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Walter Trout works around latest physical challenge to finish new album

The blues is bursting with great stage names, and the genre also has a few memorable nicknames.

A moniker that would suit Walter Trout, given all that he’s endured, would be “The Bionic Man of the Blues.”

“Well, that’s OK, man. I appreciate that,” Trout says with a laugh upon hearing that title. “John Mayall used to go, ‘Walter, you’re the guy who refuses to grow up.’ He used to introduce me to the crowd, ‘On guitar, the Peter Pan of the blues …”

Refusing to grow up doesn’t make you immune to physical challenges, however, and a combination of substance abuse and misfortune through the years has contributed to big hurdles that have threatened Trout’s life or his livelihood.

Topping Trout’s list of ailments and injuries is the liver transplant surgery he underwent in 2014, a procedure he said was necessary because of doing “too many drugs in my youth.” More recently, he broke the pinky on his fretting hand — three times.

The first break happened after a show. Trout was leaving the stage when a brick sticking out near the railing he reached for got in his way, putting his pinky at a 45-degree angle.

“And all I could think of was, ‘I have to play an encore,’ and I actually grabbed the finger and tried to put it back in place, which really hurt,” Trout recalls. “I looked at the band, held my hand up and said, ‘I broke my finger, but we gotta go play an encore.’ My bass player got in my face and said, ‘We’re not playing an encore. You’re going to the hospital right now!’ ”

Trout did as he was told. Afterward, with two shows left on that tour, he taped a piece of metal to the finger and tried to soldier on. But at the first of those gigs, he only lasted about 45 minutes.

Upon returning home, Trout had two screws inserted into his pinky, which he protected with a splint and wrapped in gauze while he played guitar with three fretting fingers.

Trout’s second break — in a slightly higher spot than the first one — occurred when he smacked his pinky into the cutaway of his Fender Stratocaster. He wrapped it up and kept on touring.

Back home again, Trout went for an X-ray and was told that the bone had “died and turned to gelatin.” So a doctor took a bone from Trout’s leg and used it to rebuild the musician’s finger, inserting four bolts to hold it together.

After a few months, Trout says the finger seemed to be getting better. That didn’t last very long: While he was working on his latest album, Ordinary Madness, one of the heavy doors at the studio hit him on the left hand, breaking the joint on the tip of his pinky. 

Trout dealt with that problem by wearing a splint for 24 hours a day over six weeks, all the while working on the album using his three good fingers. That meant playing guitar “with the hand I’ve been dealt,” Trout says, and making certain adjustments.

“There were certain things that I couldn’t do,” he says. “And if it popped into my head to do it, I had to say to myself, ‘No, don’t do that. Just do what you’re able to do.’ ”

At the same time, Trout didn’t break character and map out his solos ahead of time.

“I have to play spontaneously,” he says. “A problem I’ve had my whole life is I can’t play the same thing twice. … I’ve gotta play off the top of my head.”

Heaviness, introspection and levity

Trout’s new album, released Aug. 28 via Provogue Records/Mascot Label Group, opens with the title track, a slow, moody blues featuring a standout solo. 

“This was my thought on that one: ‘OK, this song is sort of about latent mental illness, dealing with your own flaws. I need to play a solo that is going to say that musically’ — and that’s what I tried to do,” he explains. “I tried to play something unique and something that would say exactly what the lyrics say.”

Serious self-reflection is also at the heart of the lyrics to “My Foolish Pride.” In a pad he kept with him on the road, Trout recalls finding something he may have written down after “a really bad gig” and felt he had let the audience down.

“It was not meant to be lyrics,” he says. “That first verse is exactly what I had written on the page, and I looked at it and said, ‘That’s as honest as I can be about myself,’ and I think maybe other people will be able to relate [to that].”

Trout closes Ordinary Madness with “OK Boomer,” which was inspired by his sons telling him that those words had become “quite the derogatory phrase” for the elder Trout’s generation.

“And I thought, ‘I’m gonna own it,’ ” Trout says. “After all the heaviness and introspection that’s on this record, I thought it would be good to go out with a little levity.” (The song includes the lines: “I like my music loud/I’m geriatric, and I’m proud.”)

“I refuse in some ways to give in to old age,” he adds. “Just because I’m pushing 70 years old doesn’t mean I don’t want to play rock ’n’ roll. I’m not giving in; my buddy John Mayall isn’t giving in — and he’s [closing in on] 87.”

— By Chris M. Junior

Photo by Alessandro Solca

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