Fifteen minutes — that’s all the time it took for Johnny Winter to select the songs for his first studio album in seven years, according to producer/guitarist Paul Nelson.
“Once I told him the concept,” Nelson explains, “that I wanted him to do a roots album, it was like, ‘Johnny, name an artist.’ ‘Chuck Berry.’ ‘OK, what influenced you?’ ‘Maybellene.’ It was like that.”
The end result is the aptly named Roots (Megaforce Records). The 11-track album not only highlights Winter’s personal influences, but it also provides a fresh take on early blues and rock ‘n’ roll.
“They were just some of my favorites,” says the soft-spoken Winter from a tour stop in Germany. “There were a lot more, though. But these were all favorite songs of mine when I first started playing guitar.”
Prior to recording Roots, Nelson assigned homework to the members of Winter’s band: Listen to the original version of each song, then check out the second-generation version — and learn how to play both. That was done so everyone would be on the same page as Winter and prepared for his input.
“This improved everyone’s playing, groove and thinking,” Nelson says.
Roots also has its share of big-name guests. Among the A-listers making contributions are Vince Gill (who pops up on a countrified version of “Maybellene”), Blues Traveler‘s John Popper (who plays harmonica on a rendition of Little Walter‘s “Last Night”) and Allman Brothers Band guitarist Derek Trucks (whose dirty slide playing punctuates the Robert Johnson tune “Dust My Broom”).
But from the start, Nelson was very careful about making sure the guest spots were complementary to Winter and the material.
“We didn’t want the songs to be these big guitar-soloing things,” Nelson says. “We still wanted them to be songs with back-to-back solos, two eight-bar solos each, and then out.”
Once the rhythm tracks were recorded, Nelson forwarded them to the special guests so they could add their parts. The recordings also included Winter’s lead vocals — which were the first and only takes, Nelson points out — allowing the guests to do their thing around the singing.
After the guest parts were done, Nelson made changes to the arrangements, depending on how simple or busy the solos were, so that every song would sound as though everybody had recorded together at the same time.
Winter and Nelson are already thinking about doing a second volume of Roots, complete with a new batch of famous guests.
“This is great for Johnny,” Nelson says, “and it’s great for blues.”
— By Chris M. Junior
Johnny Winter on tour (schedule subject to change):
* Dec. 15: Stanhope House — Stanhope, N.J.
* Dec. 16: New Hope Winery — New Hope, Pa.
* Dec. 18: Trinity on Main — New Britain, Conn.
* Dec. 30: Narrows Center for the Arts — Fall River, Mass.
* Jan. 3: B.B. King Blues Club & Grill — New York
* Jan. 7, 8: Rams Head On Stage — Annapolis, Md.
* Jan. 10: B.B. King Blues Club & Grill — New York
* Jan. 13: Infinity Hall — Norfolk, Conn.
* Jan. 14: Empire State Plaza Convention Center — Albany, N.Y.