The New Jersey Hall of Fame is full of legendary musicians from Count Basie to Bruce Springsteen, but there’s one name that’s missing - Walter Trout. He’s a guy who was born in Jersey and lived the first 23 years of his life here. He learned how to play the guitar and fell in love with the blues while living in the Garden State. His guitar has taken him around the world, but he still writes songs about his old hometown.
Walter Trout was a lead guitarist for John Lee Hooker and Big Mama Thornton, and played in Canned Heat and John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers before launching a solo career. He recently released his 30th solo album, Ride, in August and many say it is his best. The title track is about a train that ran past his house in New Jersey.
One listen to the album will tell you that he had a lot on his mind. It’s a deeply personal album; one that brings scars from throughout his life into focus. His troubled childhood with an unstable stepfather and his excesses with drugs and alcohol are well known parts of his story. Some of which filters down into his latest release.
Congrats on your 30th solo release, that’s amazing.
Yeah, I know. I’m kind of amazed at myself - really that I’m still going and feel good; I feel very creative and happy to be alive.
Did you really write the album in just two weeks?
I wrote the thing in about 12 days, yeah. But I was sequestered. I was all alone in our California house. All I did was sit in there and work on music.
It’s an incredible album and a deeply personal one. Is going to the personal stuff just a job you have to do as a songwriter?
For me, it’s sort of the only way I can do it. If you think that this is my 30th album (I think there are three live albums and one album of Luther Allison covers) so this is probably my 26th studio album. We’re looking at 280 to 300 songs I’ve written and recorded. I can tell you every one of them has a story that’s about something I’ve been through, something I feel, or something I’ve seen a friend of mine go through. I have to be able to really relate to the lyrics in order to sing it. I can’t just sing nonsense, it doesn’t work for me. Bob Dylan has a line on his latest album, ‘I can’t sing a song I don’t believe’ and I feel the same way.
Between this album and previous interviews I’ve read, I have to ask: are your memories of Jersey all bad?
Well hell no! No, not at all, but I haven’t really been able to write songs about the fun I had in New Jersey. I’ve written songs for my first love that I lived with in New Jersey, but they ended up normally about when she broke up with me.
No, they’re not all bad at all. I have great memories - especially of a town I lived in from third grade to eighth grade; a town called Laurel Springs. I loved Laurel Springs, but that was the house with the train that the title song is about. I was living in that house with my step dad and there were times I was in fear of my life, but I had great friends there. I had great times, loved the school there, and I’m still good friends with a lot of the kids I grew up with in that town.
So coming back for a show in Jersey isn’t a bad thing? You get to see some old friends?
Oh, I see a lot of my old friends. I went to high school in Collingswood and every couple of years I play at the Scottish Rite Auditorium, which is only two blocks from where I lived. A lot of times half the graduating class shows up and we have kind of a reunion. That’s really fun.
When you play shows now, do you play mostly songs from Ride or do you play songs from throughout your catalog?
We're going to mix it up. When you've got 30 albums, there's a lot of stuff I like. Even some of the older stuff. When I was playing with all those older blues musicians, back when I was a side man and with John Mayall, they would do things like turn around to the band and say, "Key of C" and they'd count to four and off you go. And you don't know what's going to happen. I like to do that with my band. I keep them on their toes that way, but you've got to have really good players to be able to do that.
A lot of musicians talk about the guitar as a means of escape, but that was pretty true for you, wasn’t it?
It is the escape. There’s a biography that was written of me by a British journalist about nine years ago. It’s called, Rescued From Reality, and what that means is that the music was my rescue. It rescued me from the reality of a lot of bad shit going on.
It was an escape and it still is an escape. It’s not like I feel I have to escape, but it’s a place I can climb into and I’m safe. When I’m playing the guitar, I’m playing it through a good amp, and I have an amazing group of musicians playing with me. It’s just pure joy.
Did you see any blues artists when you were growing up?
Well, originally I wanted to be a jazz trumpet player. My mom took me to see Ray Charles and James Brown when I was a little kid. She took me to see The Righteous Brothers and Lou Rawls. But the first real kind of blues artist I saw was when I was 16 and I saw Buddy Guy in Philadelphia. That was the first honest to God just pure blues guy and that blew my mind.
When you saw him playing the blues did it kind of make sense to you like this is where I want to go?
Well, let me explain it. I lived in suburban New Jersey. As a kid I lived in Ocean City and my father had blues albums. This was the late 1950s and my dad had records by John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, T-Bone Walker. I was hearing that stuff growing up, but it never really grabbed me until I heard Michael Bloomfield when I was 14. He took blues and he mixed this kind of rock and roll fire and aggression with it! He played it fast and full of fire. It’s just these three chords, but what you can do over these three chords is limitless. It provides you with a beautiful base that you can express yourself over and you can build on that form. You can really take that form different places.
As I got into the blues, I started getting more into rock and roll also. I was 13 and out came The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Animals - the whole British Invasion happened when I was in 7th grade. It was perfect timing for me to sort of shift my focus from Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Benny Goodman to those bands and what they were doing.
When you would play the Scottish Rite Auditorium, was there any place you’d go while in your old town?
When I played in Collingswood, I’d go around and see where my memories are. I’d go take a look at my old apartment. I’d go look at the house where my girlfriend used to live. I’d go and look at the high school. I tend to take a little short tour and relive my youth and it’s always poignant for me. There’s good memories and not so good memories.
Speaking of poignant, I loved the video you have for “Ride” with you playing alongside you as a kid. Did you ever hop on that train?
I thought about it all the time, but I never did. I never summoned the courage because I knew in reality I would jump on this freight train and God knows where I’d end up. Probably in a train yard in Philly looking around and going, “What now?”
I knew it was the train that went between Philadelphia and Atlantic City. It was mainly a freight train. Once in a while there’d be a passenger train, but 9 out of 10 times it was a freight train. That train became more of a symbol for me of escapism.
I always think that where an artist grows up and where they first starting playing is pretty meaningful. You left Jersey in your early 20s, right?
I left Jersey in 1974 and I was 23. At that point, I lived in Moorestown. I lived in a little house with my band. We just couldn’t get anywhere. We were broke. I got $150 bucks from my dad and jumped in my VW bug. I had a Martin guitar, a Gibson guitar, a Fender amp, a trumpet, a mandolin, all my clothes, and I drove to California.
I know you’ve spent the majority of your life outside of New Jersey, but I think you should be in the New Jersey Hall of Fame. Is that something that would matter to you?
If they wanted to do that I would be incredibly grateful and moved and I would probably have tears coming down my face because my formative years were spent there. I started my musical career there, playing up and down the Jersey Shore. In the 70s I did that whole circuit. It’s really where I honed my craft and where I learned to do what it is I’m still doing.
I would be moved and grateful, but I don’t seek awards. I know, for instance, that sometimes they’ll give a Grammy to somebody when I know somebody playing in the bar down the street who I think deserves a Grammy more than whoever gets it.
I’ve won a lot of awards. I’ve got 5 Blues Music Awards. I’ve won Best Overseas Artist at the U.K. Blues Awards so many times that they’ve taken me out of the running. Awards are not what I do this for, but if they wanted to do that I’d be humbled.
Walter Trout headlines the Morristown Jazz & Blues Festival on Saturday, September 17, 2022. The free festival also features performances by James Langton’s New York All-Star Band, Frank Vignola’s Guitar Night at Birdland Band, Bria Skonberg Quintet, and Veronica Lewis.
Some of the content in this article originally appeared in this Jersey Arts article.
PHOTO BY ALEX SOLCA