Interview: Johnny Winter Discusses 'Roots,' a Tribute to His Favorite Blues Greats
Texas blues guitar icon Johnny Winter discusses his latest album, the aptly named Roots.
Johnny Winter has been playing electric blues since the Sixties, and his enthusiasm for it only grows with time.
"There's never been a point in my life where I was even close to getting tired of playing blues," he says, relaxing in his dressing room at B.B. King's Blues Club in New York City, where he's performing a record-release show for his 2011 album, Roots. "The truth is, I love playing the blues, now more than I ever have before."
On Roots, the legendary Texas blues and rock guitarist revisits some of his all-time-favorite blues classics. The project, including its theme and title, originated with Paul Nelson, who is both Winter's co-guitarist and Roots' producer.
"As soon as he mentioned the idea, I said, 'I'd love to do that!"' Winter says. "These are all songs that I have loved for so long. I grew up listening to them and learned to play guitar by playing along to all of them. And to be honest, it only took me about 15 minutes to pick which of my favorite blues artists I wanted to cover and which songs I wanted to do first."
In many ways, Roots harkens back to Winter's seminal 1977 Blue Sky release, Nothin' but the Blues, as a dedicated tribute to the blues music that inspired him as a youth. Winter cut that disc with members of Muddy Waters' band as well as with Muddy himself. On Roots, he's supported by his own stellar band, consisting of Nelson, bassist Scott Spray and drummer Vito Luizzi, plus guest keyboardist Mike Dimeo.
But Roots also serves as a modern-day slide guitar summit, featuring three of today's greatest electric slide players: Warren Haynes, Derek Trucks and Sonny Landreth, who appears on the album opener, a reworking of the T -Bone Walker essential blues classic "T-Bone Shuffle."
"T-Bone was a huge influence for me," Winter says. "He really was the father of electric blues guitar, because he was one of the very first people to play blues on the electric guitar. And it was great having Sonny on the track. He's a fantastic slide player, someone who has his own very distinct style and plays completely different from the way that I play. I've never heard anyone like him, and I really like what he does."
Track two, the essential Bobby "Blue" Bland classic "Further On Up the Road," features Jimmy Vivino, guitarist and music director for the Conan show. The song is delivered with the original's slow-burning swing, but Winter updates it with his inimitable guitar intensity and vocal growl.
"I was around 12 or 13 when I first heard the original, in about 1957," he says, "and I remember sitting there trying to copy everything [Bland's guitar player] Pat Hare was doing." A Memphis singer and guitarist, Hare recorded sessions with Bland as well as with Junior Parker, Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf.
"Pat's always been one of my favorite players. Another is Clarence Hollimon, who was on most of Bobby Bland's early hits, like 'I Smell Trouble,'" Winter adds, referring to a track he cut for his 1984 release, Guitar Slinger.
The list of guest musicians on Roots includes country star Vince Gill, who supplies a burning Telecaster solo on Chuck Berry's "Maybellene," and harmonica virtuosos John Popper and Frank LaTorre, who perform on Winter's versions of Little Walter's "Last Night" and the Muddy Waters classic "Got My Mojo Workin'," respectively. "I loved Muddy so much," says Winter, who produced four albums for Waters in the late Seventies, three of which were Grammy winners: Hard Again, I'm Ready and Muddy "Mississippi" Waters Live. "Working with him was one of the true highlights of my life."
Roots also features vocalist/guitarist Susan Tedeschi, who harmonizes beautifully with Winter on Jimmy Reed's "Bright Lights, Big City" and, fittingly, his brother Edgar Winter, who blows a funky sax on the album's lone instrumental, Bill Doggett's early R&B smash "Honky Tonk."
"This is a song that Edgar and I used to play in clubs all the time, because it was a hit that people knew," Winter says. "Billy Butler was the guitar player on the original. It's always nice to have Edgar with me for a track or two.”
The inclusion of "Honky Tonk" also serves as a reminder that Winter's background goes beyond the blues. Though he's devoted more than 40 years of his life to the genre, Winter played more popular styles of music such as R&B and rock and roll in his early years, including when he performed with Edgar and when he led his high school group, Johnny and the Jammers.
"We didn't get to play too much blues then, because we were mostly playing for white people and they didn't want to hear blues," he says. "In that band, we were playing mostly R&B and rock and roll. I had learned about the blues strictly for myself, because that's what I wanted to play the most."
To record Roots, Winter relied on his stage staples, including a black Erlewine Lazer, which he played on most of the tracks, and his 1964 Gibson Fire bird, which he used for slide.
"And I used my Music Man 4x12 amp, like always," he adds. Fans will recall that at a 2009 concert in Vienna, the Music Man caught fire during a performance of "Highway 61." "That thing has been through hell," Winter says, "but it still sounds great."
Winter has endured setbacks of his own in recent years, due to various medical issues, but he has emerged from them very healthy and very happy. On Roots, he shows that adversity has only made him more dedicated than ever to the blues, and that his music provides the strength that keeps him going.
"To me, the blues has more emotion in it than any other music I've ever heard," he says. "You can tell that the people that sing and play the blues mean what they are saying -- it's not just something they do to make money or treat like it's just another gig. Playing blues makes me feel really good; it just makes me happy every time I play the blues."
Photo: Ari Michelson
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