With titles such as “Almost Gone,” “Cold, Cold Ground” and “Gonna Live Again,” blues singer-songwriter-guitarist Walter Trout‘s latest album, Battle Scars (released in October), directly addresses his life-threatening battle with liver disease, and his cure, via a liver transplant. Trout, 64, is in town to perform at an all-star tribute to blues icon Lead Belly at Carnegie Hall in New York, Feb. 4 (Buddy Guy, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Eric Burdon, Edgar Winter, Sari Schorr and Guy Davis are among the many others on the bill; for information, visit carnegiehall.org).
I spoke to the Ocean City native, who now lives in Huntington Beach, Calif., by phone last week.
Q: First of all, how is your health?
A: I’m doing great — better than I have in a long, long time.
Q: Is it the kind of thing where you’re totally cured, or is it something where you have to keep being treated, and monitored?
A: I feel great, but I still get monitored. I still go in every few weeks and get a blood test, and they look at my numbers. I’m on an immunosuppresant drug; I’ll be on that for the rest of my life. But that’s a small price to pay: taking a little medication in the morning and a little at night. And I get to have a life again.
I feel good. I got a record (Battle Scars) that’s kicking ass. I’m being a father again. It’s good.
Q: I know you addressed what was going on in your life on that album. Was that something you had any second thoughts about, that you wanted to be that personal? Or did it just seem like the logical thing to do?
A: I needed to do that. I needed to get it out. I’ve always written songs that came out of my own experience, and that was a big experience. You come out of that, and sit down and write, and think, “What am I going to talk about? Well, I’ve been through hell here. I might as well discuss it.”
Q: Did you have to talk with the other musicians before you recorded each song, to let them know what it was about, or was it just obvious and natural?
A: When we rehearsed the songs, I told them, ’cause each song has a certain story behind it, and is about a certain aspect of the experience. So I’d tell them what the song was about, and tell them I’m looking for a certain kind of mood on this. And we didn’t really do a whole lot of work on the songs. I think we rehearsed two days for the whole thing. It happened pretty quickly. It was pretty spontaneous. They’re great players, and they latched right onto the idea of it, and I thought they did a great job.
Q: I know sometimes when musicians — or other kinds of artists — do this kind of project, that’s so personal and honest, they get reactions from people saying they’re glad you dealt with that in a song, that it gave them strength or perspective. Have you had that kind of experience with people who have been through similar experiences?
A: Every night, after the show, I have people come up saying that they’ve been through similar experiences, they’ve been through health problems, and that I was able to express things they wanted to express. There was one person who was attacked and shot, and barely survived. He told me that when he was in the hospital, that album had helped him get through the experience. I had another guy come up and tell me, just recently, that the song “Fly Away” had made him no longer fear death. I get some heavy responses to this record. It’s really satisfying to me; it’s means a lot to me. I think it’s not just a put-it-on-and-dance-around kind of record. I think there’s some depth there.
Q: So, was Lead Belly always a big influence on you?
A: Well, he’s been a big influence on American music. Everybody who plays this kind of music … he’s one of the ones you can trace it back to. I trace this music back to people like Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie and Louis Armstrong, and then the old blues buys like Blind Willie Johnson and Robert Johnson. Those were sort of the originators of it. God knows, his songs are timeless. They’re as good now as they were in the ’40s. An amazing, amazing talent there.
Q: Do you know which songs of his you’ll be performing at the show?
A: I’m gonna do a song of his called “TB Blues.” I thought about changing it “The Hepatitis C Blues” — modernizing it – but I didn’t. And then I do a song of mine, called “Say Goodbye to the Blues,” which I’m going to dedicate to B.B. King, who is another icon.