By Patrick Prince
Calling from the road, on tour with the Johnny Winter All Star band (musicians from the 2014 album,“Step Back”), guitarist Paul Nelson says he is proud to be promoting Johnny Winter’s legacy. The Johnny Winter documentary, “Down & Dirty,” just came out on DVD, and the All Star band is honoring that release by performing Winter’s classic tunes in various American venues.
Johnny Winter became a mentor and father figure to Nelson. And it’s well documented that Nelson single-handedly nursed the guitar icon back to health. In exchange, Winter taught Nelson all he knew about the Blues. And since Winter’s sad passing in 2014, Nelson wants to make sure the soul of Johnny Winter’s music carries on in the right way.
Nelson also needed to carry on his own creativity. He has done so by writing a slew of songs and organizing a strong unit of musicians called The Paul Nelson Band — Morten Fredheim (Hayseed, The Voice) on vocals, Christopher Alexander (Samantha Fish Blues Band) on bass, Chris Reddan (Popa Chubby) on drums — to record a debut album titled “Badass Generation.”
The band’s music will bring joy to those who cherish the energetic rock of the 1970s, updated with modern flavor, of course. The song “Please Come Home“ has already found success on the American Forces Network (for obvious reasons), and it seems that both satellite and terrestrial radio have taken a liking to many of the other songs on the album.
The following is an interview with guitarist Paul Nelson, discussing his new album and the Winter documentary, conducted right before an evening’s performance with the Johnny Winter All Star band.
GOLDMINE: Were all these songs on your new album sitting in the songwriting vault for awhile?
Paul Nelson: They were sitting in my head. I had produced (vocalist) Morten Fredheim several years ago with his band called Hayseed. They came over here and I thought, I wish I had this singer. When Johnny (Winter) passed, Morten was available and I said, “Look, come on over. I’m gonna do an album.” He came over and I just started writing. It was so inspirational to have somebody like that. He was just on The Voice over in Europe. His voice is unbelievable. He’s got the earmarks of Paul Rodgers and we’re all big Bad Company fans. So I got all these guys (on the album) together, this supergroup, and I just started writing. It was just so inspirational because the minute I started creating I knew these guys were going to take it to where I was positive it was going to sound good, because of the musicianship. And it happened, and we started recording. I got Phil Magnotti — he’s got three Grammys — he mixed it. I produced it. And I just started laying down parts. I wrote the music, the lyrics … it just started pouring out of me. And we did this in a very short time.
GM: It’s not just you as a showcase. Everyone contributes as if it’s a band. And you call it The Paul Nelson Band. So it’s really not a solo project, right? It really is a true band.
PN: Exactly. And that’s what I wanted because there’s a lack of frontmen now. Everybody’s playing guitar and all of a sudden they’re singing. I mean, I met so many guitar players who I knew couldn’t sing and a year later they’re lead singers. And I’d say, “When did you start singing?” And they’re like, “A year ago.” “Really?!” And I’m thinking — maybe I’m not going to be but — who’s gonna be the next Zeppelin? Who’s going to be the next Aerosmith? Everyone professes that they love this kind of music but nobody’s playing it. But I think there’s a turn here or something’s going on where the audiences are more open now to listening to different styles of music — and listening to different styles of music on one album. So I think this is a good time to have a singer, a frontman. I didn’t want to do the shred thing. I didn’t want to do the instrumental thing. I really wanted to service the song and I wanted to write songs. And the record company was luckily behind it and radio is playing it. I’m really happy with the results.
PN: Yeah, hence the cassette on the cover. That’s what it’s supposed to say. That signifies what the influence was. Not that it’s dated but that’s the influence. I love bands like Boston, and the production value of the guitars and the drums, and the acoustic guitars and the vocals with bands like Queen. So that’s what we were referencing, but at the same time Southern Rock, Jam, Blues — there’s a Johnny influence there obviously. But I didn’t want to come out and just start playing Johnny songs and playing like Johnny. I mean, I was around him long enough where I know all his riffs. I really took a different direction and it seems to be working.
GM: Well, the title of the album, “Badass Generation,” does kind of speak for itself; that this is the kind of music that should be seen as badass today.
PN: Exactly. Badass — it’s a term that’s come into it’s own. Every time we’d be listening or playing something people would say, “Oh, that’s badass!” And I thought, “Hmmn, let’s use it.” This is a “badass generation.” Everybody’s using this term so why can’t we use it to describe what people like? And the cassette, there’s something about the cassette. “Guardians of the Galaxy” was a huge movie hit where the cassette was brought back to its own. So I’m like, OK, let’s reference the ‘70s but at the same time show that there’s a new generation appreciating it. So it’s this generation who uses the word badass appreciating the cassette and the music that it represents. So that’s why we went with that.
GM: Well, also there’s the idea of the mixed tape. A mixed cassette tape can be seen as having an eclectic mix, and your band shows it is eclectic.
PN: Absolutely. There’s shades of everything, which gave us a lot of wiggle room for me to write a lot of different material and a lot of different lyrics. I went that route. I put slide guitar in there, acoustic guitar … I experimented with a lot of different stuff and the songs evolved.
GM: Your guitar solos really support each song. Again, it’s not just shredding or showcasing.
PN: Yeah, and people who know me said, “Wow, you really service these songs. We know you can do all that other stuff.” I mean, I studied with (Steve) Vai and I can play that stuff, but I really wanted the solos to be songs in themselves. I didn’t want to give everybody a guitar lesson every time they listened to something.
GM: Do you think Johnny Winter fans will be surprised how eclectic your musical tastes are? Or do you think they knew that already?
PN: I think a lot of them will be but I think a lot of them knew because even Johnny would say in interviews, “Paul plays a lot of different stuff but I’m glad he plays blues with me.” He knew my background and my schooling. But I do think a majority of them will be like “Whoa, wait a minute.” See, I wanted Johnny to play on this record and he was going to.
PN: Oh, Johnny was. (laughs) But with Johnny, I was in the blues world and I had to focus on that.
GM: Well, you’ve always been proud of your Heavy Metal days, your Liege Lord days.
PN: Absolutely. I always loved Metal because of the heaviness of the guitar chords, the solos, the classically-based changes, but I knew I could use that in other things as well. I was learning from that. And I had a really deep love for that and still do. I still get the chill up my spine when I hear something heavy. I still get that. But at the same time, because of my musical background, I got into other stuff. And a lot of people in the press would say about me, whenever they would describe a solo: “His melodic, bluesy solos.” They always said that and the word melodic was always used, because I always wanted to write melodies within the solos. I just didn’t want to rip, rip, rip. So now I apply that to songs and the solos at the same time. Whenever I hit a heavy chord or plug through a Marshall, of course, I’m thinking that, but I have to know the constraints that I’m writing in and what style I’m writing … so I have to wear a lot of different hats.
GM: Well, if listeners unfamiliar with Heavy Metal heard Liege Lord, they would realize how good the band is. There’s a lot of melody in Liege Lord’s music. If you’re not used to listening to Heavy Metal, you’d probably be surprised.
PN: Yeah, and especially the album “Master Control” (1988) because the songs, as the band evolved, started getting more structured and we realized that you couldn’t write these 10-20 minute opuses anymore. The songwriting started getting better. And everybody was involved, It was a good thing. You had stuff that could be played and listened to — that kind of thing. I mean, look at Judas Priest. When people first heard their commercial songs, they thought the band had just come out. So that’s what I do when I produce or arrange other bands; I go in with scissors and I chop their songs and piece it back together. You know, people just write part after part after part and it’s like, “There are five songs in here! This is ridiculous.” So I’ve been doing a lot of producing and arranging for other people. After I got the Grammy with Johnny, the phone started ringing off the hook. I mean, it was ringing before but holy cow!
GM: It must seem strange now, after being with Johnny day after day, as a partnership, for years.
PN: I mean, we were friends. We met musically and then a friendship developed and a trust, and he had me, later on — which this movie (“Down & Dirty”) describes — get him off the drugs and the alcohol because he was gonna die then. It was bad. He was in really bad shape. I never seen anything like that, ever.
GM: Well, Johnny himself called you a “hero” in his life story.
PN: Yeah, we were really, really close. I mean, he was like a father, an uncle, a brother … everything. But after the friendship started developing I had to — just as a human being — step in and help. We worked out a plan and got him off all that stuff as much as I could. And his career started to blossom again. He was an idol of mine.
GM: You were to Johnny, kind of like what he was to Muddy Waters. He helped Muddy revitalize his career.
PN: Yeah, it’s eerie because Johnny helped Muddy at the same age that Johnny was (when he needed it) — in his late ‘60s. That’s pretty strange. I didn’t see it coming and I didn’t realize it but, yeah, I can see where people could make that comparison. But my main goal, day-to-day, was to make sure he made it through another day and that he improved. And once he did, he was able to reap the benefits of all he had worked for, for all those years. I mean, I wanted him back on that Mt. Rushmore of guitarists. Toe-to-toe, there are recordings of him devastating Hendrix, destroying Stevie Ray Vaughan. But when people saw him in the ‘90s they were like … shocked. So him and I getting the Grammy was just showing the public that Johnny was back. But it was the emphysema that got him. Everything else was fixed. I even got him laser surgery, where he was no longer legally blind, in a one-hour visit. No one ever checked.
GM: And as he got healthier, you actually saw his guitar playing come back, right?
PN: And that would fortify him that he was doing the right thing. Because it wasn’t just “OK we’re gonna stop doing this” We’re talking about getting off methadone that he was on for 30 years. Thirty years! And the movie (“Down & Dirty”) shows you how I did it. The movie’s by Greg Olliver, the director of the “Lemmy” movie (2010). So I contacted him and he got in touch with me and I said, “Look, if you’re gonna do this, you gotta come on the road with us.” And (Olliver) followed us for three years. And he got a lot, like three different stories: the elderly icon, the history of the blues and the friendship. And there’s cameos by Billy Gibbons, Edgar (Winter), Susan Tedeschi, Derek Trucks, Joe Perry and Clive Davis, the guy who signed him originally. And Johnny’s old guitar teacher, who was 82 and still alive — the guy taught Johnny how to fingerpick. It’s very interesting. And the fans get to see the mystique — what Johnny was like behind the scenes. So it’s very educational.
GM: And you’ve curated a lot of old Johnny footage.
PN: Footage and audio and that’s part of the Live Bootleg Series we’ve been putting out, which actually just hit the Billboard charts again. All 12 I’ve executive produced and all 12 have been on the Top 10 on Billboard charts the past five years.
GM: This seems similar to what Hendrix’s estate is doing.
PN: Well, it’s an important thing, yeah. And if you don’t do it, it all falls by the wayside. So I’m working closely with the estate to make sure that doesn’t happen, because there’s tons of material and tons of product that Johnny produced that needs to get out to the public, in the correct way.
GM: So the fans can expect more to be released then?
PN: Oh, absolutely. Video and music. I mean, Johnny was doing 140 shows a year for the past seven years, and before that he was doing tons of shows. Hendrix was only around for three albums until he was 27. So you can imagine the amount of stuff there is, every year. And the thing is, I put out 12 albums with the Live Bootleg Series and there’s not one repeat — the solos didn’t even repeat! This guys was a walking musical genius — let alone his brother (Edgar Winter)! And (Edgar) was the top in his field!
PN: Oh yeah. Toward the end he did say, “You know, I’m at the point in my life where I do want to get awards. I like getting awards now.” And I said, “OK, I’ll make sure of that.” And that Grammy that he and I got … he had never gotten a Grammy for his own solo material. It was always for working with other people, like Muddy. So when we were in the studio and we were playing on the final mixes, he leans over to my ear and goes, “Paul, if we don’t get a Grammy for this record, this is nuts!” (laughs) I’m just happy it went the way it did because that album,“Step Back”(2014), had a lot of notables on it.
You know, Johnny took me under his wing. He did that with a lot of people. He did that with Tommy Shannon, turned him from a Motown bass player into a blues-appreciating bass player, and he did the same with me. He really wanted to turn me onto the blues. He turned me on more to Robert Johnson and T-Bone Walker and Son House. Here I was a rock guy and he said to me, “You need to listen to Chuck Berry.” So I said, “OK, I’ll get every CD.” And he said, “No. Listen to this song and this riff,” and that’s what I learned.” That was huge to me, to have someone like that, taking the time to specifically show me things. And then to have me produce, and tour and play … I mean, we played all over the world together, many times over.
GM: And now that you’re on your own, you have the wealth of experience from just being his manager.
PN: That, too. I was in charge of the whole machine. I was really hands-on and you had to be with Johnny. And now I work with other artists. You know, I wear a lot of hats, but I enjoy that.
When I was first playing in the studio with Johnny, the owner of the studio came up to me and said, “I got to tell you something. I saw you with Johnny and there’s something about you two. I’m not into all this weird sensing stuff but there’s a reason why you two are together. I don’t know what it is but I think you’re both gonna help each other years from now. It’s like you guys were meant to be together. Something’s gonna come of this relationship.” And it did. I didn’t see that coming. It just developed.
GM: And it had a relatively happy ending.
PN: Exactly. We were playing an amazing game of catch-up. And by the end Johnny was playing to thousands again and he was feeling it again and he knew it was all working correctly. So he left us on a high note. And I wanted him to be where he deserved to be – not No. 63 in Rolling Stone but No. 2!
GM: Well, we know you’re going to keep on helping Johnny Winter’s legacy even as you continue with your own music.
PN: Absolutely. There’s tons of Johnny material yet to come out. He has a vault of unreleased stuff. Johnny’s legacy will be carried on, even if not by me. GM