Kenny Wayne Shepherd cut his first demo at 14. He formed his first band and started gigging at 15 and by 16 years old he signed his first record deal.
He’s celebrated 20 years as a recording artist, been nominated for a Grammy 5 times, cut 4 platinum albums and won the Blues Foundation’s ‘Keeping The Blues Alive’ award as well as scoring two Blues Music awards.
Last year he went back home to Shreveport, Louisiana to cut ‘Goin’ Home’, a covers album of the influences that inspired him. Now comes a 4 track live EP/CD called ‘A Little Something From The Road, Vol.1’ on Provogue records, which nicely dovetails with a forthcoming UK tour in April.
Pete Feenstra talks to Kenny Wayne Shepherd about his on going love affair with blues-rock.
There can be very can be very few artists who have achieved such commercial success while retaining their credibility as a blues artist?
I’m just happy to look back and realize that after 20 years I’m still making music and people are still coming to the shows.
It’s also to do with genre of the music, as blues-rock and guitar led music sounds good all the time. It’s timeless music, and the fans are life long fans who if you stay true to your musical beliefs will follow you and you can have a life long career doing this
I feel fortunate to have been going for so long and that I’m still making music people still want to hear
You reconnected with your blues roots on the documentary ’10 Days Out: Blues From The Backroads’, do you see ‘Goin Home’ as completing that journey?
It’s something of a continuation of that journey, and really the sentiment behind both that film and behind the ‘Going Home’ album is really me trying to show my love and appreciation of the genre. It’s my appreciation of blues and the people who were there before me and who made it possible for me to do what I do now.
That’s what I did on the current album, which I think is a unique album of quality music that the blues fans can listen to and enjoy as a thank you for their support over all these years.
The new EP/CD is called ‘A Little Something From The Road Vol.1’. Is this release specifically to tie in with the forthcoming Euro dates and given it is ‘Volume 1’, do you have a bigger project in mind?
Yes actually we do. We have a number of live recordings that have never seen the light of day and we have a catalogue that we can put out, so this is the beginning of a possible continuation – really an indefinite series of our live performances.
We make albums to go out and show people that we’ve built up a reputation as a great live band. But we’ve only ever put out one live album. So it’s not a one time thing and we’ll probably do several albums from all over the world.
You’ve said in the past that: “emotions and feeling is greater than words.” Do you try and connect with your audience primarily through your guitar playing?
I’ve always participated in the song writing process on all my records and the lyrics too. For me it was a long time before I was singing on a regular basis, so yes the focus for me to up to that point was to communicate to the fans through my guitar playing.
Music is an instrumental language, so you can stir emotions through playing without lyrics, and it can be a powerful thing
You’ve also described ‘Goin Home’ as: “The soundtrack to my childhood”. Were you influenced by your dad being on the radio?
My dad used to play all sort so music round the house, not just blues, and being so young maybe I wasn’t truly able to understand what they were singing about, but I could feel the music, especially in blues, regardless of my age.
And then at a certain point I would listen to my own stuff, and a lot of that was blues.
I suppose a lot of kids eventually make a break from their parental influences and guidance, but you seem to have consistently stuck with the blues?
Well the blues is very much apart of where I’m from in Louisiana. It’s very much part of my culture and who I am as an artist. I always try to maintain the opportunity to experiment, and collaborate in different genres, and you always want that door to be open, but my foundation in music and the basis of who I am as an artist will always remain blues music.
Do you consider yourself in the vanguard of contemporary blues?
Well I guess so, I can certainly play traditional blues with anybody who wants to sit down and do it. But what I have found is that when I try to write songs I generally like to experiment a bit, and see where the blues can take me.
Sometimes it goes in a different direction. I can play 12 bar blues all night long and have a great time, but when it comes to the songs there’s so much creativity sparked by taking it in a different direction, so in that respect I guess you could call me contemporary
Do you ever write songs to accommodate your vocalist Noah Hunt’s range?
No not really, as he can really sing anything he wants. What’s great is that he could sing the phone book and it would sound great. I used to write lyrics in the way I imagined they could sound with him singing them. But now that I’m singing more myself, it just goes to a place where I find a song that fits my range. Other times, maybe he can do a better job on a different song as we’re starting to share vocal responsibilities now.
At what point did you feel you put your own stamp on the covers of ‘Goin’ Home’ and ‘A Little Something From The Road, Vol. 1’?
Just by the nature of playing the songs ourselves means it’s going to have our own personality. When I cover songs I always like to try to maintain the integrity of the original song and not take them too far into a different direction, as one of the things I loved about the songs was how great they were in their original form.
So it’s one of those things that if it’s not broken don’t try and fix it. We try and re-interpret a little bit, maybe add a little more to the sound of it – you know some high energy – and then just do what we do.
I go back to the original versions for my inspiration; I didn’t even realize other people including John Mayall had covered ‘Palace of the King’ for example. I was just drawn to the song.
You cut ‘Goin’ Home’ in 11 days in your own birthplace of Shreveport, Louisiana, Did that put you under pressure to get things right?
Well not really, because what was great about this record was that there wasn’t a lot of pressure generally. We were doing songs that I grew up with and I knew them very well – and so did my band – so there was a really laid back feel about it.
When I recorded this album I was surrounded by family and friends in my home town. It’s the place where it all happened. It was where I first heard the blues and where I first played this music and so it was just a fantastic experience for me.
Both your own band and the super group The Rides with Steve Stills and Barry Goldberg are cross generational bands. Do you think blues is unique bringing together people of different ages?
Well I think so, it always has been for me. When I was a youngster I was always playing with people decades older than me and when I was growing up there weren’t a lot of kids my age interested in playing blues.
Some of the greatest collaborations I’ve done have been with people who are decades older than me. I always thought there could be so much to learn from their experience.
Did you all share a similar musical vision when you cut the first Rides album?
For the first record the whole idea was to go into the studio and jam on some blues songs and see what happens. There was no real plan, they just wanted to make a blues record, so Steve and Barry started writing and they thought they needed one more person, so I got a call and when we got together we actually started writing songs – real songs – and instantly a band started to form, and the whole course of the project changed and we became a band and made that album.
In fact we’ve just cut a new album and they’re just mixing it. I don’t know the title yet but it will be released this year. I think it’s a really great record and much better that the first album, and it’s also nearly all original material. The first album was half original, half cover songs, so this album further defines the sound of the band.
Was there any resistant to covering things like Iggy Pop’s ‘Search & Destroy’ from the rest of the band?
Hahahah, yeah, Barry didn’t want to do that song. It was suggested by Jerry Harrison who helped us produce that first album. And they were all really resistant to it, but once we recorded it they all liked it and it ended up being one of their favourite songs on the album, which is interesting. If they didn’t quite get why we should record a song like that that, they still left their egos behind and gave it a good shot and it became one of their favourite songs!
When your gather together material for different recording projects, do you have to compartmentalize your own solo stuff?
Not necessarily. On The Rides first record, there was a track called ‘Don’t Want Lies’ and the music for that song was written for myself some ten years ago. I never actually completed the lyrics, in fact I had some lyrics but lost them, but always held on to the music for something to use for myself and it ended up going on that record.
I’ve always written and enjoyed collaborating with other writers as I find they inspire things in me and as a result the songs will go into different directions than they might have otherwise. I’m used to sharing my ideas with other people.
The writing process on the new Rides album was a lot of fun and its possible there may be a song that Steven, Barry and I write that that might go on one of my solo albums or might even make a Crosby Stills & Nash album.
Did the songs on the new live EP change as a result of touring them?
In every one of our shows we leave room for improvisation, so yes there are differences, but then other songs still resemble the album version. For the live EP, it was simply 4 songs that came across well when we played them live, and I think they sounded great and thought people would enjoy them.
It’s also quite long because we put the BB King’s slow blues ‘You Done Lost Your Good Thing Now’ on there.
You were 3 when you saw Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker play and met Buddy Guy and B.B. King in your teens. What was it about those performers that resonated with you over time?
Well, Muddy Waters is my favourite blues band of all time. I can’t really tell you originally what it was at the time, but it was the sound of his voice, the music he created and his entire approach to playing music that I connected with from the get go. He was not one of the greatest singers, but he had a very conversational style and a personal approach that really connect with me! If I could choose to sound like anyone as a vocalist it would be him.
You’ve said you derived your feeling for the blues from its: “honesty and feel”. Does that mean you were taken more seriously as a young blues artist than you might have been in other genres of music?
When I was really young there wasn’t a lot of other young people playing the blues. I might have been the first child protégé trying to play the blues at the time, and I was met with a lot of skepticism ‘cos of my age and the way I looked. But since then there’s a number of young musicians who have made a name for themselves playing blues. It’s not as surprising as it was back then. For or me it wasn’t easy to gain acceptance, as people would say, who is this kid playing the blues?
But it helped that you cut a great debut album ‘Ledbetter Heights’. How are you different as a guitarist now compared to then?
Well, my approach generally is for the most part the same, to try and play with as much raw feeling, passion and emotion as possible and to play notes that are going to stir people people’s soul make people feel.
I also think I’ve refined my abilities from making records and touring for 20 years. It’s the best experience and practice you can get from touring, being on stage every night. You know, real human beings playing to other real human beings, and for better or worse it defines who you are and how you play
If anything I’ve also settled down a little bit. When you’re young you have so much energy and when you first have an opportunity to play music and people start to pay attention to what you are doing, then you want to show everyone what you can do, and that you belong there. Now I feel I’m not trying to prove that any more.
I’ve taken lessons, and I went back and listened to B.B. and Albert King and the people that I idolized. I’m not trying to prove myself in that way anymore. I went back to their music and heard what originally moved me and it wasn’t when they played a thousand notes as fast as they could.
I felt my soul being moved when they played the right note at the right time. Like one lick played just at the right way, you know not too fast. It’s all about feel, and that’s what I’ve been focusing my attention on.
Interview © March 2015 Pete Feenstra
Photos by Darran Scott/GRTR!
Pete Feenstra presents his Rock & Blues Show on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio every Tuesday at 19:00 GMT, and “The Pete Feenstra Feature” on Sundays at 19:00
Gig review (Lo9ndon, 15 April 2015)
KENNY WAYNE SHEPHERD BAND
APRIL 2015 UK TOUR
PLUS SPECIAL GUEST
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ABERDEEN LEMON TREE
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Aberdeen The Lemon Tree, 5 West North Street, Aberdeen, AB24 5AT
LONDON O2 SHEPHERD’S BUSH EMPIRE
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London Shepherds Bush Empire, Shepherds Bush Green, London, W12 8TT
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