Blues guitar hero Johnny Winter would have turned 78 years old today (Feb. 23, 2022). I was lucky enough to talk to him back in 2011, when he was promoting Roots, which turned out to be the last album he released before he died on tour in Switzerland in 2014. I remember him being polite, soft-spoken and easygoing — possibly because he was at home in Connecticut on a rare break from the endless road. Here’s how it went:
If you think all blues songs sound the same, Johnny Winter has a simple solution: Listen to better blues songs. “It only sounds like that if you aren’t any good,” laughs the veteran singer-guitarist in his Texas twang. “If you’re good, then you can do a lot with the blues.”
The 67-year-old singer-guitarist is living proof of that. During nearly a half-century in music, he’s pretty much done it all: Played Woodstock, battled heroin addiction, circled the globe more times than a space shuttle and jammed with everyone from his younger brother Edgar to legends like Muddy Waters.
The albino musician’s stellar new album Roots is another team effort. The hard-touring Winter’s first studio release in seven years, it’s built around a set list of top-shelf blues and rock classics such as Waters’ Got My Mojo Working, Chuck Berry’s Maybellene and Jimmy Reed’s Bright Lights, Big City — and a VIP guest list that includes Sonny Landreth, Vince Gill, Warren Haynes, John Popper, Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi and others.
On the eve of his latest Canadian trek, the cordial but concise bluesman talked about his vast repertoire, putting down the guitar and how gets along with Edgar.
This is your first studio album since I’m A Bluesman in 2004. What took so long?
We were just on the road so much we didn’t even have time to go into the studio. It’s as simple as that. We hardly ever have time off. But we finally did, and I’m really glad to have a new record out. I’ve wanted to record for years. I wish I had done this a long time ago.
How did you choose the set list?
They’re all just songs I grew up being influenced by and loving. I just picked a bunch I liked. It only took about 15 minutes to come up with the songs. I know all those songs anyway, so it wasn’t really hard. I’ve done them all for years. And there were hundreds more I could have picked. I know hundreds of songs; maybe thousands.
So, could you play a completely different show every night for months on end?
Oh yeah, easy. But we mostly play the same set every night. We always have to play Highway 61 and other stuff people want to hear. But that’s OK because I like those songs.
Have you got any new material?
I haven’t written anything in a long time. The last thing I wrote was on I’m A Bluesman. I haven’t written a single thing since. I don’t know, I guess I just ran out of ideas.
You’ve got a ton of guest stars here. How did you figure out who was going to play on which song?
Oh, my manager did all that. Most of them were people I met at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival. I knew Warren Haynes and Derek and Susan.
Is it more enjoyable for you to play with people you know or people you don’t know?
It doesn’t matter to me, as long as it’s somebody who plays good.
After all these years, do you still practise and play every day?
No, I never practise anymore. We play so much that I have no desire to play when we’re off. I’m at home for a month now — which is really rare — and I won’t touch the guitar for a month.
A lot of people feel you should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. What do you think?
I’d like to be there. We went to Cleveland a couple of months ago and looked around the museum and it’s great. They said they were going to put some stuff of mine in there, even though I’m not in the Hall of Fame. I think someday I’ll get in. That would be nice. But it doesn’t bother me that I’m not in there.
Looking back on your career and life, are there things you would have done differently?
Well, I wouldn’t do heroin. That’s the only thing I would change if I had to do it over.
You and Edgar have worked together frequently. A lot of brothers in this business feud a lot.
Not us. We’ve always got along good. I don’t see him as much as I’d like to. He’s in California, so we’re on opposite coasts. We played in the same band for each other. We’ve always supported each other. We’ve never been in competition. Edgar never cared about being the leader. He was always content to be a sideman.
Do you’ll think you’ll ever retire?
As long as I’m healthy enough to play, I don’t want to retire. I might like to do a few less jobs than we’re doing now, but I don’t want to retire. I’d hate not playing anymore. I wouldn’t want to stop doing something I love to do.