Interview and Photos by: David Thrower
Considered a child prodigy following his record deal at the age of 16 and subsequent best-selling album ‘Ledbetter Heights’ in 1995 Kenny Wayne Shepherd has long been at the vanguard of the new wave of blues musicians. New album ‘Lay it On Down’ once again highlights the guitarist’s versatility and should further cement his position as one of the genres truly great proponents.
He is also no stranger to these shores and last month saw him headline his first festival in the UK at the Ramblin’ Man Fair in Maidstone, Kent, where he topped the bill on Saturday, safely tucked away from the wind and rain in the blues tent.
“We’ve been doing outdoor festivals on this run,” he explained, “and all have been outside in the rain! At [Ramblin’ Man] it was inside of a tent and it went really well. It was definitely packed in there – people were spilling outside the tent holding umbrellas and watching the show.”
Which was a far cry from a recent German festival Kenny appeared at where the promoter explained they would have to evacuate the tent if the rain started in earnest. The tent was situated at the foot of a hill and likely to be overcome in the deluge.
“The outdoor festival thing is really fun,” he told me, despite such dangers. “It does provide if the weather co-operates, a very fun and festive atmosphere. I always enjoyed outdoor festivals when I was young. [But] I think the fans prefer smaller venue because they feel closer to you. In the ‘States, we’ve transitioned more towards theatres because, over there, people don’t want to stand up all night long, they don’t want to be on their feet they want to have a reserved seat, have their spot and be able to sit and enjoy the show. Over here, though, they’re still places like [tonight’s venue, the Holmfirth Picturedrome] where everybody will stand all night.”
There was a time when Kenny rarely made it to the UK but thankfully those days have gone.
“There were a number of different reasons why that happened but it wasn’t intentional – I mean some people didn’t like the idea of travelling over the ocean but we had a different group of people back then – but I’ve also seen there is a resurgence in activity over here with this kind of music and we’ve had fans that have been asking for years for us to come back. So, we started coming back I guess about five or six years ago but I’ve been trying to make it a priority to come over here and build on our fan base.”
So much so that he will be returning in October for a longer run of dates for what may be the last time at such low-key venues if his popularity continues to grow.
“The last time we played [the Picturedrome] I don’t think we sold out but tonight we have. I don’t know where the next step is – I’m still trying to figure out what the markets are like. At first, our booking agents were just booking us in London and I was getting all these messages from people saying there was more to the UK than London so we started branching out. So now we’re coming back again to places outside of London and showing our fans some love out here as well.”
As a genre, blues has grown at an exceptional rate over recent years, fulfilling what Kenny deems a musical cycle.
“In my experience, I’ve seen this happen three times in my lifetime,” he said. “It’s like a cycle that happens and blues becomes more popular. In periods of time when popular music has become so saturated and all sounds the same and there’s not a lot of creativity going on and nothing new is happening people start looking for something real to sink their teeth into. If you trace all popular music back to its roots you’ll inevitably find yourself back at the blues and so I think people will start searching and find their way to this kind of music.”
“There’s a lot of misconceptions about blues music,” Kenny went on to explain. “People think it’s just for old people and they think it’s a bunch of complaining and it’s not. If anybody is a blues fan, and they want to turn someone on to blues music, they’ve got to find what you think is the best representation of the blues. You don’t want them to hear something that’s not that great, you want them to know there’s a lot a great blues music out there. What we do is we take blues as our foundation and we try and take it in different directions and create something outside of just the 12-barre blues with 3 chords. I love traditional blues but I like to try and create something besides that.”
A fact borne out on new album ‘Lay it On Down’ which features tracks founded in blues yet crafted to highlight differing takes on the genre. Keeping the listener guessing is always Kenny’s goal, as is creating the best album of his career. Something he feels should always be the case despite believing others may not always work with such ideals.
“Sometimes they just want to go in and make a record to keep the ball rolling,” he said, “but we’ve had some extremely successful albums, we’ve sold millions of records but you don’t gauge your success in the music business today by album sales – it’s just not relevant. Regardless of that, I wanted to make the best album I could make and push myself outside of the box. I wrote with different people, I worked with a different producer and did a lot of things that weren’t in my comfort zone. It would have been real easy to go back to the same producer and the same people I write with but I like challenging myself.”
On the new album, more than any of his previous work, Kenny lets the song lead the guitar rather than the other way around.
“I’ve been doing this long enough that I don’t have to prove I’m a guitar player. If you listen to Clapton he just plays to the song, he plays what’s appropriate for the song and he’s not always trying to show everybody that he’s Eric Clapton and I think people appreciate that.”
As for whether Shepherd is the finished article or not he is quick to fall back on the old adage that a musician is always learning the subtleties and nuances of their instrument.
“I certainly feel like I’ve gotten to a comfortable place with 25 years of touring and recording experience,” he explained. “I’ve learned a significant amount but there’s always more. I mean, being in [The Rides] with Stephen Stills I’ve learned a lot from him when writing songs and touring and he has opened my eyes to a lot of things. I get to back him up and play rhythm under him or he plays rhythm under me and he pushes me to sing more which has made me more comfortable as a vocalist. Just learning how he writes how songs and how he sees the world… I think you should always be open to learning more.”
Another of Kenny’s passions is muscle cars – how did that interest get sparked?
“I’ve loved cars ever since I was a little kid,” Kenny informed me. “I think some of it is because I was born in the era where cars were a big part of movies and TV shows – ‘Smokey and the Bandit’, ‘The Dukes of Hazzard’, and even before my time with ‘The Vanishing Point’ – where the cars were as much stars of the shows as the people in them. I’ve always had this connection with them and I always maintained when I was a kid when I was asked ‘well if your music career doesn’t work out, what will you do?’, I was like ‘I’ll probably race cars or something’. It turns out the music thing worked out and so that’s given me the opportunity to still pursue my passion for cars.”
It was also Kenny’s childhood in Louisiana that turned him onto the blues.
“I listened to everything because my dad was in radio – he managed radio stations and was on the radio in different formats. He did Top 40, rock, active rock, country – so we grew up listening to country, blues jazz, funk, gospel – you name it, it was played around the house – but I was really attracted to blues music and I think it was because my first concert was Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker when I was three years old. That was probably the beginning of it.”
Which would just about do it for almost everyone. It is also the traditional blues players that still inspire Kenny to this day.
“When I look for inspiration I go back to the people who inspired me in the beginning,” he explained. “That is why I listen to Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan, BB King and Muddy Waters, Albert King, Freddy King and Albert Collins, all of those guys. There are people I’m impressed with today but when I search for inspiration I go back to my roots.”
The blues scene today is more vibrant than ever thanks to guys like Kenny Wayne Shepherd and looks set to continue for quite some time. Thankfully, Kenny still has both feet planted firmly on the ground thanks to an attitude instilled in him during his formative years.
“My family instilled good morals and beliefs in me plus I never walked around acting like I invented any of this – I just love to play guitar and I’m just trying to do some justification for all the people who inspired me and enabled me to be who I am. It’s funny, man, it’s funny to watch what has happened over the years. My album came out, Jonny [Lang’s] came out a year later, and then you had people like Joe [Bonamassa] and Derek Trucks who didn’t bust out until years later but there is a generation of us that have all done pretty good for ourselves and are dedicated to keeping real music, blues, roots, rock, just keeping it going.”
While waiting to interview Kenny in a barren room high in the upper level of the Picturedrome I listened on as the guitar virtuoso and his band ran through a short sound check of emotional intensity. At the culmination of the final piece, eerily bereft of applause, I heard Kenny cry to the empty auditorium ‘I still got the blues!’
You’d better believe he sure has.