Featured Interview – Walter Trout

Now I get the feeling/Something’s going wrong/Can’t help but feelin’/I won’t last too long – from the song “Almost Gone.”

It may arrive a couple of years later than originally scheduled – and the Chinese Zodiac may proclaim it to be the Year of the Monkey – but here’s hoping that 2016 will long be remembered as the Year of the Trout.

Back in 2014, in an effort to celebrate his 25th year as a solo artist, Provogue Records had set up the shindig to end all shindigs for famed bluesman Walter Trout. Not only was his entire back catalog reissued on 180-gram vinyl, but his 22nd album – The Blues Came Callin’ – hit the streets, while noted British author Henry Yates penned Trout’s autobiography (Rescued From Reality: The Life and Times of Walter Trout), and a documentary film was readied to accompany that tome. There was also the matter of a major tour that was scheduled, as well.

But as blues fans know all too well – to put it bluntly – the rug was yanked out from underneath all those planned festivities when Trout underwent liver transplant surgery on Memorial Day of 2014.

That surgery, however, saved Trout’s life.

As jovial and upbeat as he sounds these days, it’s hard to believe that back about 14 short months ago, Trout was literally less than two days away from stepping through death’s doorway.

“I’m feeling great, man. I’m feeling healthy and energetic and above all, I’m feeling grateful and blessed and amazed that I’m still here … it’s almost hard to believe that I got through all that and that I have another chance,” Trout recently said. “I’m feeling like my perspective on things is radically different than it was two years ago, you know?”

Healthy, re-energized and ‘feeling like 17 again,’ Trout is back to business as usual these days, trekking around bandstands everywhere on a tour fittingly dubbed as ‘I’m Back.’

“I’m Back” is also a song by Luther Allison that I did on my tribute to him (Luther’s Blues) and I never realized when I recorded it that it would have so much meaning for me,” Trout said. “This last tour I just did, I started my show with that. I do “Help Me” by Sonny Boy Williamson, which is really sort our soundcheck, it’s like, ‘OK, we’re going to do this song, and help me, cause I can’t do it by myself.’ That has some meaning, too, and as soon as that’s over, we whip into ‘I’m Back.” Those songs have a lot of meaning.”

Lookin’ out my window/At the rain/I need somethin’ for the pain/But I don’t want to get strung out again – from the song “Omaha.”

The Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha is where Trout spent five long and agonizing months in the facility’s liver ward, waiting on a transplant. As his body grew weaker with each tick of the clock, the hospital bed was really the only thing that Trout knew. For many of those days, he was unable to speak or move and was in so much pain that he even wished for the end to come in a desire for some relief.

“There were times that I lost the fighting spirit. There were times I would tell my wife that I just wanted to go, because it hurt too bad and I couldn’t take it,” he said. “ I even said to my wife, ‘Look baby, I’ve had a good life and I’ve got three beautiful kids to leave behind – they’re awesome. I wanted to be a musician and have made 22 albums … I’ve had a great, great ride.’ But she’d go, ‘No, no. You have to fight; you have to hang in.’ She was there every day. She moved to Omaha with me from California and she was in there every day, standing by me and holding my hand and giving me strength. She would not let my fighting spirit lag – and there were times that it did. She wanted me to stick around, and I really wanted to stick around. She was my strength, and to her, I owe my life.”

Trout was even prepared to do without the one thing that he’s always done – play guitar – if that meant he would be able to spend even one more day on this earth doing the thing that’s most important to him, being with his family.

“I thought if there’s the slightest chance this (transplant) can work, I’ll do it. If it means that I get back and I’m able to be a father and a husband and maybe never play again, or never get to go on stage or make another record, at least I’ll be able to have a life with my family, who mean the world to me,” he said. “If there was the slightest chance of that, I wanted it, you know? But there were a lot of days of desperation and seemingly no hope.”

As much as his wife Marie was trying to stoke the still-burning embers of resistance and triumph in Trout, so too was his legion of fans.

“Marie would come in every day and read me cards and e-mails and the messages on Facebook from the blues community. A lot of those messages were people telling me that my music meant something to them. Maybe there was a song that had gotten somebody through some hard times,” Trout said. “There were a couple of people that had sent messages saying they had been suicidal and there was a song of mine that had helped them get through those days … that what I was doing actually meant something. She (Marie) would say, ‘You have to stay for me, you have to stay for our kids and you have to stay for these people. You’ve done something that matters.’”

If he never really had given much thought to the fact that his music was important and had a significant impact on the lives of others before his time in Omaha, hearing that outpouring of stories from his fans definitely drove that point home while he was in the hospital.

“There’s so much serious stuff going on in the world and I just make these little ditties, you know? I would tell that to my wife and she’d go, ‘They’re not little ditties.’ She’d read me these messages and that helped me hang in,” he said.

Blues fans have long been heralded for their intense passion abut the music they love. But as the world found out, they also proved to be one generous and caring group, helping to raise over $240,000 in a real short amount of time for Trout’s liver transplant. That act of kindness is certainly one for the history books.

“I had to cancel an entire year of work; three different tours, all in one day. And our medical expenses were up around $2 million. I do have insurance, but I have a co-pay and we’re still trying to get that paid off,” he said. “It came down to, do we sell our house and move into a little trailer in the woods someplace? Or do we do this and ask for help? We asked for help and the response was overwhelming. Along with the donations, there were beautiful messages, which you can still read at Www.youcaring.com – Walter Trout. It was beautiful and moving and overwhelming. I feel so grateful and I feel that I want to give back to those people now. My way of giving back is to go out and play for them and to play my very best every night … play my heart out for them.”

Minute-by-minute/I’m waitin’ on a call/For somebody to save me/By giving it all – from the song “Tomorrow Seems So Far Away.”

One of the most mind-numbing aspects of what Trout went though was the the seconds, the minutes, the hours and the days spent waiting for word of an available liver for the transplant surgery. The little strength and focus of mind that was still with him was locked in on the telephone in his hospital room.

“When you’re waiting on a liver transplant, they don’t come into your room; they call your room or call your cell phone. So you sit there every day and every time that phone rings, you think this is it. And then it’s not it,” he said. “After days and weeks and months, you can get pretty despondent and it can seem hopeless. The phone in your hospital room is next to your bed on the food trey. You’re waiting for this call and somebody comes in to take your blood and they move the food trey away from the bed and they leave. So you’re laying in the bed and the phone rings, but you can’t get to it because you’re not capable of standing up. Then it stops ringing and you think, ‘Shit, that might have been it.’ You don’t know who to call back …that’s desperation.”

Prior to his illness, Trout – who has been a professional musician for five decades now – had never sat his guitar down for what seemed like more than a few minutes at a time. But thanks to his health woes, his trusty Stratocaster remained untouched for two long years.

“In 1974, I moved to California (from New Jersey) and had been here two weeks when I got a gig in a house band at a restaurant in Corona del Mar and from that day on, I was never without work,” he said. “When I joined Canned Heat on New Year’s Eve, 1980, that’s when the tours really began. From then until I got sick, I was doing over 200 cities a year, every year. When I got with John Mayall, we worked our asses off. When I went solo, I was gone for at least eight months of the year, every year, up until I got sick. And in 24 years, I made 22 albums.”

Despite that two-year absence – and even though he had a bit of a rough encounter with his guitar in the hospital, Trout never fathomed for long the notion of not getting right back into the saddle as soon as he could.

“I didn’t want to shelve the guitar. I wanted desperately to get back to being who I am and doing what I do. But it was difficult,” he said. “My oldest son came to visit me in the hospital in Omaha and he brought a Strat. He said, ‘You need to keep in touch with who you are. You’re sitting around in a hospital with nothing to do – here, play.’ They laid the guitar on my lap because I was too weak to pick it up. I could not get the string down to the fret … I didn’t have the strength to get a note to come out. I said, ‘Please take this thing away, I can’t look at it.’ It was too painful … it (his ability to play) was just gone, I couldn’t do it anymore.”

After a little water had passed under the bridge and the scenery changed from a hospital ward to his own living room, the old mojo returned for Trout.

“I sat down and said, ‘OK, I really don’t have anything to do, besides going to physical therapy three times a week. I’m going to do this.’ So I started working with the guitar. I had to start over, you know? I had to begin at the very beginning,” he said. “I had no callouses and there’s that old cliche about your fingers bleeding. I remember saying to my wife after I picked it up the first day or two, ‘This is like the most painful thing I’ve ever done. How does anybody do this?’ But I went at it and worked at it for months and it finally came back.”

It doesn’t require much imagination to understand that the making of Trout’s last disc – The Blues Came Callin’ – was a labored process. His health was failing and you can certainly pick up on that by spinning the CD. Looking back on its creation, it has to be something of a minor miracle that it was even completed.

“I was really sick when I made that and what I hear on there is that I was really struggling. I had no breath … I would fill up with fluid in my abdomen and every two weeks, they would put a drain in my abdomen and take out half of the fluid, which would be about 25 pounds,” Trout said. “So it was all pressing on my diaphragm and my lungs and I didn’t have any breath. You can hear it on there. I didn’t have any strength in my fingers. That was a difficult album for me, so it’s hard for me to listen to that one, because I hear myself being very sick. I finished that album and about a week later, I was put in the hospital. That’s how close that was. The photos on the cover shots were taken two days before I was hospitalized.”

This IV is beepin’/It’s hurtin’ my head/Spirits are creepin’ all around my bed/I’m haunted by the night – from the song “Haunted By The Night.”

Trout’s newest album, titled Battle Scars, is set for an October release and although it was made under very different circumstances than The Blues Came Callin,’ the subject matter is a lot heavier than singing about rainbows and butterflies.

“After I started getting the guitar to come back, I started getting all these musical ideas. I told my wife, I wanted to do another album and write about where I’m at now. I would go into my home studio and record these melodies and grooves and stuff, but every time I tried to write about doing great and life being beautiful, it all came out like ‘daises and smell the roses.’ It was cliche, flowery-stuff. I didn’t know how to say what I wanted to say,” he said. “My wife said, ‘You know what you need to do; you need to go back and re-live what you went through. That last album, you hadn’t had your transplant and been to the hospital. You were on the verge of all that.’”

Once he sat down and started thinking about all he’d been through, the flood gates opened and Battle Scars was born.

On the floor there’s people dyin’/I can’t take it no more/I can hear their families cryin’ – from the song “Omaha.”

“What I came up with is a concept album about the experience. It’s about being in the hospital. There’s a couple of songs on there where I asked myself, ‘What was it like laying in that bed?’ You can’t walk, you’ve got brain damage; it’s hard to speak, you don’t know if you’re going to live or die. You lay there for hours and hours and you hear people in the next room,” he said. “One night in the liver ward, right around me, three different people died. You hear their families in the hall and they’re weeping and being comforted and you’re in this bed and you think you’re going to be the next one. When I thought about all that, the songs just started coming out, lyrically, and some of it ain’t pretty, man.”

Battle Scars doesn’t shy away in the least from Trout’s plight and it tackles his darkest hours head-on, starting with the album-opener, the self-explanatory, “Almost Gone.”

“That’s where my wife is standing over me and I’m looking in her eyes and we’re trying to be hopeful, but I can see in her eyes – and she can see in mine – that we don’t think I’m going to make it. Even the doctors didn’t think I was going to make it. And then every song on there is looking at a different aspect of what happened. The album ends with a song called, “Gonna’ Live Again” and that’s an acoustic song where I’m having a conversation with God, asking him why he kept me here. Why did he give me this other chance? What does he expect of me now?”

Lately I’ve been wonderin’ why you kept me here for so long/With all my indiscretions/All the people I’ve done wrong – from the song “Gonna’ Live Again.”

Trout really does bare his soul for all to see on the new album and if it was something that he went through along the journey from his illness to recovery, he put it down on paper and ultimately turned it into a song.

“One of the songs is called “Fly Away” and its about a near-death experience. I tell people about this and they go, ‘You’re crazy.’ Well, no, this is real and I wasn’t high or on pain-killers. I had some spirits come visit me and take me out of my body,” he said. “I looked at myself laying in the bed and I saw myself from up above. They (the spirits) said, ‘Now you feel what this is like. This is the other side. Do you want to come with us now?’ I knew that meant I would die, so I said, ‘No, I don’t want to go yet.’ The song is written about me talking to those spirits.”

Another song deals with Trout’s inability to fully take advantage of what Provogue had set up for him with the Year of the Trout campaign.

“It’s called, “My Ship Came In ( and it sailed away again).” It’s about my record label, Provogue, planning for five years to do a push on my 25th year as a solo artist. They commissioned a biography, they commissioned a documentary of my life, they re-released all my back catalog on vinyl … they were going to call it the Year of the Trout,” he said. “I had huge gigs booked, like the North Sea Jazz Festival and the Queens Royal Theater in Holland … it was the promotional push that I had been waiting on my whole career. This was a big thing that was going to happen for me and I ended up having to cancel the whole thing. That’s what the song is about. My ship sailed away and it left me here. If you were just to hear some of these songs on the radio and not know the story behind them, you’d go, ‘What the Hell is this about?’ You’ve kinda’ got to know the stories behind these songs.”

Trout’s return to the bright spotlight of the public eye began in earnest back in June when he stepped onstage at England’s fabled Royal Albert Hall, as part of the Lead Belly Festival. While he was naturally thrilled to be up on the bandstand after two long years away, there were a host of other emotions running through his body at the same time.

“Oh, yeah … I was apprehensive. I mean, it had been almost two years. I was thinking, ‘What’s gonna’ happen? Am I going to go up there and have my hand cramp up?’ The last two tours that I did before I was hospitalized, I would get these insane cramps in my hands and they would both close up. Not only could I not fret the guitar, I couldn’t even hold a guitar pick. So I was concerned with that,” he said. “And I was also afraid I might fall over or have dizzy spells or open my mouth and have nothing come out. All that was in my mind, and then of course, that’s (Royal Albert Hall) quite an imposing venue. But I’ll tell you, as soon as I walked out, plugged into the amp and played a note, got on the mic and spoke to the crowd, I felt like, God, I’m back home. I felt completely at ease playing. I had the time of my life. It was an incredible emotional experience.”

Being incapacitated for the length of time that he was gave Trout more than enough time to reflect on his amazing career of playing the blues. Looking back, he says there were really two pivotal occasions that sent him on his way to becoming one of the most respected and renowned guitarists of his generation.

“It has been a long one (career), for sure. The first day that changed my life drastically was when I was playing in a bar band in Costa Mesa, California. We had the house gig and played covers of tunes by The Stones and Eagles and Lynyrd Skynyrd and stuff like that. This buddy of mine said he had been up on the Redondo Beach pier and found this club with these older black guys that were playing the blues. He told them that he had a friend that was a really good guitar player and he asked if he brought me over there, could I sit in? They said, ‘Yeah, bring him up.’ So I rode up there with my buddy on a Sunday afternoon and he said, ‘This is my friend, Walter, and he’s a really-good guitar player. Can he sit in?’ They looked at me and went, ‘Well … we don’t know about that.’ My friend said, ‘Look, you said if I brought him up here, he could play. We drove an hour, you’ve got to let him play a song.’ So they said, ‘OK.’ So I played a song and they said, ‘Hey, play another song.’ Then after that, they said, ‘Stay up for the set.’ Then after that, they said, ‘Hey, you want to join the band?’ That was the Coast to Coast Blues Band – John Lee Hooker’s band. John Lee was not there, but his band had a house gig every Sunday on the Redondo pier. It was Deacon Jones and Finis Tasby … so all of a sudden, I quit the bar band and started playing the blues. With those guys, I got to play with all the great blues musicians we backed up, like Pee Wee Crayton, Big Mama Thornton, Lowell Fulson and Joe Tex.”

For two years Trout played with those cats and even became the lead guitarist for Tasby’s own group, as well.

“That was life-changing, for sure. Suddenly, I wasn’t playing Eagles songs at a bar, I was playing with real bluesmen. That was an education.”

Trout went from that setting to playing with the legendary Canned Heat. But the second day that had an immeasurable impact on his life was when the phone rang and on the other end was John Mayall.

“He said, ‘I would like you to join the Bluesbreakers.’ At that point, as far as being a sideman in the blues, that was the pinnacle. If you’re a guitar player and you get asked to join John Mayall … I mean, who’s bigger? You could say B.B. King was, or Buddy Guy, but with those fellows, you’re going to play chords and be in the background. With John Mayall, who’s one of the top blues acts in the history of the world, you get featured. You play solos all night and you get to sing and at the end of every song, he yells your name over the microphone. He makes you into a solo star. In the blues, he’s the ultimate band-leader. When I got that call, I knew my life had changed forever.”

Little did Trout know back then just how much his life would change some 30-odd years down the road, as he lay fighting for his life in Omaha, Nebraska. And although Battle Scars is a look into the rear-view mirror, Trout has turned his steely gaze onto what lies ahead, not behind, from this point forward.

“I don’t take this (second chance at life) lightly,” he said. “Marie says that all of the people who donated to our fundraiser for my medical expenses bought stock in me and my liver. When I play for them now, I have a responsibility to give back and offer the very best that I have. I just want to keep going. I’m loving every minute of it and getting up to play is such a joy; I’m just havin’ a blast … a blues blast!”

Photos by Gary Eckhart © 2015

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