Veteran bluesman Johnny Winter says ‚Äúthe ‚Äė90s weren‚Äôt a very good decade for me.‚ÄĚ A man who is succinct with his words ‚Äď at least in interviews ‚Äď certainly doesn‚Äôt 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‚Äôs 2004 album ‚ÄúI‚Äôm a Bluesman,‚ÄĚ 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. ‚ÄúThe manager was looking for somebody [to cover Winter‚Äôs parts] in case Johnny didn‚Äôt make it,‚ÄĚ Nelson said in a phone interview.
Little did Winter‚Äôs 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‚Äôs manager.
It‚Äôs 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 ‚Äė90s, and his health had been deteriorating for some time.
‚ÄúI‚Äôm like, ‚ÄėSomething‚Äôs wrong with his voice. What‚Äôs the matter?‚Äô And it was ‚ÄėDon‚Äôt ask,‚Äô‚ÄĚ Nelson recalled. ‚ÄúThen I started noticing stuff, the drugs, the medication they were pumping into him. I was like ‚ÄėThis is not working.‚Äô‚ÄĚ
Winter‚Äôs 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‚Äôs health.
‚ÄúI just started taking the bull by the horns, and I said, ‚Äėyou know, I‚Äôm just going to start weaning him off of this stuff,‚Äô‚ÄĚ Nelson said. ‚ÄúIt worked. I basically sat there with his methadone and whittled pieces off of his pills for three years without anyone knowing.‚ÄĚ
Today, Winter is off of the pills and alcohol. He even stopped smoking eight months ago.
He‚Äôs also back to being himself as a musician. He‚Äôs playing energized live shows, and with his acclaimed 2011 album ‚ÄúRoots,‚ÄĚ 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 ‚ÄúRoots‚ÄĚ (and along with Winter‚Äôs touring bassist Scott Spray and drummer Vito Luizzi, played on the album), was the one who came up with the concept for the album.
‚ÄúI said let‚Äôs do a whole album of songs that you weren‚Äôt allowed to do before,‚ÄĚ Nelson said, noting that especially in the ‚Äė70s, Winter was discouraged from doing blues songs in favor of rock-pop material. ‚ÄúWe‚Äôll do one song by each artist. You pick the songs. He goes ‚ÄėOh, I‚Äôd love to do that. I‚Äôve always wanted to play those songs.‚Äô I go, ‚ÄėOK, let‚Äôs find ones you‚Äôve never recorded before and pick specific artists.‚Äô And he picked all of the songs in 15 minutes.‚ÄĚ
Winter clearly relished the idea of the ‚ÄúRoots‚ÄĚ album.
‚ÄúIt was fun to do because it was songs I already knew and had been doing since I was a teenager,‚ÄĚ Winter said in a phone interview in December. ‚ÄúI didn‚Äôt have to learn anything.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúRoots‚ÄĚ was such a success that recording has already begun on a sequel, ‚ÄúRoots II.‚ÄĚ
Winter and Nelson will be away from the studio for a while as they return to touring. ‚ÄúRoots‚ÄĚ 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.
‚ÄúWe do songs from all of the different time periods,‚ÄĚ 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 ‚Äô70s (such as ‚ÄúStill Alive and Well‚ÄĚ and ‚ÄúLive Johnny Winter And‚ÄĚ) that made him a major star during that period before he began focusing on blues later that decade.
‚ÄúIt [rock] just wasn‚Äôt really what I wanted to do,‚ÄĚ Winter said. ‚ÄúI loved blues, and that was what I wanted to be playing. I didn‚Äôt want to be a rock star, never wanted to be a rock star.
‚ÄúI‚Äôm doing what I want to do now, finally,‚ÄĚ he said.
Spoken like a man who is happy to have the blues ‚Äď and his health ‚Äď after some truly difficult times.