Texas guitarist Johnny Winter has had an epic career. The 67-year-old wizard has, since his 1969 start, released top-selling blues albums; produced, recorded, and toured alongside Muddy Waters (their 1977 efforts Hard Again and Nothin' But the Blues are holy books in the blues bible); and had songs written specifically for him by John Lennon and the Rolling Stones' Jagger & Richards team.
His career also has had its dark side, with Winter battling serious heroin addiction and suicidal depression, both since conquered.
"I'm now totally free of all the bad stuff of the past and feeling great," Winter says from his home in Texas.
Yet a guy who has seemingly done it all when it comes to the blues is still delivering fresh sounds. On his boldly gritty new CD Roots, Winter takes on several of the timeworn blues-canon classics of his youth: Robert Johnson's "Dust My Broom," Elmore James' "Done Somebody Wrong," and Bobby "Blue" Bland's "Further on Up the Road." With Winter backed by some of the finest players in the new blues game, the sound is both buoyant and raw. What made Winter believe he could breathe new life into these gems?
"I have never recorded these songs before," he says. "The whole Roots idea was my guitarist Paul Nelson's idea. He did a great job producing this CD. Nothing beats the blues from the '50s and its production values. Today, it's too clean. And guests? That's something I've always wanted to do, even before it became fashionable to have them. I really believe there's a new blues resurgence going on and felt now was time to do this."
Nu-blues master guests such as Susan Tedeschi, Warren Hayes, and organist John Medeski keep true to the tradition, especially where the latter is concerned during the sessions for "Come Back Baby." Winter enthused about his vocals on that track: "Done in one take!" he says, laughing. Roots' most special guest, however, is Johnny's sax-playing brother Edgar, with whom he pairs on "Honky Tonk." Johnny laughs about how the brothers used to do that song in high school: "It just fit right."
As far as the rootsiest of Roots' songs, Winter's take on Muddy Waters' version of "Got My Mojo Working" certainly got the Texan thinking about the icon: "Muddy was a real gentleman and a good friend. I still miss him."
This year has had even more Winter surprises, such as playing on the forthcoming Sly Stone album (guitar and vocals on Sly's updated version of "Thank You") and William Shatner's CD Seeking Major Tom, in an unlikely cover of Deep Purple's "Space Truckin'." Winter chuckles when thinking about the Star Trek icon: "The truth is, I did it for the fun of it. Who would not want to record with Captain Kirk?"
Then there is the 7-inch plastic figurine of Winter distributed by MVD Entertainment in Oaks, Montgomery County. The first in the company's Guitar Gods series, it's limited to 1,500 numbered units, made of lightweight poly-resin, is sculpted right down to his signature black hat, and yells "Rock 'n' roooolll!!!!" at the push of a button. "My bobblehead came out great and really looks like me," Winter says. "I'm amazed. Once they figure out the look, they send you a prototype and they work it out from there. My fans seem to really love the thing."
Rolling Stone magazine, who once listed Winter as the 74th best guitarist in the world, just boosted him higher in its newest poll - but certainly not enough to satisfy lovers of the blues. Or Winter himself. "I moved up to 62 or 63, but I have no idea what they are thinking with that list," he says, laughing heartily. "I should have been in the top 10."