Friday, June 23, 2023

Book Review: Mary Lou Sullivan’s Raisin’ Cain: The Wild and Raucous Story of Johnny Winter (2010)

Mary Lou Sullivan’s Raisin’ Cain: The Wild and Raucous Story of Johnny Winter
When guitarist Johnny Winter burst onto the rock music scene in 1969, his arrival was accompanied by a then-unprecedented amount of hype. Signed to Columbia Records with what was reported as the largest advance in history, expectations were unrealistically high for the young albino bluesman from Texas.

Truth is, by the time that Winter was introduced to the record-buying public, he was already a decade-long veteran of local and regional Texas bands, first performing at the young age of fifteen years old. In the 40 years since Winter’s “discovery” and the release of his self-titled debut album, the talented guitarist has endured a fearsome roller-coaster of fame and famine, addiction and alcoholism, acclaim, and indifference…and along the way he has created some great music and influenced a couple generations of guitarists that followed.

Mary Lou Sullivan’s Raisin’ Cain: The Wild and Raucous Story of Johnny Winter

Writer Mary Lou Sullivan first met Winter a quarter-century ago, and has become a trusted confidant to the tight-lipped musical legend. Her biography of Winter, Raisin’ Cain is the result of seven years of work and hundreds of hours of recorded conversations with Winter; the artist’s family and friends; and with musicians like Billy Branch, Jerry Portnoy, Bob Margolin, and Tommy Shannon, among many others. Raisin’ Cain is an authorized biography, meaning that Winter oke-doked the book, and the man even dug up dozens of photos to help compliment Sullivan’s 386 pages of hard-hitting but easy-to-read prose.

Raisin’ Cain touches all the bases of Winter’s lengthy, wild, and raucous 40-years in the business, from his early days on the Texas music circuit to his signing by manager Steve Paul and subsequent performance at the Woodstock Festival; Winter’s short affair with fellow Texan Janis Joplin and the dozens of women that have crossed his path; Winter’s heroin addiction and alcoholism; his record label deals, mismanagement, and re-emergence in the 2000s as an elder statesman of the blues.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

More than anything, Raisin’ Cain does a great job of capturing the one everlasting love of Winter’s life: blues music. From his early efforts to hold onto a pure blues sound in the face of pressure to rock ‘n’ roll, to his joyful production of Muddy Water’s late-career albums, to the making of nearly all of his recordings through the years, Sullivan captures it all with humor, insight, and deference to her subject.

Writer Mary Lou Sullivan digs as deep into her subject’s life as such great music biographers as Peter Guralnick did with Elvis or Robert Gordon did with Muddy Waters, interviewing everybody from Winter and his equally famous brother Edgar to former bandmates, managers, producers, fellow blues musicians, and many others. Sullivan’s writing style is to simply get out of the way and let those she’s interviewing tell the story, and she has strung together the story of Winter’s life and career masterfully. As a result, Sullivan has delivered the ultimate bio of the enigmatic bluesman. Raisin’ Cain is highly recommended for any Johnny Winter fan, of course, or anybody interested in blues music. (Backbeat Books, published May 1st, 2010)

Buy a copy of the book from Amazon:
Mary Lou Sullivan’s Raisin’ Cain

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