Veteran bluesman Johnny Winter says “the ‘90s weren’t a very good decade for me.” A man who is succinct with his words – at least in interviews – certainly doesn’t want to relive that lost decade.
Actually, the early half of the 2000s was no laugh riot either for Winter. But then came a turnaround from a very unintended source.
During sessions for Winter’s 2004 album “I’m a Bluesman,” Paul Nelson, a top session guitarist who had studied under Steve Vai, Mike Stern and Steve Khan, was brought in to play guitar and write a few songs for the album. “The manager was looking for somebody [to cover Winter’s parts] in case Johnny didn’t make it,” Nelson said in a phone interview.
Little did Winter’s manager at the time, Teddy Slatus, know that Nelson would not only fill those roles on the album, he would eventually take over as Winter’s manager.
It’s been the best thing that could have happened to Winter. At the time, the veteran blues guitarist was in the throes of addiction to antidepressants that dated back to the early ‘90s, and his health had been deteriorating for some time.
“I’m like, ‘Something’s wrong with his voice. What’s the matter?’ And it was ‘Don’t ask,’” Nelson recalled. “Then I started noticing stuff, the drugs, the medication they were pumping into him. I was like ‘This is not working.’”
Winter’s decline began in the early 1990s after he began experiencing anxiety problems and panic attacks. To treat the problem, he was prescribed antidepressants and became addicted to the drugs. He was also taking methadone and drinking.
Nelson, who considered Winter one of his musical heroes, decided to do something about Winter’s health.
“I just started taking the bull by the horns, and I said, ‘you know, I’m just going to start weaning him off of this stuff,’” Nelson said. “It worked. I basically sat there with his methadone and whittled pieces off of his pills for three years without anyone knowing.”
Today, Winter is off of the pills and alcohol. He even stopped smoking eight months ago.
He’s also back to being himself as a musician. He’s playing energized live shows, and with his acclaimed 2011 album “Roots,” Winter has given fans recorded evidence of his resurgence.
The album features Winter (who is joined on the CD by a host of guests, including Vince Gill, Derek Trucks, Warren Haynes and Susan Tedeschi) performing songs that helped shape his blues-rooted rocking sound.
Nelson, who produced “Roots” (and along with Winter’s touring bassist Scott Spray and drummer Vito Luizzi, played on the album), was the one who came up with the concept for the album.
“I said let’s do a whole album of songs that you weren’t allowed to do before,” Nelson said, noting that especially in the ‘70s, Winter was discouraged from doing blues songs in favor of rock-pop material. “We’ll do one song by each artist. You pick the songs. He goes ‘Oh, I’d love to do that. I’ve always wanted to play those songs.’ I go, ‘OK, let’s find ones you’ve never recorded before and pick specific artists.’ And he picked all of the songs in 15 minutes.”
Winter clearly relished the idea of the “Roots” album.
“It was fun to do because it was songs I already knew and had been doing since I was a teenager,” Winter said in a phone interview in December. “I didn’t have to learn anything.”
“Roots” was such a success that recording has already begun on a sequel, “Roots II.”
Winter and Nelson will be away from the studio for a while as they return to touring. “Roots” has done well, but Winter said he only does a couple of songs from the album, preferring to play material from throughout his career instead.
“We do songs from all of the different time periods,” Winter said.
That means that the native of Beaumont, Texas, might go back as far as his career-making self-titled 1969 debut album and touch on his rock-oriented albums of the early ’70s (such as “Still Alive and Well” and “Live Johnny Winter And”) that made him a major star during that period before he began focusing on blues later that decade.
“It [rock] just wasn’t really what I wanted to do,” Winter said. “I loved blues, and that was what I wanted to be playing. I didn’t want to be a rock star, never wanted to be a rock star.
“I’m doing what I want to do now, finally,” he said.
Spoken like a man who is happy to have the blues – and his health – after some truly difficult times.