Few OC-based musicians bleed the blues like Walter Trout. The soul, dexterity, heartbreak and elation in his voice and in his guitar playing flow freely onstage. But lying in a hospital bed in Nebraska, having lost all the blood in his body following complications from a liver transplant operation last May, he held his love of the blues deep inside. It could just be what's keeping him alive.
“I went into a coma for three days and when I came out of it, I had a thing called encephalopathy where I didn't know who I was and I couldn't speak English,” Trout says, recalling the experience. He's been in Omaha for months undergoing follow-up treatment at the Nebraska Medical Center. As of this writing he's started physical therapy, strengthening the emaciated muscles in his arms and legs so that he can soon walk out of there on his own. Both the surgery and the complications during recovery have left him physically weak. But his motivation has remained in sharp focus.
“I'd think about my wife and kids and my desire to write and play music for people and do what I had to do and fight it with everything I have,” he says. “I still am.”
Trout's fans worldwide and in his hometown of Huntington Beach might've hoped that just getting a new liver was enough to make the 63-year-old guitar legend whole again. For decades, Trout—who has released a massive 23-album catalog—has garnered legions of blues-loving admirers around the globe.
In a Herculean effort, Trout's friends, fans and family raised nearly a quarter of a million dollars in an online campaign to help pay for his medical expenses, securing a replacement for his liver, which had been fried from what Trout describes as years of partying, alcohol and substance abuse. But that was only the beginning of the battle. Since his diagnosis, his wife, Marie, has chronicled the entire ordeal on his website in brutal detail. Then again, given the skin-searing honesty we're used to from Trout and his music, could we really expect anything less?
“I don't see any need to bullshit people or sugarcoat anything,” Trout says, speaking on the phone from his hospital bed. These days he's still working on holding a guitar on his own. “We're all here together and I'm not going through anything that a lot of other people aren't gonna go through in their lives.”
The bluesman took that realization with him to the studio last year in the midst of his illness from April 2013 to January of this year to record his acclaimed new album, The Blues Came Callin' with his band and producer/engineer Eric Corne. By then, Trout had gone from the slightly chubby, jovial guitarist known locally for his regular gig at Perqs in Huntington Beach to being a shadow of his former self. He'd lost about 100 pounds and was sometimes barely healthy enough to record. He remembers writing the lyrics to the song “Wasting Away” after taking a good look at his skeletal face in the bathroom mirror.
“I walked right out to the living room, grabbed a piece of paper and wrote that song,” he says. “There are a lot of songs that were brutally honest, but I felt I had to write them as a therapeutic thing for myself.” The album was released at about the same time as his biography, Rescued From Reality: The Life and Times of Walter Trout by Henry Yates; both have been well-received by fans and critics.
The album and book releases were big accomplishments, to be sure, but Trout's entire year on the road had to be canceled for his recovery. That included dates all over Europe, such as the Northsea Jazz Festival in the Port of Rotterdam with Derek Trucks. Things looked bleak for Trout and his band and road crew, who count on him to make their living. But there turned out to be a silver lining.
Trout's son Jon, an excellent guitarist and bandleader in his own right, and Trout's longtime U.K. protégé, Danny Bryant, signed on to front Trout's band on a tour paying tribute to the blues hero. Recently they played a mixture of Trout classics and some of Jon and Bryant's original tunes at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano as part of a U.S./Canadian tour. Considering Bryant has been playing professionally since he was 18 and Jon's first concert ever was a tribute show for his father at Shepherd's Bush Empire in London in front of 2,000 people, Trout is confident that his band and his fans are in very capable hands.
As we stand by for more news of Trout's recovery, we wonder whether the OC music scene—which largely ignored Trout for many years despite his worldwide acclaim—will snap out of it and finally start appreciating the blues legend we almost lost.
“There's only been one music critic in OC that's ever given me the time of day, and I've put out 23 albums and I think the last album review I got in any paper in OC was probably 15 years ago. I don't know what I did. Maybe I was drunk in my youth and fucked some of these guys' girlfriends or something,” Trout jokes, the upward bend in his raspy voice hinting at a smile. “I don't know what the hell. But I kinda don't worry about it.”
Whether or not he's ever given the credit he deserves, Trout is happy to be alive, regaining his strength and quietly turning his inspiring story into fodder for yet another album. Though it's still a long way off, Trout hopes to sneak into a few jam sessions back in OC and start playing with his band by 2015.
“My son brought in a guitar here the other day, and I can barely press on the strings. I didn't have the muscles in my arms and fingers,” Trout says. “But I'm gonna do my best to get back out there and keep playing. It's what sustains me. It nourishes me and heals me spiritually to get up and play to people and feel that guitar in my arms and play it.”