One of the best-known guitar players in the world, Walter Trout spent decades building his career, particularly during the 1980 decade when he was featured in Canned Heat, followed by a lengthy stint with British blues legend John Mayall, a band that at one point featured Trout and Coco Montoya sharing the lead guitar role.
Once he started a career under his own name, the guitarist maintained a hectic world-wide touring schedule for decades. A favorite of blues festivals, his fiery live shows were often a highlight, showcasing his stellar guitar playing wrapped around original songs fraught with emotion, that easily surpassed much of the efforts of others in the genre.
Despite escaping the grip of substance abuse, Trout was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver in 2013. His health declined rapidly, making a liver transplant vital to his survival. He received a new liver in May, 2014, only a few days before the demise predicted by his doctors.
For the last year Trout has been sequestered in a cabin in a national park, in a fishing village with the North Sea out his back door, along with his wife Marie and their kids. He welcomed the opportunity to talk with someone not named Trout.
In a recent piece for the Louder Sound website, Trout shared his picks for the top ten Blues Rock albums of all time. His choices certainly provide insight into how his own style developed, and some of his key influences.
Topping the list were the first two Taj Mahal albums, Taj Mahal and The Natch’l Blues, that featured Jesse Ed Davis on guitar. Davis has faded into the mists of time, but during his life he played with many famous musicians. The lead guitar part on Jackson Browne’s hit “Doctor My Eyes” is one memorable example of his stellar playing.
“I played with Jesse for two years, me on second guitar. He was on several John Lennon records, and was in the Concert for Bangladesh with George Harrison. Later in his life, when he was having trouble getting gigs due to problems with drugs and bridges burned, he was in my band. There was a time when my band, playing in a little bar on the beach, had Jesse Ed on guitar, Richie Hayward from Little Feat on drums, and people like John Mayall, Garth Hudson from The Band, and Mick Taylor would sit in with us. The people in this bar had no clue what they were seeing!
“Jess Ed Davis was a close friend and mentor to me. Last year, he was inducted into the Native American Music Hall Of Fame in Oklahoma. They actually asked me if I would come and speak for the ceremony. My schedule did not allow me to go, but I did record a video where I told how we met, and discussed some of the things he taught me on guitar. They played it at the induction ceremony.
“One of my other selections on the list was The Rock, by Frankie Miller, who I think sings like a blues singer. In this country, Frankie Miller is underappreciated. One of my close friends, a British guitar player named Ray Minhinnett, was the guitar player on a lot of Frankie’s stuff, as well as touring with him. I have a special place in my heart for Frankie Miller.
“Another guitarist on the list, Michael Bloomfield, is central to a story I tell about my past. In 1965, I was playing Bob Dylan and Beatles songs on guitar, just sitting around playing “Ticket To Ride” and jamming with my friends. Then my older brother came home and said, hey Walt, which I hate. But I’m from New Jersey, where they are genetically incapable of saying Walter. I am always “Walt” when I go home.
“So my brother told me to sit down, and said, I know you like guitar, so I want you to hear this record. But when you hear this guy play guitar, you will fall down! It was the first album by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, with Bloomfield on guitar. After listening to that record, I went to my Mom to tell her that I now knew what I was going to do for the rest of my life, that I am going to be a blues guitar player. That sound I heard from Bloomfield was what I going to be trying to make from then on, and I never looked back. More than anybody, he is the reason I do what I do.”
In the article, Trout also highlights another Butterfield album, In My Own Dream, that made an impression on him, but for a different reason. “I’ve been asked a lot about what records I liked as a kid. I always mention the Butterfield albums, the Electric Flag records, Bloomfield’s other band. For this article, I wanted to mention Paul Butterfield as another big influence on my musical journey. But instead of the obvious choices, what about this amazing record. It gets overlooked but Butterfield sings his ass off on the title cut.”
Another surprising selection is Grape Jam by Moby Grape, which was part of their two album Wow release in 1968 on Columbia Records.
“As a kid, I would go to jazz shows with musicians like Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Ahmad Jamal, and others. When I was fourteen, I went to see Herman’s Hermits. It was ok, but it didn’t make me want to play guitar. Then I went to the Electric Factory in Philadelphia to see Moby Grape, the first kick-ass rock band I ever saw. I sat in the front row staring at their guitarist, Jerry Miller. Once again, when I got home, I told my Mom that I had just seen my future!
“One of the greatest nights of my life happened in Tacoma, Washington three or four years ago. Jerry Miller showed up at the show, told me he was one of my biggest fans. So I told him the story about Grape being the first real rock band I saw, as well as how much he had influenced me. We became good friends that night. Grape Jam has a long, slow blues on it that actually has Bloomfield playing piano. It also has the song “Never” by Bob Mosley, which was ripped off several years later by Led Zeppelin on “Since I’ve Been Loving You”.”
There is more to the story. Trout’s father lived in Ocean City, New Jersey, and Trout would spend his summers there. His father rented out the downstairs apartment in his building. The tenants had a son Trout’s age, who one day offered his friend a chance to see a live concert.
“Pete said he was going to the Steel Pier in Atlantic City the next day to see a band, and asked me if I wanted to go. I was 14 at the time. I asked who the band was. He said it was a brand new band from England called the Rolling Stones. I replied that I hadn’t really heard of them, and since it was a Sunday, I told him I was going to go to the beach and go swimming. When he got home, he told me, man, you missed something great! You should have been there. I was like, oh shit! He told me he was going the following week because Herman’s Hermits were playing. So I turned down the Rolling Stones on their first tour to see Herman’s Hermits for my first live concert.
“Steven Stills is another massive influence, too. On my latest release, Ordinary Madness, there’s a ballad titled “My Foolish Pride”. When we were getting ready to record it, my producer Eric Corne and I were thinking of nasty, crunchy guitars like Keith Richards and Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones. I took it home and worked on it for a couple of days. Something just seemed wrong. Then I happened to break out one of my favorite albums of all time, Who Knows Where The Time Goes by Judy Collins.
“There is a song on it called “First Boy I Loved”. On that song, Steven Stills plays electric guitar. You can tell he is playing a Gretsch guitar with a whammy bar, playing it perfectly clean through a clean amplifier. It is the most magnificently beautiful, sympathetic, soulful, caring back-up of a singer I have ever heard in my life. So I went to Eric and told him I knew what I needed to play on “My Foolish Pride”. Then I went to Doc Pittillo, who has fixed my guitars for the last forty years. He had an early 1960 era Gretsch with a whammy bar.
“He gave it to me to use. So I took to the studio we were using, Horse Latitudes, which is owned by Robby Krieger from the Doors. Robby had an old Gibson amp that I used. I replayed the rhythm completely clean on the Gretsch, with the whammy bar, trying to sound like Steven Stills on that song. I even played some of his licks off the Judy Collins song. His influence remains with me.
“It is an honor for me that on the new album by Richard T. Bear, Fresh Bear Tracks, I am on a song trading guitar licks with Steven Stills. So I got to play with Jerry Miller and Steven. It’s been good in my old age. Things are starting to catch on now.”
Trout is in the process of mapping out the plans for his next album, the 30th of his career. Once again he will be working with producer Eric Corne, who has worked on half of Trout’s solo releases. There is plenty of respect between the two artists.
“We are quite a team. First off, Eric is a young guy who has a different approach to mixing and producing. Eric also works with Sugaray Rayford, Karen Lovely, and John Mayall, who I introduced him to. He seems to intrinsically, instinctively understand what I am trying to do. He has a handle on this type of music, not wanting it to sound like a hip-hop record, but taking an organic approach.
“I like the Bob Dylan approach to recording. We do as much of it live as we can. We don’t record a bass track, then a drum track. We go in and play the stuff. Eric is like an old-school producer. I met Eric in 2004 when I was recording my Full Circle record, which featured special guests. The concept was that each guest was going to come into the studio and we would play together live. I was not going to send out a track for them to play over. It had to be live, in the studio, playing together.
“So I was looking around Los Angeles for a studio with a room big enough where we could set up the entire band in order to be able to play together. When I walked into Mad Dog Studio, which was owned by Dusty Wakeman who was playing bass with Lucinda Williams at the time, there was Eric. I figured being that he was a young guy, he probably wanted to be recording Jay-Z or some hip-hop. I told him I was bringing in guests. He wanted to know who, so I told him John Mayall. Eric got all excited, asking me if I thought John would sign his album!
“He then proceeded to tell me that when he was in high school, he would skip classes and hitchhike to the next town to see James Cotton in concert. That’s when I knew that this dude was all right. He is immersed in the blues, Americana, and soul music. I have been on so many albums – probably 70 or 80 total, going all the way back to the Canned Heat days – so I am well aware of how tense recording sessions can be. But that doesn’t happen with Eric.”
In addition to producing, Corne stays busy running his Forty Below Records label, featuring releases by Mayall, the Grammy-nominated Rayford (Corne wrote many of the songs on the singer’s Somebody Save Me release), the Claudettes, Sam Morrow, and a number of other Americana acts. Asked about the relationship with Trout, Corne had plenty of praise for the guitarist.
“I see Walter as a bluesman, but also as a great American songwriter in the vein of Ray Wylie Hubbard or Tony Joe White, guys who are left-wing country or Americana. Bob Dylan my be his biggest influence, and he certainly loves Clarence White’s guitar picking. It needs to be an organic thing. I would never suggest that an artist go somewhere when I don’t already hear that in them. I heard that in Walter, so I have been encouraging it.
“He came to me during the recording for Ordinary Madness with the idea of adding an accordion to the song “Heartland”. To me, it seemed like he was trying too hard to do what I was suggesting. But he really wanted to try it. As soon as we started doing it, it turned out really cool, so we ran with it. Walter is a guy that trusts his gut. And he goes with what he thinks is best for the music. There are some high profile people that have wanted to use his music, but Walter shut them down because he didn’t like what they stood for. I have so much respect for his integrity.
“After working together for the last 17 years, we share a sixth sense about things. We often are thinking the same thing, will finish each other’s sentences. It is a very natural bond. I think Walter likes my ears and the sounds I get, my sensibility about arrangement and instrumentation. What I like about him is that he is open to my suggestions, but he will be totally honest about feels good, and what doesn’t feel right.
“There is plenty of generic, mediocre music out there. What I look for in an artist is the drive for excellence. Walter is really driven for a song to be all it can be, which doesn’t always mean perfect. Sometimes a song is better because it is spontaneous. As an artist, and as producer, you have to know when a song needs more sculpting, and when it should be blood and guts, visceral and raw. Walter has been doing a lot of that. We did Blues Came Calling when he was sick. At times, he could barely play or stand. You feel that vulnerability in those performances. I always felt there was a lot more to Walter than just a shredding guitar player. It has been gratifying to see how he has evolved as an artist. But at his core, he will always be a blues guy.”
Trout readily admits he is still dealing with plenty of demons, stemming from childhood abuse, violence, and horror that lead him to music as a refuge and sanctuary.
“When people meet me, they think I am a happy-go-lucky dude. But there is still a lot of shit that goes through my head. There is biography out about me written with Henry Yates entitled Rescued From Reality, on how music took me away from a horrible life. There is nothing unique of self doubt, or even self-loathing. Life is not Disneyland. The lyrics for ‘Ordinary Madness” gets into the anger and fear that just lays there in your gut, and won’t go away.
“Most of the lyrics on the album were not written to be songs. As a touring musician, for at least 40 years, I have done shows in 200 cities every year without a break. There was a two year break where I was sick in the hospital for eight months, then it took me over a year to recover from my liver transplant. I lost the ability to play guitar, so I had to relearn how to play.
“When I have been on the road, riding in the back of the van, I have headphones on listening to music that makes me emotional, songs that create deep feelings. I will have a tablet so I can write down little notes about myself as a form of therapy. The first verse of “My Foolish Pride” doesn’t rhyme. It was written while I was looking at the window, watching the world go by. I found that verse in the tablet and just started singing it. That album was therapy for me.
“There is still a lot of mental trauma left over from my illness, from spending eight months in a hospital bed. I suffered some brain damage. Having been through a lot, this album is me putting my story to music. My hope is that people can relate to the songs, to understand our common humanity. After sitting in my house for a year, unable to play a gig, I have started writing for my next record, and it will even more brutal, about what it has done, not just to me, but to everyone mentally and emotionally to be shutdown at home.”
Another song on the album, “All Out Of Tears,” nominated for a 2021 Blues Music Award, came from a chance meeting in Memphis on Beale Street during the 2020 International Blues Challenge.
“My wife, Marie, and I saw Teeny Tucker, a dear friend. We gave each other big hugs, and we asked Teeny how she was doing. She informed us that she had recently lost her son. We were stunned. Then Teeny said, my heart is crying, but my eyes are dry, because I’m all out of tears. I said, my God, are those lyrics from a song? She said no, that she was just telling us how she felt. Immediately, I asked her if we could use her words in a song, which we dedicated to her son Boston. We all lose loved ones. Everyone can understand those feelings.”
Trout has fans all over the word, a product of his constant touring, a dynamic live show, and music that speaks from the heart. Initially, he received a warmer welcome overseas.
“It has taken a long time for me to get to the point where I am headlining festivals and selling out large venues here in the States. My career in Europe took off quickly, and I was very lucky, in that on my second album, recorded in 1990, I had a radio and MTV #1 hit song with “The Love That We Once Knew”. I am a one-hit wonder over there! I still have radio charts that show me at #1 followed by Madonna, Bon Jovi, and Bryan Adams. I was outselling all of them.
“While it was still #1, I did a free concert in Holland at a park in Hague, with Tony Joe White opening, for 500,000 people, the biggest audience I have played for. That song allowed me to get a huge audience overnight. The song was a power ballad that I wrote for my high school girlfriend, so in Europe I am a blues musician, but also considered a rock artist because of that song. The best part of the story was that two weeks after the record came out, the record label based in Copenhagen said they had recouped their money, and we were all going to be rich. They couldn’t believe how many records they were selling.
“Six weeks later, I go to Copenhagen and went to the record label’s office. They were gone, and I have not seen or heard from them since then. They took the money and disappeared. I have not found a trace of them on-line or through social media. I never made a dime for that record. It is a wonderful business, isn’t it! But if I hadn’t made that record, I would not have been able to record my third. If if I didn’t do my third album, I wouldn’t be getting ready to record my 30th project in May. You just have to keep going.”
Reflecting back to his illness and his struggles to regain his health and music career, Trout gives thanks for his recovery, appreciating his extended time on the planet.
“That is what happens when you face death. I lost about 120 pounds, had brain damage, and lost the ability to speak. I did not recognize my wife or children. I was laying in a hospital bed for eight months. The doctors did not expect me to live. Many nights they told Marie that they didn’t think I would make through the night. When you face death every day, and then come back, it is all different.
“Life is so much sweeter. Your priorities are different. I had to start from scratch to relearn the guitar. I didn’t remember how to do it, and the signals would not go from my brain to my fingers. I worked for six to seven hours a day for over a year to get it back, teaching myself to play a G chord. One realization I had, that since I had been playing so many gigs since I was 18 years old, I had been taking many of them for granted, on stage wondering what was going to be on TV when I got back to the hotel. It became something that I do. The passion had faded.
“Now, after having almost everything taken away from me, I don’t take music or life for granted. I was so caught up in trying to climb the ladder of musical success that I missed a lot things when my kids were little. I was more worried about why someone was selling more records than me, or why they got hired for a festival instead of me. Now I just don’t give a fuck. Someone will always write a better song or sing better. I want to take the talent I have been given and use it to the best of my abilities.”
These days Trout is exclusively playing a Walter Trout Signature Delaney guitar, based on his old Fender Stratocaster, featured on many of his album covers. Earlier in his career, Trout played a Gibson Les Paul and an ES-335.
“Michael Delaney is one of the finest guitar builders in the world. When Leo Fender designed the Strat, he created the perfect electric guitar. Over the years, people have tried to improve on his design. Michael took measurements of my guitar and the neck, worked on the pick-ups, all based on Leo’s design. One example of the greatness of the Strat design is that I am always changing pick-ups and volume levels while I am playing rhythm behind my vocal. On a Gibson, half the time my hand was flying around between the controls.
“In 1970, when I played a Strat in 1970, I quickly realized all of the controls – pick-up selector, tone and volume buttons – are all right there within easy reach of my baby finger. I didn’t need to stop playing. And the way the body of the Strat is cut in the back, the way it fits against your body, it feels like cradling a lover. The first time I played one was at a jam session in Philadelphia. I loved the Gibson Es-335, but when the guy handed me his Strat to play, I knew I had found my lifetime companion.
“Michael builds beautiful, incredible guitars in addition to being a kind, generous human being. He offered to build me another one so that I can leave mine here in Denmark and use the new one for the upcoming recording sessions in Los Angeles.”
Like most musicians, Trout is hopeful that he will be able to start touring again at some point this year. Tentative plans are in the works for some European dates in the summer, and a possible US tour starting in the fall. But nothing will be finalized until the efforts to combat the pandemic are successful.
Asked for some final comments, Trout eagerly shares the joy of where stands on his journey through life.
“I am having a ball! I am 70 years old, making my living playing guitar since 1969. I have been able to follow my passion, and support my family doing it. I am a lucky SOB who simply wants to communicate an honest human emotion to someone else. Having faced death, I now have more to express. I try hard to create something of beauty, like “First Boy That I Loved,” or a Little Richard tune, music that has a transcendent beauty of emotion, but also an unspoken, unexplained universal truth. Music helps me with my struggles. I hope that I can help other people in some way with my music.”