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Kenny Wayne Shepherd Photo: Mark Seliger

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Kenny Wayne Shepherd

Hotshot guitarist grows up, stays home, sings more, visits England – the continuing story of Kenny Wayne Shepherd. Interview by Michael Burland.
Published on September 09, 2019
First published in the September-October 2019 edition of The American magazine

Kenny, can we start with geography? You’re in California right now, but you’re famously from Louisiana, is that right?
Yeah, born and raised in Shreveport, Louisiana. Spent my whole childhood there until I found my record deal, put my band together, started traveling the world playing music. I still have a home there, my family is all still back there, my business is all located there, my management company and everything. So very much a Louisiana boy! My wife’s family all live in California so we have a place out here too – we have to do some traveling to get to them, but that means we can be close to both our families. After traveling the world and doing what I’ve done for so long, it kinda gives you perspective. When you’re young a lot of us want to get out into the world and experience what’s going on in other places, be somewhere other than where we grew up at, y’know? But as I’ve got older I’ve come to appreciate my upbringing and my hometown.

You haven’t felt the need to move to Nashville or New York?
I’ve always spent a lot of my time writing songs in Nashville and I record there sometimes. We talked about moving but we have several children and it’s important that they’re close to their aunts, their uncles and grandparents. Maybe at some point we’ll go, because Nashville has become the last real, true music city in the US. Other cities have music history and background and they claim to be the home of this or that kind of music. But as far as the industry goes, Nashville’s the last place that has all of it, from the booking agents to the performers, to the backline companies, to the song writers, to the managers, to the artists and the publishing companies, everything is there.
New Orleans has a music scene, but the industry is not happening there. Austin, Texas is a music hotspot. LA and New York have record companies but there’s all so many other things going on in those cities. Nashville’s central, primary focus is the music industry. There’s live music there, all over the city, every single day of the week which you can’t find to that degree in New York or LA.

Family connections keep coming in your history – you got into music because your dad was a concert promoter and on the radio and had a lot of records you listened to. And then your grandma gave you your first guitar?
Yeah, she used to collect S&H green stamps, like today you get points on your credit card for your spending. You’d stick them in a booklet and once you’d collected a certain amount of booklets you could go redeem them for products. One of the items was this acoustic guitar, it was plastic with nylon strings but you could really play it. I don’t even know how many of those I went through. I would play one until I broke the strings or broke the instrument itself and then she’d get me another one. Rinse and repeat! Then I met Stevie Ray Vaughan and saw him play for the first time when I was 7. That was a life-changing event for me. Just the way he played: passion, the intensity, the emotion that was put into it. It really captured me and man, all I wanted to do from that day forward was to get my hands on a real electric guitar and try and teach myself, y’know, learn how to play with that kind of fire.

What a young age to see Stevie Ray Vaughan!
Even before that I went to just about every concert that came through town because my dad, being on the radio and a program director, he had access to all the shows. He had backstage passes so we were always meeting all the bands and hanging out backstage. I saw the inner workings of the music industry and how bands operate on the road. And I got to see everyone from Conway Twitty and Hank Williams Jr. to Stevie Ray Vaughan, and ZZ Top to the Allman Brothers and James Brown. I grew up listening to these different genres as well: punk, R&B, gospel, rock, blues, everything. The first concert my dad took me to was to see Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker when I was 3 years old. So I was exposed to a lot of great music at a very early age and that first concert had a lot to do with my interest in blues music.

So you were always going to end up in this business?
I think so, I feel like this is what I was put here to do. It kinda worked out! [laughs]

It almost sounds easy – you did your video and the Red River Revel Arts Festival in Shreveport, then Irving Azoff picked you up for a multiple album record deal. There must be an awful lot of people out there who are quite annoyed when they read that but I bet it wasn’t as easy as it sounds?
[laughs] Well there was certainly still a lot of work that went into it. I sat for days and days, practicing and woodshedding and putting in the time to learn the instrument. Then when I put my band together it’s not like all of a sudden I was playing on huge stages. We played 3 one-hour sets with 15 minute intermissions for 200 dollars with 6 guys in the band.

You have your own great band, but you’ve also played with some fantastic people along the way, like BB King, Hubert Sumlin and Pinetop Perkins. What was the most fun time you’ve had on stage?
I don’t like to get into ‘the best’ or ‘the most fun’ or ‘the coolest person that I did this or that with’ because it does a disservice to all the other people I’ve done things with. But there have been a lot of cool experiences, playing with everybody from Bob Dylan to The Rolling Stones to Van Halen. Just sharing the stage with these kinds of people and getting to know them. That’s the most amazing thing, the friendships that have grown out of music. Touring with these guys is one thing but the fact that I am actually friends with somebody like Joe Walsh and have been since I was 17 years old, that to me is far more significant than ‘who was the coolest person I jammed with’. Real-life relationships have come out of it that are long-term. That’s beyond cool.

You’re coming across to Britain again, is it a country you like playing in?
Absolutely, I love coming over there. We tried to make an effort to come over more in the past several years, and the fan base continues to grow and the venues have continued to get bigger and better. I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and to have things still growing over in Europe is pretty exciting. Fans over there really love this music and I appreciate their long term support not just of me, but they have been so supportive of this genre of music for a long time, giving an audience to musicians that played blues music when nobody was interested in hearing it in the States. People in Britain in particular have helped keep the blues alive.
It’s great to see all the different generations of blues music, how it’s evolved over the years and the fact that the genre is actually over 100 years old now. It’s a testament to the relevance of the music. If you trace all popular music back to its origins you will inevitably find your way back to blues music. In times like these, when you listen to what’s going on in pop music and it’s all starting to sound the same and you can’t tell one artist from the next, that’s when people start searching for something else. And they inevitably find their way back to blues music.

I’ve got to ask you about guitars, because not many players are so closely associated with one instrument. With you it’s the Fender Stratocaster, especially your 1961 Sunburst? Is that the one you would run into the burning house for?
[laughs] Yeah, that’s the one – it’s the last thing I would ever get rid of all my possessions.

What does it do for you that other guitars don’t?
Everything about it is just right. You hear about that one elusive instrument that you’ll pick up and just everything about it seems perfect, like it was made for you. I stumbled across it and that’s the one for me. I have other great instruments that I love, that sound great, and play great but they all play second fiddle to this one.

You played another very famous guitar on The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon, Jimi Hendrix’s white Strat that he used at Woodstock. How did it feel to be playing that?
That was absolutely incredible. What a thrill. Every guitar player’s dream would be to have that guitar in their hands, much less playing it on stage. And the guitar wasn’t set up the way I like – you had a guy playing it left-handed and I didn’t feel like I could take the liberty of making adjustments to it, so it took a little getting used to, let’s put it that way. But the vibe coming off the guitar was tremendous. Everywhere the guitar was there was a crowd of people around it and they had guys in black suits with white gloves that were handling it.

The Traveler album cover

Let’s talk about your new album, The Traveler. What’s the meaning of the title?
Well, there’s a couple of interpretations. In the most literal sense, my music has taken me all over the world many times over. It’s the life of a bluesman too. There’s that famous blues song by Robert Johnson, ‘Ramblin’ on My Mind’, right? That’s what bluesmen do, they go from one place to the next. But the real root of the title comes from the song ‘Tailwind’ on the album, which talks about a man who sees the trials and tribulations of living life on a daily basis and then observes that we are all fellow travelers in the journey of life. We may have different backgrounds and different appearances and come from different places, but we are all human beings and we are all trying to get through this journey of life one day at a time. And there’s nothing political about it, it’s a call for love and appreciation of one another. The chorus says ‘hey fellow travelers, keep traveling’ so ‘the traveler’ represents all of us.

The album’s credited to the Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band, not just you. The band element is important to you isn’t it?
Yeah it is. It’s like an engine, its performance is the sum of all the parts that are used and all the efforts that have gone into it, it’s a team and I like to acknowledge that. We share the vocals – Noah Hunt does lead vocals on five songs, I’m doing lead vocals on four songs and there’s a song called ‘We All Alright’ where we are actually sharing the lead vocal, Noah sings lead in the verses then I sing lead in the chorus, which is kind of an interesting approach.

Are you singing more than you have done in the past?
Sort of. I sang almost all the songs on my fourth album that came out in 2004 called The Place You’re In, that’s when I first starting stepping up to the microphone. I had sung one lead vocal on one song in my first album and otherwise had really just done background vocals. But I put a band together with Stephen Stills, The Rides, and Stephen really pushed me to sing and share the responsibility. I sang half the record and that made me sing half the concert every night and it made me feel more inspired to pursue that. It spilled over into my own band. Noah is a fantastic singer and it would be really easy to let him do all the vocals, all the time because he does it so well. But I feel like if I am going to evolve as an artist I have to push myself to do different things, get out of my comfort zone and do some things that maybe are a little more challenging for me. Singing doesn’t come as naturally to me as playing guitar does, but the more I do it the better I feel about it and the more I enjoy it.

For a long time you’ve been called the ‘young blues hotshot’, and now – dare we mention your age - I think you’re in your forties?
[laughs] Yeah, I’m about to be 42.

Do you think your songwriting and your playing and your singing have matured over the years?
Oh yeah, I think so. Because of the people I wrote songs with at the beginning of my career, I think there was always a mature approach to the lyrics. But all of us have evolved as artists and the people I wrote songs with when I first started writing as a teenager have been writing songs for over 30 years or longer. We’ve all refined our techniques and tried different things and so it’s gotten better. I think my playing has gotten better – my approach is slightly different in that I’m not out to prove anything to anyone anymore like I was when I was a young, unknown artist. That gives me the opportunity to do things a little more the way I want to. As a young guy you want to show everybody everything you can do and wow them with all your skills and all your licks. Now, to me, it’s more about moving people through the music and being more selective about what I play and when I play it. It’s about doing whatever is most appropriate for the song, and not necessarily what will impress people the most.

There’s a wider variety of feel to the songs on this album, I think, than ever before.
We’ve always tried to mix things up. We make records the old fashioned way where we you can listen from start to finish, from the first song to the last song, and it takes you on a journey. The whole album should be an experience so you try and have different textures and grooves and vibes. After having done it for so long I’m more certain about what I want and where I want the album to go and the kinds of sounds that I want to create and the journey that I want to take the listener on. But yes, with this album people are beginning to hear some more of my musical influences coming to the surface. You hear some more R&B in there, a little bit of a nod to country, the rock is obviously ever-present and blues as well being the core foundation of everything we do, but we are venturing out a little bit and bringing in some of the other genres that I grew up listening to.

On ‘I Want You’ you’ve got a really big horn sound that’s almost like a Big Joe Turner, Kansas City kind of feel to it – it’s not trying to sound like that, but it’s got that vibe coming through.
Exactly, there’s nothing that’s contrived, everything we’re doing still comes naturally, but all these things are elements of the different styles of music I grew up listening to. All that stuff stays in your subconscious and finds its way out into the music that you create.

Thanks Kenny. Finally, what’s the best thing about being Kenny Wayne Shepherd?
[laughs]...Man! It’s hard to answer that question without sounding pompous or something. I guess the best thing about being Kenny Wayne Shepherd is I get to do what I love to do and people actually enjoy it, y’know? I play music and people show up to hear it, and I can’t really think of too many things that get much better than that.


November 9th The Cheese And Grain, Frome
11th The Junction, Cambridge
12th O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London
13th Buxton Opera House
14th Birmingham Town Hall

For more information & tickets go to www.kennywayneshepherd.net


Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Joe Bonamassa Kenny Wayne Shepherd playing with Joe Bonamassa on the 2019 Keep The Blues Alive Cruise

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