Johnny Winter takes his throne

by Brian Clarey

Johnny Winter is a badass.

Damn right ‘— a skinny, battle-tested, road-hardened, tattooed albino badass who scratched his way up from the dusty Beaumont dirt to a position at the right hand of Muddy Waters (alongside Greensboro resident Bob Margolin, by the way).

He can break guitar strings just by lookin’ at ’em, live for 40 days on nothin’ but guitar picks and drum skins, give you a tattoo with his eyes and play electric blues so hard that if you see it, you’ll be sneering like a tough guy for days afterward.

But you’re not a tough guy. Not compared to Johnny Winter.

He’s survived 62 hard years that saw world tours and Woodstock, managerial rip-offs, creative droughts (Didn’t he cover ‘“Rock and Roll Hoochie Coo’”?) and drug use on a Hendrixian scale.

‘“He was buddies with Hendrix,’” says Paul Nelson, the guitar legend’s sideman, collaborator and manager. ‘“They did everything that was addictive during the ’60s and ’70s. [Johnny] made it through.’”

He’s on the road right now, standing backstage, in fact, during a set at the Backyard in Austin, Texas while Johnny’s out there giving it to the crowd, giving it to ’em good.

‘“He’s out playing like crazy,’” Nelson says, ‘“more so than for many years. He just really looked inside himself and saw a lot of abuse problems that were getting pretty bad. He kicked all the old habits, so he’s very healthy now. Once the clubs saw that he was healthy again things just took off.’”

Johnny’s back on the road for the first good stretch since 1997’s Live in New York City and reuniting with all his old pals, like the guys from his first trio: Uncle John Turner and Tommy Shannon, who went on to play with Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble.

He even got back together with his brother Edgar, Nelson says, in Reading, Pa, a family reunion for the ages.

This new phase of Johnny’s career is something of a fresh start for the old scrap of bleached leather. His newest CD, 2005’s I’m A Bluesman, was nominated for a Grammy; he playing a lot, in front of four-figure crowds; and he’s kept himself respectable enough so that he can claim all the endorsement deals he scared off when he was at his orneriest ‘— like a new line of signature series Gibson Firebird six-strings with bass frets, no tremolo.

Johnny Winter can make a Gibson Firebird tremolo just by force of will.

His fingers are strong enough to poke a hole in a two-by-four.

If you take off his cowboy hat he’ll just grow another one.

And though he performs seated these days, playing from a chair set up on the stage, Johnny Winter, the 62-year-old guitar hero from Beaumont, Texas, can still knock you on your ass.

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