Q & A with Johnny Winter and Producer, Paul Nelson – by Matt Ellis

Johnny Winter’s late career comeback is in full swing, and the man can still play with the same fiery fury that earned him the status of guitar god throughout the 60s and 70s.  Rams Head guest blogger Matt Ellis interviewed Johnny and guitarist/producer Paul Nelson of the Johnny Winter Band as the group prepares for a two night stand (Feb. 15-16) at Rams Head On Stage in Annapolis, Maryland.

Paul Nelson, Guitarist and Producer with Johnny Winter Band (far right in photo above, next to Johnny)

Thank you both for making some time to talk to me, I know you guys have a show tonight before you need to get on the road again.  How’s travel been with all of this winter weather?

Well, we’re stuck in a blizzard in Connecticut right now. 

How’d you start playing and producing with the Johnny Winter Band?  Did you seek him out or vice versa?

It all started 8 years ago.  I was working at Carriage House Studio on the East Coast performing and producing music for WWE Wrestling, like the player cameos and intros for the TV shows on NBC. 

Johnny was slated to record his album there and he heard me play in the next room and he asked if I could play stuff for his album.  And I said okay.  And then he said would you like to play the other parts on my album.  I said sure.  And then, he said, “If you’re going to play on the album you’re going to have to tour,” and it kept developing and developing. 

Next, “Would you produce me because now you know my sound?”  A friendship and a business opportunity just grew out of it very naturally.  It’s great to work with a Grammy-winning producer like he was with Muddy [Waters].  It’s like he’s bestowed that on me now… and took me under his wing.

Why do you think he’s such a good performer and how has he been able to create such a lasting legacy?

Knowing him well, he’s a blues purist.  Many people would be surprised to know it’s not just the music.  He knows everything about blues culture.  That obsessiveness about learning everything about the blues made him excel over others. 

He’s so well rounded on vocals, flat guitar and slide guitar.  For me to play with him it’s like a lead lesson every day.  He recommends to me stuff I should listen to, and what singers, and it sends me in a whole new direction.

Where does Johnny’s interest in the blues stem from and where does your personal interest in the blues come from?

Muddy was the key for Johnny.  I was into blues before because I was into Johnny.  As a guitar player growing up when I did, you had to listen to guys like Johnny and Jimi.  And then to get it straight from him it’s like having Hendrix as your teacher.  They all tell me I got a great teacher.

You guys have amazing guests on this upcoming record, Step Back (confirmed guests include:  Eric Clapton, Joe Walsh, Leslie West, Mark Knopfler, Jason Richey, Brian Setzer, Ben Harper, Dr. John, Joe Bonamassa, Joe Perry, David Grisman, Billy Gibbons, and the Blues Brothers Horns) – how’d you get so many big names to contribute and what can we expect to hear on this album?

Johnny is an iconic figure.  Every time they came to perform, and there were a lot of names from Clapton’s crossroads.  No one said ‘No.’  If they did it was only because of tours or scheduling conflicts.  The record company actually just signed Johnny up for two more albums after Step Back.  It’s all going to be traditional songs with notable artists.  Johnny knows the songs, I get the artists, we pay homage to the originals, give it a little twist, and there it is.

What is it like producing with Johnny, and what makes this a true Johnny Winter album?

I had to go to Johnny Winter School, you know.  When he was in his rock star prime, they wanted him to continue like that and keep playing more rock, but he wanted to be a blues guy.  They kept telling him to do more rock and pop and it bummed him out.  Now he’s a torchbearer for the blues and we tell him you can put a whole album out of this [traditional] stuff; you paid your dues, you can do whatever you want, and he’s like, “Are you serious?”

It’s a treat every day.  The Clapton solos, and the other stuff that’s going be on [Step Back] is insane. Great recipe here, always fresh songs, fresh artists.

Johnny Winter, Legendary Blues/Slide Guitarist

You’ve been playing guitar since you were 12.  Why’d you pick up the instrument in the first place and why did the blues take such a hold on your life?

I made my first record when I was 15, and I started playing blues when I first played guitar.  There were no white people that played the blues then, but I just thought it was the most emotional music.  Most didn’t even know what it was, and you couldn’t play blues in a white club.  But I loved it, and I wanted to learn how to play it.  I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to play it for people. 

In your own words:  Why are the blues such an important genre of music to you personally, to all of America, and really to the history of popular music as we know it?

It’s one of the few forms of pure American music.  There wouldn’t be rock n’ roll without the blues.  It was just great music; you had to like it.

You’ve always been able to play with amazingly skilled performers like yourself.  How did you manage to meet and maintain such a strong network of collaborators and who would you thank for helping you to sustain such a prolific career?

I really kind of sought them out.  I just wanted to play with the good musicians.  I’ve had a lot of help from different people.  There’s not one particular person I could choose.

And when you look back on your career, how do you feel about what you’ve accomplished and how far you’ve made it?  How hard was it to make a name for yourself in the music industry?

We started out in small clubs, making local records.  I made a lot of singles and played a lot of clubs until I got to be 19 and moved to Chicago.  I played on Rush St. in Chicago and met Mike Bloomfield there.  We played in Louisiana, Florida, pretty much just in the south at first…just kept going from there.

Who have been your biggest influences throughout your career?  Who do you think you’ve been able to influence with your music?

Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, B.B King, T. Bone Walker, etc.  It would be nice to think I had an influence, I hope I have.

How have you crafted your individual style over time – does it just come naturally to you or was there anyone who you ever tried to sound like and adapt their sound?

I could listen to every blues record I found and take something from everyone and make it my own style.  But it’s always been my own style.   

What’s your take on popular music today and is there any genre that you see today that could have the same societal impact that rock n’ roll and the blues had in the 50s and 60s.

It’s not much.  I don’t like it.  I hardly listen to any popular music.   There’s no real rock n’ roll anymore. Music used to be so good.  I don’t know what it is, it’s all kind of the same now.  And Justin Bieber…

You were ranked 63rd on Rolling Stones All-Time Greatest Guitarists of all time (one ahead of Duane Eddy and one behind Robert Fripp of King Crimson) – do you agree with that ranking or do think it should be higher or lower?

Way higher.  I think I should’ve been top ten.

You celebrate your 70th birthday this year (very soon actually – Feb. 23rd), you’re releasing a new album, and a documentary is coming out about you next month.  You’re also doing a very good job of keeping up with the times – I saw you have an app available in the Apple iTunes store called the Johnny Winter Bobble Head (that’s easily one of the best uses I’ve seen yet for an app).  How do you stay so busy and what else do you have in store for the future?

Paul’s doing most of the technical stuff and he’s going a great job.  I’ll probably keep doing the same thing.  We got a good booking agency and record company (Megaforce Records).  We’ll stay real busy. 

How much were you involved in the development of this upcoming “Down and Dirty” documentary?  What will it say about your life and your achievements?

Greg Oliver was in control of it, but he followed us all over the world for a couple years.  I did about 4-5 hours of interviews with him.  Obviously, all that can’t go in, but I’m pretty sure it’s going to be good.  He did another documentary for Motorhead that was good. 

It’s got all the good stuff and the bad stuff too.  It’ll be very well rounded. 

What are your greatest memories?

Playing with Muddy Waters was definitely my favorite.  I loved playing with Muddy.

I played with Jimi a lot.  He was a great guitar player; never another one like him.  I loved his music.  

Your brother Edgar plays at Rams Head Center Stage in Hanover, Maryland next weekend (Saturday, Feb. 22).  How often do you guys get to see each other these days and is there any chance you’ll both work on something together in the future?

Oh really?  That’s good.  He’s West Coast and I’m East Coast so I see him when I can.  I talked to him at Christmas, but I’d like to play with him a lot more than I do. 

What can the audience expect for the shows this weekend?

We play about ¾ blues, ¼ rock n roll.  Pretty much the same set every night.  


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One Comment

  1. February 20th, 2014
    Jeanne C Whittington says:

    I spent many years and many tears traveling with Johnny ….and I am so very proud of him!