A FEW MINUTES WITH… Kenny Wayne Shepherd
By Don Wilcock
Photograph by Andrzej Pilarczyk
Kenny Wayne Shepherd steps into the spotlight at The Egg’s Hart Theatre on Thursday (August 10), six days after the release of his tenth album, Lay It on Down. He released his first at age 16, making him a 22-year industry veteran at age 40. And quite a veteran at that…
Seven of his albums have reached No. 1 on the Billboard Blues chart. According to his publicist, “a string” of singles have reached No. 1 on the rock charts; he’s earned five Grammy nominations; two Blues Music Awards; and a Blues Foundation Keeping the Blues Alive Award for his DVD, 10 Days Out: Blues from The Backroads. Perhaps most significantly, he enjoys more regular airplay on contemporary radio than any blues artist since Stevie Ray Vaughan.
How does he do it?
“My first love is blues music, and so that’s why over the course of my career I always go back and do something that goes back to the traditional form of blues music. Like my last record Going Home was all traditional blues with cover songs. I’ve written some traditional-type blues songs over the years like “Shotgun Blues” and “Shame, Shame, Shame” and things like that, but a lot of times it’s been my approach to take blues from the foundation elsewhere.
“I’ve been successful mixing it with rock music because you don’t have rock without blues. They’re so closely related that it’s a very natural thing to do, but using that music opens up musical opportunities that you wouldn’t otherwise have if you were stuck within the confines of 1,4,5 blues structure.
“So, as a songwriter and a producer and a musician and an artist, it opens up things, and on this album other genres found their way into my music, and it’s not a contrived thing at all. My whole life I’ve been listening to many different kinds of music – some country radio, rock radio, Top 40 radio, everything from R&B to gospel to jazz and funk, country, old country, new country, all that kind of stuff. Blues just happened to be my favorite.
“I think this album is a very diverse collection of songs with a common thread that is the blues that you can hear consistently throughout the entire album. The last record was traditional blues, so I thought this one should be more contemporary.”
Much of Lay It on Down would fit comfortably on today’s hot country charts, but even those songs feature guitar solos inspired by the usual suspects of postwar Chicago blues giants. Shepherd co-wrote all 10 songs on the CD with a number of Nashville’s proven hit songwriters.
“I like writing with other people. I actually prefer it ’cause I can sit there and over-analyze things too much if I’m writing it myself. And I also like the creative process collaborating with somebody else. They’re always going to come up with an idea I never would have thought of on my own. To me, there’s great opportunities for something different to happen when you’re working with somebody else.”
“There was me and Mark Solby and Tia Sillers, who I’ve worked with my entire career. We wrote a few songs together. And then I actually pushed myself outside the box and outside my comfort zone and met with new people and tried lot of collaborations with people I never mixed with before to try and do something different and to challenge myself.
“Some great collaborations happened as a result of that. I wrote three songs with two guys, Dylan Altman and Danny Myrick, and another guy, Keith Stegall, he’s a famous guy. He’s a producer, even an artist and songwriter. I’ve always found that country music and blues music have a lot of similarities. It’s not really that far-fetched to be writing with people in Nashville.”
On the new CD and on tour Shepherd shares vocals with Noah Hunt. “He’s doing the vocals on six out of 10 songs on the record. I’m doing lead vocals on four. We back each other up on the record, so if he’s the lead then I’m doing the back-ups on the song and vice versa. The same thing happens on tour.”
Often artists who start their career as kids, especially when mentored by a parent as Shepherd was by his father, regret the experience decades later. Not Kenny.
“There’s nothing bad about it. I can’t think of a single bad thing to me as a result of having a career at a young age. (Many of) my friends who graduated high school and started going to college are trying for years to figure out what they were going to do with themselves. They’re gonna major in this and get this degree or that, and they change their mind five or six times. Then they graduate and go off and do
something completely different.
“I knew what I wanted to do. I knew what I was doing. Then, I got the opportunity to do it, and I got to see the world and play in front of hundreds and thousands of people and do what I love to do. So, there’s nothing bad about it.
“My dad managed radio stations in my home town, and he knew some people in the industry, but he couldn’t pick up and phone and get the head of Giant Records, Irving Azoff, on the phone and say, ‘I want you to sign my son to a record deal.’ That kind of stuff happened on its own. But he helped me. He facilitated things.
“He got the laws changed in my city (Shreveport, Louisiana) so that I could be able to play in bars because the laws wouldn’t allow me to at first. He got the laws changed so the parent or legal guardian wanted under the age of 21 or 18 or whatever it is to play and perform in places that served alcohol and he took me around everywhere I went and managed things and helped me make decisions.
“So, he was instrumental in it, but he didn’t wave a magic wand and make me a rock star, you know what I mean? Some people think he just said, ‘You’re gonna be famous,’ and that’s what happened. But that’s not what happened. We worked really hard to get where we are.”
WHO: Kenny Wayne Shepherd
WITH: Sly Fox & the Hustlers
WHERE: The Egg’s Hart Theatre, Empire State Plaza, Albany
WHEN: Thursday (August 10), 8pm
HOW MUCH: $39.75, $49.75 & $59.75
ALSO: At the Calvin Theatre in Northampton at 8pm on Saturday, August 19. Tickets are $39.50 & $49.50.