Paul Nelson is a Renaissance Man. Singer, songwriter, producer, and guitarist, Nelson played with Johnny Winter and earned a Grammy Award for “Best Blues Album” as the Producer of Winter’s 2014 record Step Back. Nelson was also Executive Producer on the Johnny Winter documentary film Down and Dirty. He recently released a record with his band entitled Badass Generation with a sincere nod to the 70’s music that inspired him to pick up a guitar.
RARASfarm was recently afforded some time to speak with Mr. Nelson about his new record, producing vs playing, and his relationship with his friend, and mentor, Johnny Winter. Cheers.
What inspired you to pick up a guitar and play the blues?
- Paul Nelson – “I heard other people playing music, and I just loved the sound of the guitar, it gave me great pleasure in listening to it. I was like “Boy how are they doing that”, I started playing drums when I was in school, and I showed some interest in guitar, and my whole class bought me a Telecaster and they gave it to me on my birthday, and I figured I should start playing it. And then it never ended. I knew if I was going to do this I would have to get serious, and then I ended up in Berkeley College of Music.
You’re a producer and a performer, is there a stark difference between producing and playing on a record?
- Paul Nelson – “I think it’s like being an actor and then directing, and then acting and directing at the same time. I guess after you record enough you have insight and then they ask for your guidance and leadership, and compare it to other artists…. So you build up this knowledge. There’s a lot involved as a producer, they find the studio, work with the record company, they work the budget, sound, they find the musicians, then you’re an arranger, and a songwriter. In my case they were like “hey Paul, you play guitar can you play on this as well?” You’re the head guy. It’s like you’re the conductor of an orchestra.”
- Producers are hired by record companies to get different sounds. I like producers who can get different sounds from different artists. It’s not all blues, or rock, I’ve always made sure that I’ve covered all aspects of music. I also know the different techniques to get different sounds… reverb, compression, knowing your way around a studio, you may not be well-versed in everything about a studio component, but you know enough to know how to get the right sounds from the right pieces of equipment. It just shows the artists that you are working with that you know what you are doing and that really makes them comfortable so they can focus on being an artist.”
- “Working with Johnny Winter, I was able to get a hold of Clapton, and Joe Perry, and Warren Haynes, to understand who would sound best. The Grammy certainly helped my situation.”
What’s it like winning a Grammy Award?
- Paul Nelson – “It’s something that you can’t believe is happening, and then waiting, once your nominated to see if your name is going to be called, there is still that moment of doubt, and then there’s that moment of worry, that if I do get it, what am I going to say? And then it just happens and it goes by in and instant. And then eventually it’s sitting in your display case and your phone starts ringing a lot. And… it’s forever, it’s something to be really proud of. I was proud of the fact that Johnny Winter never won one for his own work, so it was important.”
- “It was also important to me to get nominated after the Johnny Winter record, for Joe Louis Walker’s record, to show that it wasn’t just because Johnny Winter was associated with it, it shows that maybe I’ve got something to offer, so that was important too.”
Your new record Bad Ass Generation is a pretty bad ass record…
- Paul Nelson – “I’m a player first, all the other things, which I enjoy doing, I’m a player first. I’ve studied with Steve Vai, and I obviously learned a lot from Johnny, so when Sony approached me to record, I was like…. I have to do this. So I got together a team of people that I had my eye on to work with and I called them all up, and flew them in from Europe, and Louisiana, and upstate New York and it was on lockdown. I started writing and creating and everything came out. I really wanted a retro 70’s sound but not have it be to dated.”
In a sea of guitar players, how do you keep an edge to your sound?
- Paul Nelson – “You service the song, people know I can shred and do all that kind of stuff, you just play. And.. it grows on you, with driving your car kind of singers, I want something where they hear the song for the first time, and they don’t even know the words, but they feel inclined cause it’s so catchy. Then they hear new parts, there’s all kinds of ear candy and new stuff. You want to keep the production value up without giving anything away to the music. Like Rival Sons. You know that’s a John Bonham drum sound, but they tip their hat to Zeppelin. So why not tip your hat to the guitar and rhythm sounds of Boston, or the thin guitar sound of Brian May in Queen.”
- “When we got together in the studio, to make Badass Generation, I purposefully had everyone sit down to listen to nothin but 70’s stuff, just to get into that vibe.”
You played with a ton of guitar virtuoso’s… was there ever “holy shit moment”, when you were playing with those guys in a room together?
- Paul Nelson – “Only afterwards.Because something inside said ‘you can’t be like that in front of them.’ You come back to your house and Johnny Winter is sitting there asking for chicken nuggets. Only once when I was with Johnny, he was sitting in my living room and I said to a friend: ‘Do you believe that Johnny Winter is sitting in my living room and we’re eating chicken nuggets?’”
- “The last record we did with Johnny was the first time that we got all these guitar players in the same room to play with Johnny. Billy Gibbons, a Texas native, was the first time he ever played with him. It blew my mind.”
You were Executive Producer on the film Down and Dirty about Johnny Winter, what was your friendship like with him and can you speak to his legacy?
- Paul Nelson – “We hit it off fairly quickly, he always asked me to do more and more with him, including recording, producing, touring, we established such a trust that I could see there were health issues. I relayed it back to the manager, and so I started helping him with his career, and then we got rid of that guy, and we started cleaning him up. That’s when we started doing David Letterman, and Jimmy Kimmell. I knew his legacy was tainted. In the 90’s he was a wreck and he didn’t even know it, he was in such a fog. Towards the latter years he had one hell of a comeback with his recordings, and doing TV, and doing the Crossroads Festival with Clapton a couple of times.
- The one thing I couldn’t fix were his lungs, and part of it was once I knew he was healthy enough, there had to be a documentary on Johnny. So the record label said ‘you’re never going to believe this, but there is a director, Greg Oliver, that wants to do a documentary on Johnny, you guys should meet.’ We talked, and I told him he has to come on the road with us, and he did. He came on tour with us for two or three years following Johnny and I to Japan, to China, to Europe, to our homes, to Texas, to the Re-gifting of the Blues Awards… just everywhere…”
- “Johnny actually saw the movie, and heard the album, and it came out after Johnny had passed and there were three different messages in there, the history of rock and blues, what happens when you overdo it, and what happens when you clean your act up. And you see Johnny get younger through the course of the movie, it’s pretty wild. That was a big film in many ways.”
- “Johnny was one of the best guitar players ever, his slide playing was unbelieveable, he had three things going for him, with the singer, slide guitar, and the regular playing. It was a huge honor to play with him, and I intend to carry on his legacy. Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks mention him as an influence. Drummers and bass players do the same. Van Halen played a ton of Johnny Winter.”
I read that you are currently working with actor Steven Seagal?
- Paul Nelson – Yes, I am his Musical Director and his guitar player. He’s been playing since he was 12 and he is a big fan of traditional blues. We’ve met several times at his home in Arizona, and we’re putting a tour together now in between his movies. His album is almost completed. He is a big fan of music, even before his acting he was a musician, which not too many people know, and I didn’t know. He’s put out 2 or 3 albums already, and he always has the best musicians. He plays Russia and the Far East all the time. The touring is great, and we’ll see what happens.”
- “That really came out of nowhere, and he’s a really nice guy, he has a great sense of humor, and he really loves the blues. He passed the Paul Nelson blues test.”
What was the first record you bought with your own money?
- Paul Nelson – It was probably ZZ Top, Aerosmith, or Zeppelin……or Jeff Beck…… I was into jazz for a while. I was also into pop and R&B. I was groomed to be as a session guy, because I had to play. Anything and everything….. I wanted to be able to walk in and play with Anthony Jackson, and two minutes later play with some country guy.”
- “Styles change, you pick a style and then two weeks later that style has changed to something completely different, now you’re pigeonholed. What are you gonna do? People always ask me what I say to musicians who are coming up, and I tell them, you may not always do what you thought you were going to do. The only time you should be really bummed out is if you have to leave the music and do something completely unrelated to the music business. If you love music, you can do anything…. Tour manager, booking agent… producer, or you can be a great guitar player.”
What’s next for Paul Nelson?
- I’ll be touring here later this year, producing, playing with Derek St. Holmes on a side project, I was on a Blues Cruise, and was just in Jamaica with Warren Haynes, I just produced James Montgomery’s album with Jimmy Vivino who did a tribute to Paul Butterfield, so we’ll see what happens next… the phone doesn’t stop ringing.
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