we went out and played it live. That’s what you hear.”
“Nature’s Disappearing,” pays homage to John Mayall, Trout’s one-time boss and a continuing influence on his work.
“I think John Mayall is one of the greatest songwriters in the history of the blues. He doesn’t get enough credit for his body of work. He is one of the guys who has managed to write blues-based songs but with topical themes,” Trout says. “Political themes and human themes. I mean, it’s an amazing body of work. So I wanted to do one of his songs because he is like a surrogate father to me. But that song, I think is more relevant today than it was literally 50 years ago when he wrote it. It’s 50 years old now. I think it’s more relevant today. So he really nailed it when he wrote that thing.”
Calling Mayall someone who remains a “major figure” in his life, Trout has a humorous recollection of the moment when he decided to depart from working with Mayall to start his own solo career.
“As I was walking out the door, he said, ‘Walter?’ I turned around and said, ‘Yes?’ He said, ‘Welcome to the wonderful world of band leading!’” he recalls with a big laugh. “I learned a lot from him. I also learned how to get up on big stages and play spontaneously, also”
Recalling that Mayall wrote “Nature’s Disappearing” in a matter of minutes while in a doctor’s office waiting for an appointment, Trout admits that he was nervous recording his own version.
“I wanted to do it justice. So after we recorded it and mixed it, I sent it to him, and he sent me a really beautiful email, and he said, ‘I’ve listened to it over and over, and I’m going to keep listening to it because you’ve done a fantastic job and thank you.’ I got that email and actually sat down and wept.”
Even as he is on the road now promoting the Survivor Blues
album, Trout says he’s well on the way to his next album. He had laid down the initial recordings for six songs at the time of this interview and says that there’s no end in sight for the creative explosion he’s enjoyed with his songwriting.
“I just came up with all of this music. I mean, I have a recorder on my phone, and I just sit in my living room, and one after the other, the songs come out,” he says. “Most of them with no lyrics — they’re just musical ideas. I’ve probably got 200.”
Now that’s the blues power, right there.
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