Interview of Johnny Winter by Monica Yasher

Posted on 4/21/2010 by Monica Yasher

Mr. Johnny Winter is more than a man with a guitar.  He has a lot to talk about. He has a book that is due to be released on May 1 entitled, “Raisin’ Cain: The Wild and Raucous Story of Johnny Winter“. Johnny is joining Megaforce records, and will be working on a long awaited studio release. And the word, nonstop, describes Johnny’s tour schedule AND his love of blues music.

When I asked to chat with Mr. Winter, I was told that I could ask him about anything that I wanted. The thoughts of Mr. Winter were mine to tap into. Though he doesn’t appear to be the most talkative person, he is open to any and all questions. And, he is truly one of those great southern gentlemen!

Maureen, who typically photographs the interviews with me, has told me that in communication you want to be heard; and, more importantly, you wish to be understood. We hear the music of these artists time after time. They are heard. It is my mission to help get their message out there. What do they wish for us to understand of their life and music?

I think the only thing anyone needs to understand of Mr. Winter is his true love for blues music. It is who he is, since the first time he picked up a guitar. His parents understood that blues music was critical to Johnny. And during a time of racial tension, supported him in frequenting black clubs, which was the only place that Johnny’s hunger for the best in blues could be satisfied, as he lived in a tiny Texas town. It is his love of blues music that joined him with the likes of Muddy Waters. It was important to Johnny to resurrect a genre that the great Muddy help create. And, he included his blues hero, Muddy, in that venture. When I asked Johnny if music was a curse or a blessing, he said with authority, a blessing! Yes, it is a blessing for all of us that Mr. Winter has the blues. And, that can’t make anyone sad.

Monica: Hello Mr. Johnny Winter, how are you today?

Johnny: Fine.

M: That’s good. You are such a busy man. I am from American Blues News and I am honored to be meeting with you today, and I truly appreciate your time. Thank you.

J: Ah. Sure.

M: Johnny I understand that your mother and father really backed you in your music. I understand that you lived in a time of racial tension, and it is my understanding that you learned a lot from going to black blues clubs.

J: Oh yeah.

M: What I haven’t seen written is how did your mother and father feel about you taking that trek and learning from those musicians? Was that piece of your history accepted by your family or not?

J: Oh yeah. They didn’t mind at all. The first person I actually learned from was a DJ and a guitar player named, Clarence Garlow, that ran Beaumont‘s first black radio station, KJET.

M: And, why did you feel you could learn more from black musicians at the time than white musicians? Why did you want to be there more than anywhere else?

J: They were the ones that played blues! That's what I wanted to learn!

M: You went to the root of it all, right?

J: Oh Yeah.

M: Did you ever find music to be challenging or was it always just there for you?

J: It was always fun. I always loved it.

M: Was it ever difficult? Did you ever struggle at all? Or, do you think this was a gift for you?

J: Why I think it was…definitely… a gift.

M: Whenever you did the clubs, was this considered the Chitlin’ Circuit?

J: I guess it was. They didn’t really call it that. But, I guess it was.

M: They didn’t call it that then?

J: No, I never heard Chitlin’ Circuit.

M: Didn’t you? When I interviewed Bobby Rush I learned of the Chitlin’ Circuit. I’m trying to learn about it.

J: The first blues I played was in Beaumont, in my home town.

M: A little town that seemed like a good place to grow up! The music market today is difficult, and it’s my understanding that you don’t appreciate the modern music out there. On your Ipod you have a lot of old songs?

J: Oh yeah. I don’t care about modern music.

M: Do you have to reinvent your music to be up to date or not? To hold an audience?

J: I don’t try to make it up to date. I just play what I like. I hope other people like it too!

M: Whenever you make a new CD, according to a lot of artists that I have talked to, they tell me that the fans don’t want to hear the new things. They want to hear the old. Do you find that to be true too?

J: Oh Yeah.

M: Does that sadden you as an artist that they don’t want to hear your new work?

J: Yeah.

M: Johnny, I know that you had a friend in Muddy Waters.

J: Oh yeah, a very good friend.

M: I know at the time of the 70’s and 80’s, a lot of rock stars brought the older blues artists back into fame, as you did with Muddy. And, Foghat brought Willie Dixon to the forefront. Was that intentional for artists in the 70’s or 80’s? Or, how did this come about for you? Do you feel that you were responsible for bringing Muddy back into the limelight for rock fans?

J: I wanted to try to make Muddy like he was back in the fifties. I knew he did some stuff like "Electric Mud" that I just hated, and I knew he was a great artist. I just wanted to make him the way that he used to be.

M: I read that when you were producing him, you knew how you wanted him to sound. You wanted him to sound like he did back then. Why? Why did you want to embrace that sound, and hold it true and present it to new listeners?

J: It was the kind of music that I love. I knew that Muddy was great, and he could get there again.

M: Do you think if you would not have met up with Muddy Waters…would your sound be where it is today?

J: Probably not.

M: What do you think you would have sounded like?

J: I’m sure I would be playing the same kind of stuff. But, playing with Muddy definitely helped.

M: What was the best piece of advice Muddy Waters ever gave you?

J: We really didn’t talk to much about….he never really gave me any advice. I pretty much knew all about his music, from just listening to all of his records. No, he really didn’t give me any advice.

M: No? What is your fondest memory of him?

J: I think when I would go over to his house and he would cook me gumbo.

M: Cookin' you gumbo?

J: Yeah. That is was a great memory.

M: Do you have the recipe?

J: No I don’t.

M: I read the story about BB King at the Beaumont Club. He wasn’t crazy about giving you the guitar to play. But when you got up there, it was a wonderful experience.

J: BB didn’t know who I was. I was a seventeen year old kid. And, we were the only white people in the club. I really wanted to get up there and play, and it was irritating me! (He laughed). All right then, he asked to see my union card. So, I showed him that. I said that, “I listened to all of your records“…I said. He thought we were from the IRS to get taxes or something! (We laughed)

M: Really?

J: He didn’t want to let me play, since he never heard me.

M: IRS? You didn’t have the long hair back then?

J: No no.

M: Does he remember that story?

J: It’s in his book.

M: That’s great that you two have a relationship built from that one moment. That’s fabulous.

J: Oh Yeah. It was great!

M: Obviously BB King touched you that night. I want to share a story of a man I talked to named, Harry Manx. This year Harry is the Canadian Maple Awards Acoustic Act of the Year. I asked him what launched his blues career, and he attributed it to you. He said that when he was thirteen he want to a record store, and he saw this great album cover with this shiny guitar on the front.

Johnny laughs.

M: He thought it was amazing, and had to have the album. And you were his introduction to the blues!

J: That’s great! Who is that?

M: His name is Harry Manx. Have you heard of him?

J: I think I have.

M: So my question to you is, as BB King helped give you your start, are you aware of anyone else you have touched in the industry?

J: A lot of people have said that I influenced them. That’s a reeeal good feeling!

M: Let’s talk about your songwriting. I know that many talk to you about your guitar work, but never about your songwriting. How do you tackle a song when you begin to create?

J: I usually write the lyrics first, and then put the music to it.

M: Do you keep a notebook with ideas?

J: Oh.. yeah sure…Yes definitely!

M: Do you write on the road much?

J: No. I haven’t written anything in a while. A few years.

M: A few years? It just isn’t there right now?

J: Yeah. I’m not feeling very creative in a writing way. But, I’m going to get back to it.

M: That would be great news when we hear your new songs. Let’s move on to your guitar stuff. I’m curious. Do you have that first guitar?

J: Not my first guitar. No. That was a looong time ago.

M: How many guitars do you think you own?

J: I got about seven Firebirds, and five or six Level National Guitars, three or four Lazers.

M: Is the Firebird your favorite?

J: The Lazer is. My Firebird is my favorite for playing slide.

M: Johnny, when you are on stage playing, what do you think about? The finger work, the feel of the song, what do you think about?

J: Just what I’m doing.

M: More technique?


M: I read that you constantly change your set list. What inspires you or what rules do you have in putting a set list together?

J: We change a few songs to the set list..usually three or four songs.

M: Are you still playing with how the guitar sounds with amps and the guitar itself? Or, are you done with that? Do you still experiment guitar wise?

J: No, I’m not really into experimenting. I pretty much know what I want.

M: If you could, who would be in your dream band today?

J: Today?

M: Yes, today.

J: Derrick Trucks, Sonny Landreth, Watermelon Slim, and Magic Slim and the Teardrops.

M: That would sound awesome!

M:  What do you think of the Texas music scene today?

J: I don’t care much for it.

M: You don’t?

J: No. I really don’t.

M: Why is that?

J: There are still some good people around. But on the whole I’m not real happy with it.

M: Where do you wish it would be? What do you think needs to happen?

J: I’d put more blues back into the music! (He chuckled)

M: So you don’t care for the famous Texas blues right now?

J: Well I hate rap. I hate hip hop. I just hate that kind of stuff.

M: Do you look back at earlier works and say I wish I would have done something better or differently?

J: Oh yeah.

M: What troubles you the most or what do you like the most?

J: There’s some pretty good ones of mine. I like ‘Dallas’ a lot. I like ‘Stranger‘. I like ‘TV Mama‘.

M: I like them too. I see you have a DVD for teaching guitar.

J: I sure do!

M: If you could offer some advice for those readers that are trying to do what you do, what would be the key advice you would offer them?

J: Listen to as much music as you can, and play as much as you can.

M: Blues music right?

J: Yeah definitely.

M: Let’s talk about your book you have coming out in the next couple of weeks.

J: Oh. OK sure.

M: Was this a painful or uplifting experience to go through?

J: I enjoy talking about myself.

M: Do you? (We laughed)

J: Yeah. I really do. I had a good time doing the book.

M: And, how do you feel the book turned out?

J: I love the book. It turned out great! I’m very happy with it.

M: I did go out and listen to a couple of things before I met up with you. I read that you weren’t feeling the best about things..and that was one of the reasons for your addiction problems. I was wondering..and you said you realized that things weren’t right…and it sounded as if things were just horrible for you. But what one moment happened in your life…that you went...I have to do something! What triggered you to get help and rehab?

J: As soon as I realized that I couldn’t function without it...I wanted the stuff bad. As long as I felt that I was just using it, it was all right. But, when I knew it was using me, I wanted to stop.

M: Congratulations on overcoming that.

J: Well, thank you.

M: Congratulations. I don’t want to leave you on a negative. What one moment in your life made you realize that you are really good with guitar, and yes I can do a living with this. What was your “aha” moment, that said this is what I am supposed to be doing?

J: I think playing with Muddy. It was my most fun.

M: What about your connection with Janis Joplin? I know when I read about the book, it was very specific on your connection with Janis. What can you tell me about Janis?

J: She asked me to go with her to the last movie Mae West made. And, I said sure. We went to the movie. We came in and people were clapping. We thought they were clapping for us, and we found out later we walked in at the same time as Mae West! (We laughed)

M: Music has taken you to the highest highs and it seems like the lowest lows. So do you think music has been a blessing or a curse in your life?

J: It will always be in my life. A blessing. No doubt about it. A blessing. Definitely a blessing!

M: And, what do you attribute to your success?

J: Hardwork and just being good!

M: Do you feel that the business side of the music industry is just as important as having talent and drive? Do you think that?

J: I don’t like the business side. I’m glad I don’t have to worry about that. I have a good manager to do that for me.

M: How did you meet you new manager?

J: I was doing a record, and Paul was at the same studio. We got to know each other there. (On the picture left Paul is on Johnny's right side.)

M: That’s Paul Nelson right? I was reading he acted in a film.

J: No. He’s not an actor.

M: I thought I read he was in a Bette Midler movie. I guess bad info out there…One last question, who would you thank for your career? Your parents, Muddy, your wife? Who would it be?

J: Probably my great grandfather. He started me out. He bought me my first guitar. He had me do songs, and he was a big help.

M: Did he ever see you perform professionally?

J:  No. He died before that. He was 96 when he died.

M: I’m sorry, Johnny…Is there anything you want to tell me before we go?

J: I don’t believe so, I think you did a very good job.

M: Thank you. I really enjoyed talking to you. I wish you the best in your career moving forward. Thank you for your music and guitar playing.

J: Well, Thank You!

M: Take care and I appreciate your time. Have a good day.

J: Bye.

As he was hanging up, I heard him chuckle and do the band mate rub of, “She thinks you’re some kind of movie star….”

That’s OK. A man who has so much of the blues should laugh sometimes. Even, if it is at my expense!

If you would like to see more pictures of Johnny, please click here.

Copyright © 2010 Monica L. Yasher. All Rights Reserved.
Photo Copyright © 2010 Nelson Onofre. All Rights Reserved.
Photo Copyright © 2010 Johnny Winter. All Rights Reserved.  Used with permission.

American Blues News Staff

What makes American Blues News unique is our coverage across America. Here is our lineup:

Mon: Memphis Correspondent - Robert "Nighthawk" Tooms
Nighthawk is our resident globetrotter and man behind the scenes, as he tours with the Reba Russell Band.

Tues: New York Correspondent - J. Blake
Blake is the American Blues News review and interview guru. You may catch him out and about in NY playing the blues.

Wed: National Correspondent - Monica Yasher
Monica is our executive director and artist interview specialist. You can catch Monica singing the blues around Pittsburgh or working on some country music songs in Nashville.

Thurs: Washington, DC Correspondent - Virginiabluesman
Geraldo offers inteviews and reviews. You may have seen him at an Ana Popovic concert or conversed with him on her websites, as he offers administrative support with her music.

Fri: Northeast Photographer - Nelson Onofre
Nelson offers a Friday column of blues photography and pictorial support for the interviews covered by the team.

Jim Stick in Colorado
Jim will be focusing on the Blues Festivals in the beautiful state of Colorado, and the artists that live and visit there.

Maureen Elizabeth, our resident art correspondent, will be focusing on blues art as she explores the creation of CD covers, or speaking with artists who also have a love of creating pictorial art in addition to their music! She may also feature some of her good friends in the Pittsburgh area. In her love of art, you may find Maureen's photography accompanying writer's articles on our pages. Maureen is also our marketing director.

Pittsburgh correspondent and photographer, CR Bennett, will share the Pittsburgh scene with all of you. You may also see CR's pictures accompanying other writer's articles.

We head to the big state of Texas! Abby Owen, our Texas correspondent.

Another big area to cover, the West Coast with Casey Reagan, Casey will feature many artists and events on this ocean's shores.

Lastly, we have our roving blues entertainment writer,
Chef Jimi.

And of course, we will surprise you sometimes!

Internet Marketingdata recovery