One the blues’ most spectacular guitar men survives the biggest challenge of his life by doing what he does best.
By Steve Houk
You don’t have to go much past the title of blues powerhouse Walter Trout‘s 2015 record to see what kind of survivor he is.
The superb Battle Scars is a glaring symbol of what Trout has gone through the last few years, a coat of arms that speaks to a level of sheer guts and endurance that is intense even by rock and roll standards.
And thankfully for all those blues fans worldwide who know full well about his prowess on both the guitar and as a songwriter, Trout is doing damn well thank you, considering he was literally knocking on heaven’s door a scant two years ago. And two years after he almost died, he has a brand new record due out in late August aptly titled We’re All In This Together, featuring 14 songs he wrote for some of the blues genre’s most dynamic players to play, including his mentor John Mayall, Joe Bonamassa, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Sonny Landreth, Warren Haynes, Randy Bachman, Charlie Musselwhite, Edgar Winter, Mike Zito, Robben Ford, and his son Jon Trout.
For guy a few breaths from the end, Trout is happier than he’s been, well, maybe ever.
“I’ll tell you something man, I feel like I’m in the best time of my life right now,” Trout said during a break on his current tour which brings him to The Hamilton in DC on August 17th. “Part of it is that I feel great physically, I’ve got a lot of energy. I’m playing, I think, probably better than ever. I’m 66 and I’m still moving up the ladder, which is exciting. Plus I got a great family, a great career, and I feel really good. I know that I have, I don’t want to say, a second chance, because to be perfectly honest, I should have been dead in my twenties from drugs, you know? This, to me, is my third chance. I know that we’re all on borrowed time here, and I’m trying to make the best of every day. I just feel great, you know?”
Still one of blue music’s most electrifying guitar players in his mid-sixties, Trout did the rock star thing and lived and partied hard for decades, playing in bands with blues legends like B.B. King and John Mayall, as well as a stint in Canned Heat, and also establishing himself solo as a leading blues guitar ace with a knack for solid lyrics.
But it all came back to bite him in 2013 when Hepatitis C finally ate up his liver and it was literally down to the wire to try and find a life saving transplant. Luckily, Trout got a new liver and a new lease on life, but instead of writing about that new lease, he wanted people to know what he went through, and what kind of battle scars he has after surviving a truly terrifying near-death experience.
“When I wanted to do another album after coming out of the haze,” the likable Trout said, “at first I wanted to write like, ‘Hey, I made it and I’m alive and I’m so happy and everything is so beautiful, and something like the singing of a bird reduces me to weeping mass of jelly,’ you know? Write about the beauty of life that I never quite saw this intensely before. I kept trying to write songs, and they were coming out smell the roses and the sunshine’s beautiful, and it would have been great for Helen Reddy, or Olivia Newton-John, or the band that did “Afternoon Delight,” something like that. I said to my wife, ‘I’m going crazy. I have all this music, but when I try to write lyrics, it’s this cliched, trite bullshit.’ She said, ‘Well, you know what you’re avoiding. What you really need to do is write about what happened to you, it might not be fun but you need to do it because it will be therapeutic.’ She said that to me and she went out shopping for the day. She got back five hours later, and I had written six of the songs on (Battle Scars). And I finished it the next day. The whole thing took two days, it just came out, man. I didn’t try to put on any filters, I didn’t go, well, I’m supposed to be a blues guy, this song better be a 12-bar or something. Whatever came out, just came out.”
After Trout survived almost dying, it took him a good long while just to get even the most basic guitar chops back. But he scrapped and scraped and worked through both intense physical and mental pain, all just to teach himself how to play again.
“I had to relearn how to play. I got back out, I couldn’t play. I would watch videos of myself playing and I would go, I don’t know who that guy is, I can’t even relate to that person. I started over. I remember saying to my wife, ‘Look, I just figured out how to play a G chord.’ I also remember saying to her, ‘This is the most painful thing, I mean, I don’t know how anybody does this, my fingers are on fire, and …’ So it came back. I worked literally, it was like five hours a day I sat on the couch and I did that for a year.”
Trout endured almost unbearable frustration as he tried to regain the high end guitar skills that had gotten him to where he was before he fell ill.
“Learning it again, I didn’t know what else to do. I was like, ‘I don’t know if I can do this anymore.’ I could still remember positions, I could remember scales, where they were. I could look at the neck and go, ‘Okay, if that’s a bar there that’s a C,” but I could not do it physically. It was like being 10 years old, and you try to play a chord and it burns your fingers, and then your fingers crack open. I had to retrain the muscles because I had lost 120 pounds, and that was all muscle. I didn’t have the strength in the beginning, the strength to press the string down to the fret. I couldn’t get a note out. Not only was it practicing the guitar, but I worked with weights with my forearm muscles, and I worked with weights with my fingers and stuff like that, to redevelop the strength to do it. Little by little, it came back. I remember the first day I bent a string, we were celebrating, you know? Playing a bar chord, I went, ‘I just played a bar chord, and all the notes were ringing, there wasn’t a thud.’ We’re like, ‘Yeahhh!'”
But it was an annual Trout family tradition that poignantly showed him he was ready to fire up the amplifier for real and get back to business.
“I got home September the first, and the first time I tried to play in front of people was New Year’s Eve. We do a concert to the neighborhood, my family and I. My kids, we set up the band in the front yard, we’ve done it for years, and at the stroke of midnight, we play classic rock songs until the cops come, and all the neighbors come out. I played two songs with my kids, to see if I could do it. I did ‘Born to be Wild’ and “Fortunate Son.’ I played them, and at the end I was done. My hands hurt, but I actually did it, and I played a solo and I sang. I was like, ‘I think I may be able to do this.’ But that was only about eight minutes of playing. I kept working on it, that was January the first, and then the first time I got back up on a stage was June 15th, at Royal Albert Hall.”
And that comeback performance at one of the world’s most revered venues was the memorable moment Trout realized he had truly survived.
“It was a bunch of musicians doing Lead Belly music, Van Morrison and Eric Burdon among others. My wife introduced me, and said it was my first time back, and God, it was really emotional, she and I just stood there and wept. It was fucking heavy, man.”
Trout’s new record We’re All In This Together is clearly a way for him to exorcise some of the demons from the Battle Scars period, to put the intensity of the recovery behind him, and just enjoy being alive and playing the blues.
“Now was the right time for this record,” Trout said recently. “Battle Scars was such an intense piece of work, written with tears coming down my face. I needed a break from that, to do something fun and light-hearted. This album was joyous for me. It was quite a piece of work to get this record together, but I guess I have a lot of friends, y’know?”
And as for the future of the music that not only is in his soul but saved his life? Just like he feels after making it through his near death experience, Trout knows in his heart that the blues are alive and well.
“There’s so many young players coming up, so many young guitar players out there, and some good black players again, too. In many ways, in the ’60s I think, the blues kind of became in some ways the music of white college people. If you go to blues festivals, there’s not a lot of black people there. But now there’s a lot of young black guys playing blues, which hadn’t happened for a while, and there’s a whole batch of young guitar player singers. I think the blues is healthy as hell and has a great future, you know?”
Walter Trout with special guest Matthew Curry performs at The Hamilton, 600 14th Street, N.W., Washington, DC 20005. For tickets click here.