By Kevin Porter
Walter Trout is doing what he loves best: playing his signature blues-rock music live across the country before his loyal fans. He’s touring behind a sparkling new album, We’re in This All Together, an all-star collaboration with 14 of the best and brightest names in blues and rock music. (Rock and Blues Muse album review). A sense of joy and happiness pervades throughout the album, perhaps not surprising given Mr. Trout’s near brush with death three years ago. The recipient of a liver transplant, Mr. Trout regularly preaches the importance of organ donation and plays benefits for organizations such as Donate Life America. He kindly took the time to talk to us while traveling between gigs.
KP: I really like the new album. How did this all come about?
WT: I did a gig at Carnegie Hall with Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Edgar Winter. We were sitting around, and I said we should record something together, and they thought it was a good idea. Two weeks later, I played in Toronto with Sonny Landreth and Randy Bachman, and I said we should record something together. I started getting this long list of buddies who said they would play on one of my records, and it just kind of took shape that way. I started calling people: I called Joe Bonamassa, Charlie Musselwhite, and I realized I have an idea here, and I need to get on this while the getting was good.
KP: Did you write the songs with each person in mind?
WT: Yes, that’s what I had to do. For some of these guys, I spent a couple of hours listening to their music and tried to come up with something that they could get into, and that it also would be something I could get into jamming with them. I had dinner one night with Warren Haynes and Robben Ford in Los Angeles. I guested with Warren at the New Orleans Jazz and Blues Festival and we did “The Sky is Crying,” and Warren wanted to do that song on the record because he thought we just tore it up. With Robben, he played with Musselwhite, Jimmy Witherspoon, but he also played with Miles Davis and Joni Mitchell, and I wasn’t sure what to write for him. Robben said his first love is the blues, and we both liked the instrumentals that Freddie King did, so I wrote a kind of Freddie King-type of piece for Robben.
KP: Was it challenging to get into that person’s style?
WT: It was challenging, but it was a fun challenge–I didn’t find it daunting or difficult. For Kenny Wayne, we recorded three different tracks with three different grooves and three different approaches, and I picked one that I thought would be the best. For a couple of these artists, it was tough to figure out which track to give them. I still have a bunch of unused tracks for some of these guys. Maybe I’ll just finish them and that will be the next record, I don’t know.
KP: My understanding is most of these artists did not play live in the studio with you, but that you and your band would lay down a foundation track, and you would tell them to play their part in this particular spot. Is that how it worked?
WT: That’s how it worked except for a few guys who were in the studio. The cut we did with Joe Bonamassa was done live—we played it once, there’s no overdubs, what you’re hearing on the record is basically the rehearsal. At the end of that track, we just looked at each other and decided that’s it, no reason to do that over again. Edgar Winter and my son Jon came into the studio for their tracks, and John Mayall and I were in the studio for the acoustic track. But for 10 of the 14 tracks, we did it the way you described—we recorded the basic track and left room for solos and vocals. We send it off, they would put their part on there, and send it back. These guys are of such a caliber that you would have a hard time telling that they’re not in the room with us.
KP: I was shocked when I read elsewhere that this is how the album was recorded, that the guest artists, in essence, “mailed in” their parts because it didn’t sound that way at all.
WT: When you have guys this good, they can tap into what we’re doing. Some of these guys really cracked me up. Sonny Landreth, who I think is the greatest slide guitar player who ever walked the earth. I joke with him that he must be an alien from another planet because what he does with a slide is not human. He’s in a league of his own, but he’s so humble, he doesn’t know how good he is. He records his track and sends it back, and with his Louisiana accent, says he doesn’t know how good it is, and he would do it again if I didn’t like it. Of course, it was great. You can’t tell that Sonny and I are not in the same room looking right at each other when we’re doing that conversation with the guitars near the end of the song, and the same with Warren Haynes when we’re going back and forth with the guitars on our song. The caliber of these guys is very high, they’re the A-list, so they had no problem.
KP: Your engineer and producer were on their A-game, too, because the album does sound like it was recorded live in the studio.
WT: We worked with Eric Corne again. I’ve done 26 albums, and I think 11 has been done with Eric. He’s my guy—he instinctively knows how to make my music sound right. Logistics was the toughest part of this record, getting guys to record and send in their parts, and that was what my wife did. She had to get in touch with these guys, find a studio for them, and work with and around their schedules. That was probably the most difficult part of making this record. The music was fun, really easy and joyous, but the logistics were daunting. She really put this all together. The rest of us just did what we usually do.
KP: Let’s go back to the track you did with Warren Haynes. I’m trying to picture how you recorded the track. I assume the band started playing, maybe you did a solo, and then did you leave 16 bars or so for Warren to solo?
WT: I’ll tell you how we did this. I tell the band that we’re going to do “The Sky is Crying,” it’s going to be in the key of C, we’re going to start it off on the V chord, and I’ll play an intro lick. There’ll be two vocal verses, I’m singing the first verse, Warren’s singing the second verse. I’m going to play fills around his verse, he’s going to play fills on my verse. Then we’ll give Warren a two-chorus solo. There’ll be a third vocal verse, then I’ll play a two-chorus solo. Warren and I will then do a guitar conversation for a chorus and then we’re going to end it. We mapped it out like that.
Pretty much every cut on the album was a first take with the band. I wanted it to seem spontaneous; it had to sound like we were jamming. We would map the song out so everyone would know what’s going to happen, and then we just went for it. When it was my turn to play solos, I would just play them with the band. I would then do my vocal. We would send the track and the map off to Warren and when he sent the track back, I would play fills around his vocals because I wasn’t sure how he was going to phrase it. We put it together almost like a jigsaw puzzle.
It was the same approach with Kenny Wayne Shepherd. I tell the band that we’re going to do a shuffle in the key of C. I’m going to play the intro, then I’m going to sing two verses, and then Kenny will have two verses of solos. I’m going to sing the third verse, and at the end of that, we’re going to do a break, which will be my guitar solo. Then we’ll do one chorus trading back and forth, then we’ll play an ending with a break. We map it out, we talk about it, then we just play it. We send the track to Kenny and tell him that at two minutes and forty second, you have a two-chorus solo, stuff like that. This wouldn’t have been possible with B-listers, but with A-listers, it wasn’t a problem.
KP: I just find it interesting that the whole process started with a conversation with a couple people at a show, then there was a conversation with another couple people at another show—it’s almost like the album grew organically.
WT: Yes, that’s a good way to put it. I realized that after a few conversations, I had some of the best musicians in the world ready to go. I then called other people like Charlie and Joe. Joe
I’m going to play fills during your verse, you’re going to play fills during my verse, and so on. We just mapped it out and played it. What you hear on the album is the rehearsal. That’s the only time we played the song.
KP: What a great song to close out the album. I have to tell you my jaw dropped when I heard the song. It was so much fun hearing you and Joe going back and forth, it wasn’t a cutting competition or anything like that, it was just two guys who love to play music and it showed.
WT: Yeah, it’s mutual respect. None of these guys on the album were interested in a cutting competition. This is not sports, we’re not Usain Bolt, we’re trying to be artists.
KP: You co-wrote a song with your son Jon. I read somewhere that he started playing Ramones music and then gravitated towards the blues.
WT: For him, the blues was what Dad did. He had a band with his brothers, and they used to open for me. Jon was 12, Mike was 8, and Dylan was 4. They were called the Trout Brothers, and they used to do “Highway to Hell” by AC/DC, “Fight for Your Right to Party” by the Beastie Boys, “Blitzkrieg Bop” by the Ramones and so on. There were times it was hard to follow a group of kids doing these songs. At the time, Jon didn’t figure out how to do leads or playing the blues—he played chords and wrote songs. He’s a great songwriter. When I got ill and it looked like I was going to die, he felt like he needed to carry this on. I was very moved by that, I thought it was beautiful. That’s when he delved into blues and playing leads. Now, he’s frighteningly good at playing leads on the guitar. Anything I throw out at him, he throws right back at me. It’s pretty awesome being up with him every night on stage.
KP: It’s so cool that you’re playing on stage with your son.
WT: It is. Now, the son of my long-time keyboard player (Sammy Avila) is the bass player (Danny Avila), so it’s a real family organization. (Note: Michael Leasure is the drummer). We did a tour of England last year, and the Trout Brothers opened for us. They’re all grown up now, and they do original songs, and they just blaze.
KP: I assume you’re not touring with the guest artists who appear on the new album. Do you play these songs live?
WT: We play a lot of them. We introduce the song and say Charlie Musselwhite played on it but he is not here but we play it. Jon and I do the song that we did on the record. We do the Randy Bachman song and Sammy does the solo on the keyboard rather than another guitar. We do the Mike Zito song, and the guitar harmonies are done by my son and myself. If a friend of mine is in attendance, or the opening act has a good guitar player, I’ll invite them up and we’ll do the Kenny Wayne Shepherd number.
KP: You mentioned you have put out 26 albums. That’s a lot to choose from when you’re playing live. How do you put together a set list? Do you have a standard list and rotate songs in and out?
WT: Other than taking two years off when I was sick, I pretty much have done an album a year since I went solo in 1989. I normally concentrate on the latest album and maybe the album before it (Battle Scars), and then we will just do some blues jams. I do the title track from The Blues Came Calling with my son Jon. John Mayall played the Hammond B3 organ on the album. We do a Chuck Berry song; we do all sorts of stuff. We have a big repertoire to choose from.
KP: So, you basically play whatever moves you other than the last two albums—is that how it goes?
WT: Yes. We have never gone on stage with a set list. We just go up and start playing. We did a TV concert in Holland, and they wanted a set list before the show. I told them we don’t have a set list, and they said they never have had a band before that didn’t have a set list. I told them that this is a first for them. They wanted a set list because they wanted to put the name of the song on the screen as the band started playing it. I told them I’ll give them the names of the songs after the show because I don’t really know what we’re going to play.
KP: It’s amazing you play without a set list, but it must provide a lot of spontaneity.
WT: I played with John Mayall for five years, and he used to sit in the dressing room and write out these beautiful set lists, one for each of us. It would have the name of the song, the key, who is going to play the solos, all listed and plotted out. We would get up there, and halfway through the set, he would start playing other stuff. I used to wonder why he would prepare these set lists because he never stuck to it. With my band, I figure why even do that. I would get up there and think, I don’t really want to play that song, I want to play something different, so I’ve never had a set list. Ever.
KP: I know you just released this record, you’re out on tour. Do you have any thoughts or plans as to what’s next?
WT: After you stare death in the face the way I did for almost two years, I don’t look out a whole lot further than playing the gig tonight. I just want to keep playing, I want to keep touring, I want to keep doing this as long as I can until I can’t do it anymore. I love being a musician.
KP: How are you feeling these days?
WT: I feel great, but I know any day it can change. I don’t take anything for granted anymore.
KP: I have to admit that I was afraid we were going to lose you, and I’m so glad you made it through that. Mad props to your family and your fans who contributed money to get you well.
WT: It was amazing how the blues community rallied around me. It was really moving, it was incredible, but it’s something I have to look at in hind sight because I was in a coma and I wasn’t aware of what was going on. I have to say it was my wife who gave me strength and stood by me and tried to give me courage every day to fight and wouldn’t let me give up. Many days, I would say to her that it hurts too much, I’m not going to make it, and you have to let me go, I just want to go, and she would say no, you have to fight and make it through this day. I really owe her my life. I owe the doctors my life, I owe God my life, I owe my wife my life.
KP: I was struck by how much you had to relearn once you had the liver transplant—walking, talking, playing the guitar. What was that like?
WT: That was tough. When I was in the hospital, my oldest son, Jon, came to visit me. He brought me a Stratocaster and said you need to play, you need to keep in touch with who you are. They put me in a chair and they put the Stratocaster in my lap and I was unable to press the strings to the fret, I was that weak. I told them to take the guitar away, I don’t want to see it, I can’t deal with it. When I got out, I couldn’t remember how to play guitar because I had brain damage and I also didn’t have the physical strength. But I also had nothing else to do. I went to physical therapy every day for three hours, and I was at home the rest of the time, and it was about relearning how to walk, getting up and walking around the house, try to make my legs work, and then I would sit down and try to play. I decided to relearn on an acoustic because that would work my muscles better as the strings were heavier. I remember telling my wife that this is the most painful thing I have ever done. My fingers felt like they were on fire. It’s the old cliché that your fingers don’t have any calluses and they would start to crack and they would bleed. I just persevered and little by little, it came back. I started learning basic chords, then I learned basic scales, then I went to barre chords. I just worked at it. It took me about a year.
KP: Have you noticed any difference in the way you play now versus how you played a few years ago?
WT: Sometimes when I’m playing solos, the licks I hear in my head are a little different. It’s hard to explain. I used to hear linear melodies that I would play but now I hear patterns in my head. I don’t know how to explain it. I can tell you I feel it more and I have more to put into each note because it was taken from me but I got it back, and it means more to me than it ever did before.
KP: I understand you’re a patron of the British Liver Trust and I know you talk a lot about the importance of organ donation. What can readers of this article and your fans do in support?
WT: I want people to understand they have eight life-saving organs and when they die, these organs can be recycled and eight peoples’ lives can be saved—literally. There’s 50 parts of the body that can be reused. For example, your skin can go to burn victims, the corneas of your eyes can go to blind people and, in certain cases, people can see again. Even bones can be re-used for people who have broken bones. The problem is there are 120,000 people in the United States on the waiting list for a life-saving organ. A person gets on that list every 10 minutes and every month, we lose about 2,000 people because they can’t get the organ they need. I’m one of the lucky ones, and I’m living proof of what organ donation can do.
Three years ago, I was dead, and now I’m out touring the world, making albums, preaching the importance of organ donation. If people want to do something good for humanity, go sign up. It’s real easy to do. You can do it with your driver’s license, but if you haven’t done that, you can go to the Donate Life America website (www.donatelife.net). You fill out a form, and then you’re in the national database. I’ve also worked with a Norwegian organ donor organization.
This is my mission now. I’ve been given another chance at life and I have to give back. When I was in that hospital ward, they were carrying out dead guys every day. I saw the results of them not getting the organ they needed. I was probably one or two days away from death myself, and I was just lucky because they found a match. There’s a lot of variables in the organ you get. It’s not just blood type, it’s size, there are three different categories of liver that have to do with the lifestyle of the donor. But they were carrying out dead people every day and I saw it firsthand. Like I said in the song “Omaha” from Battle Scars: “on the floor there’s people dying, I can’t take it anymore, I can hear their families crying.” That’s what it was like in there.
WT: We played with Davy just the other night. I think he’s awesome, just a great player.
I think [The Blues] it’s in great shape. There’s a whole crop of great young players. You’re hearing the ones that are in their twenties. Every city I go to, there’s a 14 or 15-year-old guitar player who is the local up and coming guy, and I’ll get them up to jam because I like helping out the young people. I think it’s a backlash against the corporate, computerized, sterilized music for the past 20 or 30 years, and when I think young people hear something that’s a human being playing an instrument and singing and playing something from their heart about the human condition or human emotion, it moves them and gets them. There’s a big future for blues, and there are a lot of good young blues musicians out there. I’m not going to be around long, and I think blues music is in good hands.
KP: Thank you so much for talking to us, and best wishes for your tour and the new album.
WT: You’re welcome, and thank you.
For more information on Organ Donation from Mr. Trout’s interview:
Donate Life America: https://www.donatelife.net
British Liver Trust: https://www.britishlivertrust.org.uk
For more information on Walter Trout and his new album, We’re All in This Together https://www.waltertrout.com