Starting over on guitar is nothing new for blues musician Walter Trout.
About 20 years ago, Trout says he damaged his left shoulder to the point that his left arm “went completely numb.” Not only was playing guitar out of the question for a while, he couldn’t even lift a glass with his left hand.
He faced even greater physical challenges after undergoing a life-saving liver transplant in Nebraska on May 26, 2014. After returning home to California, he was still too weak to walk, but Trout was determined to work on regaining his guitar form, doing so from the comfort of his couch.
At first, the finger pain Trout felt in his fretting hand was excruciating, reminding him of the time he first played a guitar, when he was 10 years old and growing up in his native New Jersey. He eventually got to a point in his post-transplant recovery where he’d play around five hours at a stretch — and then, as a result of “going at it so hard,” Trout says he developed tendon trouble and needed therapy on his left hand.
“I’m known for overdoing stuff,” says Trout, who played with Canned Heat and John Mayall in the 1980s before launching a solo career circa 1990. “I play too many notes; I did too many drugs in my youth, and that’s why I needed a new liver.
“And then I played too much [during my recovery] and messed up my left hand,” he says with a laugh. “But I can still play fine.”
Trout recently checked in to discuss his recovery process, his return to the concert stage in mid-June at London’s Royal Albert Hall, his U.S. summer tour and his upcoming studio album.
Medleyville.us: What steps did you take to get back to where you are now, and when did that process start?
Walter Trout: “When I was in the hospital in Nebraska, my oldest son visited and brought me a Stratocaster. He said, ‘Dad, you need to play and keep in touch with who you are.’ I sat up in the bed, he placed the guitar in my lap, and I couldn’t get a note to come out. I didn’t have the strength to press the string to the fret. I was that weak; I had lost 120 pounds.
“It was really depressing and awful. It was like, ‘Well, even if I survive this, I’ll never be able to [play guitar] again.’ But then I got home and realized that I was going to live. I still couldn’t really walk, but I picked up a guitar and I just started going at it. I started off by forcing myself to play chords. I still knew how to do it in my head — I knew where the licks were; I knew where the chords were — I just couldn’t physically make it happen. So I just had to work. I had to do a lot of physical therapy and exercising, and I had to practice for hours. I had no callouses; it was like starting over.
“It took a long time, man. But I gotta say, it’s back and better than ever, and I feel stronger than I have in years.”
As you were working your way back into playing shape this time, did you experience any of the same forearm and hand cramps like you had before the transplant?
Trout: “They were pretty much gone. There were times after I would sit and play for five hours, where I would put the guitar down and watch TV, and two hours into a movie, my hand would start cramping up and hurting. But that’s few and far between [now]. It’s nothing like it was.
“The last tour I did [in late 2013], before I got sick, I could not bend a string, and I could not do a vibrato. And you would say, ‘How the hell do you play blues if you don’t bend a string and you don’t do vibrato?’ And I managed to pull it off. I had to rethink my style and play a bunch of fast stuff. I did it with as much emotion as I could put into it. … Now I’m bending the hell out of the strings.”
Has the liver transplant changed your physical or mental approach to playing the guitar? Do you have to think or do anything that you never really had to before?
Trout: “No. What I used to do before every gig, even back before I really got sick, I liked to sit in the dressing room and just play for half an hour to get my hand warmed up. I may [still do that].
“As far as when I play, I feel like I have more to say right now. When I played at Royal Albert Hall — maybe it was because it was my first time onstage in almost two years, and it was a magnificent room — I was basically weeping through that whole show, and every note I was playing was ripping my heart out of my chest. I felt like I had so much that I wanted to say through the music, through the playing, like I was telling a story. I feel like I can put more into it now.”
In the minutes leading up to your two-song Lead Belly Fest set at Royal Albert Hall on June 15, were you alone or in the presence of others?
Trout: “Oh, man: I was sharing a dressing room with Eric Burdon, Eric Bibb and Dennis Locorriere, the [singer and guitarist] from Dr. Hook. I was sitting on a couch, and we were telling funny stories.
“There was a guy who supposed to interview me who came in there, and he sat down and started asking me questions. And I had to say to him, ‘By the time you’re halfway through your question, I don’t even know what you’ve said to me. I can’t concentrate.’ Then I said to him, ‘When I’m done playing, I’ll be happy to do this interview.’ I was so preoccupied. This was a high-pressure gig. Not having been onstage in almost two years, to come out in that place: I was apprehensive, but I was also determined to go out there and do the very best I could.
“It was kinda cool in that I didn’t have the chance to get too freaked out because I was in there with these great musicians and their girlfriends. The place was packed, and everybody was cracking jokes and being funny. Eric Burdon and I got along great. Some years ago, he stole my band: The drummer and the keyboard player went with him, and the bass player turned him down and stayed with me. We had a good laugh about that.”
Was there a moment onstage during Lead Belly Fest that stands out from the overall experience of being back in action?
Trout: “The [most memorable] occurrence was when I was standing in the wings, and my wife, Marie, introduced me. … I was really apprehensive, standing in the wings with all of these big-time musicians, and I’ve got my guitar on, looking out at this room, thinking, ‘Look at this place.’ But as soon as she said my name and asked me to come out, I walked out there and got a standing ovation, just for walking on the stage. And as they were standing, I embraced my wife and we both started crying. [Pauses] It was just a spectacular moment in my life. … I don’t really remember the playing as much as I remember that moment.”
Is there a new daily routine you’re planning to follow once you hit the road in July in order to stay healthy?
Trout: “I’m gonna have to exercise in the [hotel] room, unless I have time to go out and take a walk. In the states, the drives between gigs are usually pretty long. I’m a famous insomniac, and that goes back to my childhood. … So after gigs, when I’m all wound up, I can’t sleep, so the sleep I get is in the afternoon at the hotel.
“I’ll try to eat healthy and take care of myself, but sometimes when you’re on tour — and I’ve toured constantly for 35 years — you can go out there with the best of the intentions [and get sidetracked]. Sleep and food are very important.
“My energy is not what it was yet; it’s coming back. They say it takes a year to a year and a half, and even the doctor here at UCLA said, ‘Give it another six months, and you’ll be killin.’ ”
What’s the latest on your new studio album?
Trout: “My new studio album is called Battle Scars, and it’s a musical document of what I went through and what my wife went through over the last year. Some of the songs are graphic; some of them are kind of dark and depressing. … The album starts off with a song called ‘Almost Gone,’ and it ends with a song called ‘I’m Gonna Live Again,’ which is me having a conversation with God and asking, ‘What is the reason you’ve kept me here?’ Because literally, nobody thought I would survive — not even the doctors.
“It’s being mixed right now. I worked with Eric Corne, who’s the same guy I’ve done eight albums with. We’re like a team. We’re working at a fever pitch because we have to deliver it to Provogue Records by [early July] … and it’s supposed to come out in October.”
Will you be mixing in some of the new material on your summer tour?
Trout: “No, that we cannot do because of something called YouTube (laughs). You know, if this was 20 years ago, we’d go out and play the whole thing and say, ‘Hey, you can [buy] this in October.’ But now if we do it, it ends up on YouTube. But we will be doing songs off the last one, The Blues Came Callin’, which we never toured behind because it came out while I was in the hospital.”
— Introduction and interview by Chris M. Junior
Walter Trout — U.S. tour dates (schedule subject to change):
• July 10: Coach House — San Juan Capistrano, Calif.
• July 18: Knucklehead’s Saloon — Kansas City, Mo.
• July 19: Old Rock House — St. Louis
• July 21: Redstone Room — Davenport, Iowa
• July 23: Hard Rock Hotel and Casino — Sioux City, Iowa
• July 25: Lowertown Blues Festival — St. Paul, Minn.
• July 26: Playing With Fire — Omaha, Neb.
• July 29: Boulton Center — Bay Shore, N.Y.
• July 30: Bull Run — Shirley, Mass.
• July 31: Infinity Music Hall — Norfolk, Conn.
• Aug. 1: Riverfront Blues Festival — Wilmington, Del.
• Aug. 2: Ram’s Head — Annapolis, Md.
• Aug. 4: B.B. King Blues Club & Grill — New York
• Aug. 5: Sellersville Theatre — Sellersville, Pa.
• Aug. 7: Bear’s Den at Seneca Casino — Niagara Falls, N.Y.
• Aug. 8: Heritage Blues Festival — Wheeling, W.Va.
• Aug. 9: Callahan’s — Auburn Hills, Mich.
• Aug. 11: Beachland Ballroom — Cleveland
• Aug. 12: Blues on the Mall — Grand Rapids, Mich.
• Aug. 14: Buddy Guy’s Legends — Chicago
• Aug. 15: Big Bull Blues Festival — Wausau, Wis.
• Aug. 22: Taos Blues Fest — Taos, N.M.
• Sept. 10-11: Big Blues Bender — Las Vegas
• Sept. 26: Huntington Beach Library Theater — Huntington Beach, Calif.
Image of Walter Trout backstage at Royal Albert Hall courtesy of Mascot Label Group
Photo of Walter Trout onstage at Royal Albert Hall by Alex Rice