Featured Interview – Victor Wainwright

victor wainwright photo 1Victor Wainwright’s remarkable keyboard abilities and playing are at the very least, rollin’, rampaging and rambunctious. He’s a natural entertainer and his uncanny sense of finding humor onstage and in his music is probably unmatched in the blues & roots world. Not a lot of slinky sophistication here, just remarkable keyboard chops, great ensemble playing and his singing packs a wallop. Whether on organ, electric or acoustic piano… the keys are in for a ferocious pounding coming out of the boogie-woogie school of piano playing, Victor’s a point of lightning. He’s a marvelous barrelhouse piano player with fast, soulful, and remarkably deft fingering.

After gigging with his various bands, The Wild Roots; Southern Hospitality & Victor Wainwright and The Train for over 250-nights a year, he now keeps it down to a more reasonable number of showcases. Considering his being a well-seasoned performer in his late 30s, and especially how much he & his band put out during a performance, that seems like a prudent and reasonable course to follow.

“No, we’re not quite able to maintain that rigamarole anymore. But I could when I was in my late teens and early twenties. But I’m nearing forty now, so it’s a little bit different. We do perform around 200-gigs per year. It goes up and down depending. One of the challenges of touring with a six-piece band is getting everyone, number one, in one place at one time, but also, making sure that the venues we play have a big enough stage, have enough sound reinforcement to allow us to be and to live up to our full musical potential every night in our performances. Luckily, the blues world has been very accommodating to us, and we spend a lot of time in the blues and roots-music community and play lots of festivals. It’s a very healthy community with lots of places to perform… and (has supportive) blues societies.”

A big, bearded and extremely friendly man, Wainwright’s also incredibly gracious, and articulate. He’s of course highly appreciative of the success his music and career has garnered and feels “blessed.”

He’s a highly-decorated artist, having been a 6-time Blues Foundation’s Blues Music Award (BMA) winner and 4-time BMA Piano Award winner; and impressively, won the Band of the Year Award, the highest award an ensemble can be awarded in the blues and roots world.

Also, of all the blues groups and solo artists to record anywhere, Wainwright won the most prestigious Blues Music Award of them all, The B.B. King Entertainer of the Year in 2018.

“I really appreciate that, and I really love the Blues Music Awards and the work The Blues Foundation does and all the things they do for musicians to discover the music, whether it be the IBCs (TBF’s International Blues Challenge,) and all of their additional programs. I’m a big supporter of the Foundation and throughout the years they’ve recognized me. I just feel so overwhelmed when it comes to all of that and what it’s done for my career.”

More? His recording “Victor Wainwright and The Train” was nominated for a 2018 Grammy Award in the “Best Contemporary Blues Album” category, (eventually won by Fantastic Negrito’s “Please Don’t Be Dead.”)

He laughs, “I don’t know if my album, ‘The Train,’ should have won the Grammy Award, however, it was my first time being nominated for anything related to the Grammys. According to some, we were the second most played contemporary blues album that year, right behind Buddy Guy, (The Blues is Alive and Well,”) as per the charts.

“Regardless, ‘The Train’ was well listened to and well-liked by a huge amount of people. For us to be nominated, a lot of eclectic, collective talent from very modern to very soulful, we were just real proud.”

Victor’s recording, Victor Wainwright and The Train was 2018’s Most Played Contemporary Blues Album of the Year according to N.A.R.A.S., and was the second most played Blues Album of the Year. Add on the buyer accolade of it being 2018’s Number One on the Billboard Top Ten Blues record chart, and one can readily ascertain Victor and his band are on an unbridled, upward trajectory. And no small feat, his various live and studio-produced music-videos and songs have enjoyed well over 5-million views/listens. (Check many of them out via YouTube.)

Wainwright’s originally from Savannah, Georgia and is now happily based in Memphis, Tennessee. He was raised in a home surrounded by live music played by his grandfather, uncle and dad who collectively introduced Victor to playing music well before he was ten-years old.

victor wainwright photo 2“I didn’t take any lessons on piano. I don’t know how to read music at all. I’m pretty limited, believe it or not, and I’m very honest when I say, to what I can do on the piano. I feel I learned what my grand-dad knew and I took that and listened to the music that I loved, and I translated that into something, I guess, quite original and people are finding it an original way to play the piano. I don’t play it like other blues or roots piano players. I just play it like myself. And I like to sing and entertain as much as I like to play piano, and that’s a thing my grandfather taught me. He gets credit for teaching me how to play the piano, but he was a great entertainer, He really took up all the air in the room when he entered it. He was a massive personality. And my dad too… my dad’s the same way. My dad’s retired now but he played a lot of (live) music during most of his life, along with my uncle. My grandfather passed a couple of Decembers ago, but the three of them taught me a lot, and they were a major part of my musical upbringing.”

His family, especially his father was understandably concerned about Victor’s choice of becoming a musician, as opposed to holding down a day-job.

“I think they knew how hard a life (as a working musician) it was going to be for me, and they knew the reality of playing music full-time for a living, and how that could be very challenging for a young person in today’s musical climate. And it is very hard. We all know a lot of musicians that are out there that are not touring. For all the thousands of bands that there are, there might be a couple that are able to tour and make a living out of it. It takes a lot more than to just be able to play an instrument. Being a musician that’s able to tour and make a business and a life out of it is tough. My parents knew that very well, because of their history with music. Especially my grandfather. My dad was not able to make it a full-time job necessarily and held many jobs. My grandfather was with an insurance company for many years, as well as being a musician. I think they just wanted the best for me which is why they also had me choose something that wasn’t music, just to have something I could do as well. The rest is history.”

And as unusual an early career choice as one might imagine a successful musician might have, Wainwright actually made a living for a while being an air-traffic controller.

“There was a friend of our family who was an air-traffic controller and I was fascinated by it. You’ve got to devote your whole body to it, that’s for sure. You can’t have even a little piece of you outside of the circle, as far as how deep in the water you are at each given time.

“When you’re a kid, you don’t know what you want to be. That’s a hell of a question to ask a kid. They should all answer, “just happy.” So, follow the path that makes you happy. For me that path led to music and not toward air-traffic controlling.”

Victor’s fourth incarnation as a player/bandleader is with “The Train,” a furiously-fun, powerhouse band. Most of the players have been with Wainwright a long time, and all have a ball on stage every performing night.

“Being in a band requires full attention and 100% of our energy and effort, mind and body. I will say, it’s all of us doing that, it’s not just me. We’re very devoted and we work very, very hard. I just can’t say enough good things about this band. I feel lucky to have them.”

victor wainwright photo 3“The band itself is comprised of members I’ve put together over the course of ten years. I met the drummer from ‘The Wild Roots,’ Billy Dean over ten years ago in Daytona Beach, Florida and we’ve toured the world together many times. He’s still with me. The bass player, Terrence Grayson, had toured with “The Wild Roots” but never recorded with them, and he’s been with me for five years. Pat Harrington on guitar, has been with me over three years.

“And the horn players are on the record too. It’s really cool ‘cause we’ve been touring the past year and a half with the exact lineup on the Grammy-nominated album, and we’ve already recorded the next album. It’s the same exact band that appears on stage with me, which is a real privilege and an honor for me. Part of the deal these days is that people are having a really hard time keeping bands together in the blues world. You see a lot of lineup change. I’m sittin’ here knockin’ on wood, as I feel so grateful to be touring with these guys for so long. To have this exact studio-quality lineup on the road and to be able to do this. It takes a lot more than just me. It’s way more than a one-man project. It takes a whole team, a whole village of people to keep this band on the road and keep doing what we’re doing. But it is so rewarding for us, and I truly believe for the audience too.

“I understand that musicians are curious about trying new things, and they can be pretty finicky. People bounce around to different projects. I feel it’s very special to have this band and this lineup right now and to be able to tour with them. Everyone in the band are full-time musicians. We don’t want any day jobs. We’re completely devoted to recording, to our music, and of course re-enacting that on-stage, with as much energy as we can muster.

“I look up to these guys and they’re part of my family and my team. When you live with people on the road like this, they are your brothers and your sisters. Where else are you going to spend all day working, and then you don’t get to go home, you’re going to a hotel room where you see them before you go to sleep and when you wake up in the morning you’re going to see them again. And then you’ll work together all day again. That’s the reality of touring… you become very close to these folks. And luckily when you have a unit like the one I have right now, it’s a pleasure to wake up to that reality.

“Basically, with the last album and this album, I’ve written the songs, and I bring these ideas, and pieces together, then let this band decipher my ideas and bring it all together to this very original exciting place. I don’t think I could do that with any other group. This particular band are coming from all over the United States. Doug is coming from L.A., Mark’s coming from Boston, my drummer is coming from Florida, the guitar player comes from Buffalo, New York, my bass player comes from Mississippi, and I come from Savannah Georgia, (although I live in Memphis now.) If you think about it, we’re all coming from different parts of the U.S. to tour and record and all with our own unique sound and history of influences, of all-things music. And then putting that together in one pot. Of course, while I’m writing this music, I’m keeping them in mind, and I’m very ambitious about what I’m writing and what I’m proposing to the band. It takes all of their talent and all of their influences and history to create this amazing project become a reality.

“I’ve just gotten my hand in to producing our music, along with our friend, Dave Gross. I helped engineer it, and we produced the new one in the same way, together with the same team. That’s something that I’m learning to do as well. It has to be something you’re willing to let grow. With everyone else’s input and influence, if I always wanted it to be the same way, it would never have been worth a damn. I bring something to the band and I expect them to give me their input and take those ideas and bring their excitement to them. It’s just a really beautiful harmony that’s going on right now.

“For me, it’s about standing in the center and inviting people in. I come from the South… you know. Southern hospitality is a big thing with me, and I want to take time with every person that I meet. I want to be very inviting. My home has always been a very inviting place. I turned my house into a place where musicians could live and stay with me in my place in Memphis, Tennessee. I just love that idea of being inviting and being hospitable and open. Basically, my arms are wide open. I stand firmly in my foundation & belief in blues and roots music, and I invite everyone in to our genre. People might not necessarily be familiar with (the late) Pinetop Perkins, but hopefully will find Pinetop through the discovery of my music. Of course, during live shows, we even talk about blues personalities past and future within our community.

victor wainwright photo 4“I’ve been brought into the fold of the Pinetop Perkins Foundation where, two or three times, I’ve taught children when I was heading the piano instructional Pinetop Master Class.”

The Train has one of the more unique album illustration covers in the blues world. The concept of course was Victor’s.

“First off, when I was deciding among band-names, I felt the music we play needed its own name. The Wild Roots was a project between my business partner and one of my best friends in the world, Stephen Dees. But I knew what I wanted with my current music. I wanted to branch out on my own a little bit, and to reach for slightly different angles than we were taking with The Wild Roots. As soon as I started writing new music, and hearing the band playing that music, I knew we needed a new name with its own title. I kept describing (our music) as a locomotive. I know that a train is so often used with blues music, whatever you want to call it. I said, ‘what makes this train different?’ I keep seeing the train as musical instruments, like flying down this railroad track. It’s all this creative music. I love the idea of the tracks and I love how the music gets played, and we just follow paths that have never been followed before. We can turn over stones that are still left to be turned over. Music is all about the discovery of what we’re bringing to people, since we’re all unique individuals bringing all of our experiences together. The music is unique and that’s what makes it special, and that’s what we want to celebrate. I think that’s one of the reasons that the artwork connects with people. No one has ever seen a train like that. It’s fun and that’s what we’re after, being ourselves and playing the music that my grand-daddy taught me along with everyone else in the band’s input. It’s something unique and fun and that’s what we wanted everyone to smile at.”

With six albums under his fingers, and many tracks in the can, Victor still tours The Train.

“Every night for me, I’ll play songs that will span back and be a culmination of all of my musical past. And this band spends time re-exploring older songs from The Wild Roots album. I think it will be around 2020 before Ruf Records decides to release this new album. We’re focusing on this album which was released last year. I have written (new) songs and I’ve recorded them, and I’ll be recording more. The new one, still has to be augmented and mastered, and have the artwork put together. It’s still a little way from being ready to be released. There are some songs that I’ve been trying out on audiences and I find folks really receptive to them. I play them just so I can gauge their reaction to things I’ve been trying different approaches, so that one night I might try a song one way and another night try it again another way or record it so I know, based upon their reaction on how I felt playing it, how best to produce a certain piece of material.

“I am just so thankful we’re able to play to people that love the kind of music we love.

Music has to breathe. It’s a living thing that grows and develops. We have a very grown-up, veteran sound with a lot of youthful ambition, if that makes any sense.”

With that, Victor laughs heartily, and promises to, every night, keep playing his heart out.

Visit Victor’s website at http://victorwainwright.com

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