WALTER TROUT and Provogue Records / Mascot Label Group released Survivor’s Blues globally on January 25. Trout is no ordinary artist and this is no ordinary covers album. From the day he conceived the project to the moment he counted off the first song in the studio, he had a bolder plan for this release. Trout shares, “I’m riding in my car sometimes, and I’ve got a blues station on – and here’s another band doing Got My Mojo Workin’. And there’s a little voice in me that says, ‘Does The World need another version of that song?’ So I came up with an idea. I didn’t want to do ‘Stormy Monday’ or ‘Messin’ With The Kid.’ I didn’t want to do the Blues greatest hits. I wanted to do old, obscure songs that have hardly been covered. And that’s how Survivor Blues started…”
Over the course of the last several decades, Walter Trout has been a prolific artist. He’s regularly released offerings from the studio, so this moment of offering a covers album is somewhat of a curveball. His 2017 all-star release, We’re All In This Together, shows no sign of burning out and continues to receive accolades and sales on a global basis, alongside four awards for Blues Rock Album Of The Year. He reflects, ”It’s really overwhelming. How do I follow that up? I’ve always respected guys who went out on a limb, like Neil Young or Bob Dylan. You never know what they’re gonna come out with.”
Likewise, long-standing fans have given up trying to second-guess Trout’s next move. The track listing of Survivor Blues is a window into the 67-year-old’s fast-moving backstory, chronicling a five-decade career whose one constant is his deep love of the Blues. Opener “Me, My Guitar And The Blues” tips a hat to cult hero Jimmy Dawkins, whose records Trout devoured while cutting his teeth as a ’60s axe-slinger in New Jersey. “Nature’s Disappearing” nods to his celebrated ’80s tenure in John Mayall’s near-mythical Blues-breakers. In-between, you’ll find cherished favorites from a lifetime’s listening, with songs that caught Trout’s ear at key junctures in his journey, from backing up John Lee Hooker in the ’70s, to bringing the groove to Canned Heat in the ’80s or breaking through as a solo artist in the ’90s.
The roll-call of artists might be eclectic, but there’s a cohesion to Survivor Blues. From the outset, Trout made it his mission to harness the power and spirit of the originals, while stamping his inimitable musical personality onto each new take. He offers, “My idea was to do these songs like me, to arrange them for my band and style – not to just copy the originals note-for-note.”
Last September, as recording began at the Los Angeles studio of iconic Doors guitarist Robby Krieger, Trout and long-standing producer Eric Corne shared their vision with the only band who could measure up. The thunder and finesse of drummer Michael Leasure. The muscular groove of bassist Johnny Griparic. The spell-casting fingers of keyboards session god and regular Trout conspirator, Skip Edwards. “I’d play them the original,” remembers Trout, “and then I’d say, ‘Here’s how the song goes, what have you got?’ I’d give these guys a lot of freedom. The record was mostly done live, with us set up in a circle, just to get the feel of us going there together. And you can feel it, y’know?”
Walter Trout has a connection to each of these songs selected. He reflects on Chicago Bluesman Jimmy Dawkins never receiving the recognition deserved in covering “Survivor Blues.” He reveals, “The last line – ‘Since you left me, All I have left is Me, My Guitar and the Blues’ – is one of the greatest lyrics I’ve heard in my life and I start crying just saying it. And my wife thinks it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.” Sunnyland Slim’s “Be Careful How You Vote” stresses the importance of choosing carefully at the ballot box, without taking sides. Certainly relevant for all members of society. Universal themes are also explored on Otis Rush’s defiant “It Takes Time” and the funk-flavored groove of Luther Johnson’s “Woman Don’t Lie.” With J.B. Lenoir’s
“Talk To Your Daughter,” he recalls, “I found this song that Lenoir does all by himself with the guitar, very slowly, almost without even a rhythm. I played the original to the band and said: ‘Now we’re gonna turn it into Jimi Hendrix’. I wanted to use it as a vehicle for the band and for my guitar-playing and vocals. I wanted to belt it out.”
There’s rarely been a Trout record without a tip of the hat to Mayall, and here the Brit-blues godfather is represented by “Nature’s Disappearing.” He reveals, “I was nervous about doing it because it’s by my mentor and surrogate father. John told me he’d read an article about ecology and pollution – he put the magazine down at the end and wrote that song in five minutes. It’s even more relevant today, with all the environmental regulations being thrown out and national parks being sold off to oil companies.
You don’t hear a track like Goin’ Down To The River every day either, with Mississippi Fred McDowell’s ancient gem decorated with slide guitar from a very special guest. “There was something about the lyric,” muses Trout. “Y’know, ‘I’m going down to the river, I’m gonna let the waves and the water wash my trouble down’. It tore me up. But the original is very different. I decided to take the verses that spoke to me, and then rearranged the song almost Muddy Waters-esque with that slide lick. Robby Krieger was coming in every day, listening and hanging out, so I said, ‘I’d love it if you played on this song’. So when I say ‘Play it, Robby’ – that’s Robby Krieger from The Doors. We just did that in the studio – boom, there you go.”
All they needed was a title. And as Trout surveyed his bloodied-but-unbowed cohorts – and reflected on a collection of blues songs whose raw power remained undimmed – he knew the suggestion of his wife and manager, Marie, couldn’t be topped. “We started thinking about these enduring songs and the guys playing on the album,” he reflects. “Mike is in recovery. Johnny almost didn’t make it. Skip has had a triple bypass. And I almost didn’t make it after my liver disease in 2014. So Marie said to me, ‘You’re a group of survivors. You’ve all been through hell and you’ve come back. These songs are survivors. This album needs to be called Survivor Blues’. I just looked at her and said: ‘You got it’.”
Of course, when it comes to Walter Trout, survival is an understatement. Survey the glittering late-bloom career of this ageless bluesman and all evidence suggests an artist on a steep upward trajectory. Trout nods: “My career is going great. My kids are doing great. My wife and I are madly in love. I’m the most healthy I’ve ever been. So I haven’t just survived. Right now, I’m in the best time of my life…”
A musical force equipped with the soulful vocals of Janis and the guitar slinging skills of Stevie Ray, Carolyn Wonderland reaches into the depths of the Texas blues tradition with the wit of a poet. She hits the stage with unmatched presence, a true legend in her time.
She’d grown up the child of a singer in a band and began playing her mother’s vintage Martin guitar when other girls were dressing dolls. She’d gone from being the teenage toast of her hometown Houston to sleeping in her van in Austin amid heaps of critical acclaim for fine recordings.
Along with the guitar and the multitude of other instruments she learned to play – trumpet, accordion, piano, mandolin, lap steel – Wonderland’s ability to whistle remains most unusual. Whistling is a uniquely vocal art seldom invoked in modern music, yet it’s among the most spectacular talents the human voice possesses.
That vocal proficiency was well-established in the singer’s midteens, landing her gigs at Fitzgerald’s by age 15. She absorbed Houston influences like Little Screamin’ Kenny, Albert Collins, Lavelle White, Jerry Lightfoot, Joe “Guitar” Hughes, Little Joe Washington, “borrowed” a car to sneak out and jam, ended up swapping songs with Townes Van Zandt at Houston’s Local’s on White Oak, got involved in the underground theater scene becoming the first “Photochick” in Jason Nodler’s “In the Under Thunderloo” and soaked up touring bands like the Paladins, Los Lobos, and the Mad Hatter of Texas music, Doug Sahm. Her music played in television series such as “Time of Your Life” and NBC’s “Homicide.” The Lone Star State was as credible a proving ground for blues in the 1980s and 90s as existed, especially in Austin with Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Angela Strehli, Omar & the Howlers, and Lou Ann Barton all in their prime. By the following decade, Austin’s blues luster thinned, but Houston, always a bastion of soul and R&B, boasted the Impferial Monkeys with the effervescent Carolyn Wonderland as ruler of the jungle.
In the early 1990s Wonderland & the Imperial Monkeys were invited to the Guadalupe Street Antone’s in Austin. There, they were treated like royalty with the singer as the queen of hearts in the club’s post-Stevie Ray Vaughan stable, which included Toni Price, Johnny and Jay Moeller, Sue Foley, Mike and Corey Keller, and the Ugly Americans. It was a good bar for the Monkeys to hang, and Austin felt so comfortable that when the band called it quits a few years later, after a run in with black ice and a semi that wound young Miss Wonderland in the hospital, she set her sights on Austin at the start of the millennium. Besides, Doug Sahm had told Carolyn while they were signing autographs together at the High Sierra Music Festival she ought to move to Austin, as it was the land of free guitar lessons. She was there in months.
Living in Austin renewed Carolyn Wonderland’s focus on her multiple talents, underlining luxurious vocals with fine guitar work, trumpet, and piano, as well as that remarkable ability to whistle on key. Despite spending two years homeless (or as she puts it, “van-full,”) Austin has been fertile ground for Carolyn. A series of each-better-than-the-next discs began with Alcohol & Salvation in 2001 (“songs about booze and God; records are a time capsule of what happened that year”) 2003’s “Bloodless Revolution”, The Bismeaux Releases: 2008’s “Miss Understood,” 2011’s “Peace Meal” (recorded at Bismeaux and at Levon Helm Studios in Woodstock,) 2015’s “Live Texas Trio”; and here we are with 2017’s “Moon Goes Missing.”
Carolyn also got to stretch out with other bands and notably appears in Jerry Lightfoot’s Band of Wonder’s 2002 release, “Texistentialism” featuring Jerry Lightfoot, Vince Welnick (Greatful Dead, The Tubes, Todd Rundgren,) Carolyn, Barry “Frosty” Smith (Lee Michaels, Sly & the Family Stone, Rare Earth, Soulhat) and Larry Fulcher (Taj Mahal, Phantom Blues Band). She has released many songs for charity, 2016’s “Room at the Inn” (iTunes) benefits Doctors Without Borders, 2013’s “Money in the Game” (featuring Marcia Ball and Shelley King) benefits Planned Parenthood, “the Farmer Song” from “Miss Understood” benefits Farm AID, “Annie’s Scarlet Letter” from “Bloodless Revolution” benefits NORML, 1997 Justice Records released Carolyn’s version of Little Screamin’ Kenny’s holiday lament, “Blue Lights” (featuring Ian McLagan) benefitting MD Anderson Children’s Art Project.
Carolyn’s first appearance on vinyl? She’s with James Williamson (Stooges) on the April 2014 Record Store Day single, “Open Up & Bleed” AND on the full LP inspired by that fun session, “Re-Licked” featuring Raw Power Era songs with cool and risky guests.
Her circle of musician friends and admirers broadened to include not only Ray [Benson, who produced Miss Understood] but also the late Eddy Shaver, Shelley King, and yes, Bob Dylan, who likened her composition “Bloodless Revolution” to “a mystery movie theme.” She appeared on the same taping with Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings when she made her debut on PBS’ “Austin City Limits” (Season 35.) and had the thrill of her life when Bonnie Raitt joined her onstage for “The Road to Austin” concert film featuring Stephen Bruton and all his friends, got to play with James Cotton, Pinetop Perkins, and so many others at Antone’s, she and Erin Jaimes put together a benefit for Uncle John Turner and Johnny Winter insisted on bringing his band by to play, Carolyn’s wedding to A. Whitney Brown was officiated by Mike Nesmith (Monkees,) who serendipitously introduced them on set at VideoRanch in 2010. (there is video of the two of them on stage together that day!) She began co-writing with locals Sarah Brown, Shelley King, Marcia Ball, Ruthie Foster, Cindy Cashdollar, and Guy Forsyth; sat in with Los Lobos, Levon Helm, Vintage Trouble, Robert Earl Keen, and Ray Wylie Hubbard; and toured relentlessly for the past two decades, sometimes with luminaries like Dave Alvin, Buddy Guy and Johnny Winter, so far spreading her music in US, Europe, South America and Japan. She also claims membership in the all-girl Sis Deville, the gospel-infused Imperial Crown Golden Harmonizers, the Texas Guitar Women, and the Woodstock Lonestars.
Carolyn recently joined John Mayall’s Band as his guitarist and is balancing life on the road with writing time at home and on the road. She’s been touring for over 25 years and clearly ain’t done yet. Come see why at a show! (seriously, she’s perpetually on tour.)