THE BLUE LIGHTNING
An interview with Kenny Wayne Shepherd
by Shelly Harris
"It's pretty exciting, but it's pretty loud, too!" drawls Kenny Wayne
Shepherd, in just the kind of slightly graveled tone you would expect of the nouveau blues master. "It's kind of the best from all three albums," he
continues, describing what aficionados can expect to see on his band's current
tour. "We feature
a big chunk of the new record ("Live On"), but we have some little surprises
here and there. It's a brand new show for the people who have seen us before; it's about
one to two hours of intense music."
Frankly, there's a feeling of relief in finding that Shepherd, who has been rightfully touted as the crown prince of the blues-rock axe slinger tradition, still has a down home, boy-next-door openness and earthiness about him, despite a truly spectacular rise onto the international spotlight while
still in his teens. Certainly, not many young men could or would lead such a charmed life at the age of 22 without dangerously losing a grasp of their own roots - or of their egos. After all, we're talking about a guy that not only has three platinum and highly acclaimed blues albums under his belt already (the second release, "Trouble Is...", received many accolades, including Billboard's Rock Track of the Year for 'Blue on Black' and Blues Album of the Year), but we're also talking about someone who has ultra chic Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair photo spreads to his credit, not to mention a spot in one of those tragically hip "Gap" commercials. Moreover, this sort of high profile, stylishly sleek kind of exposure might be the kind of stuff certain elite young pop stars might expect, but certainly not a bluesman as authentic and true-to-the-genre as Shepherd is - at least not until now. So much so soon, his career and good fortune has thus far seemed to skyrocket without a snag or a dip. Yet it's difficult to imagine anyone continuing to make that blue lightning on the guitar the way he does without maintaining the requisite humility, or without remaining intensely in touch with the pure depth of heart and spirit which is the blues. Certainly, to lose those things would really mean losing a considerable part of his great gift.
But it is obvious now - in more ways than one - that Kenny Wayne Shepherd is not just any young man. Evidently intelligent and well-centered, he still seems to have solid grip on it all. Anyway, the person talking on the phone from a headlining tour stop at The Riverfest in Columbus, Georgia, certainly still seems to be the same old Kenny Wayne who grew up - and still lives - near Shreveport. That's the Kenny Wayne who demurely reveals that he'd just as soon "hang out" and relax with his dog named "Trouble" and who relishes spending "as much time with my family as I can" back home on the lake in Louisiana. At least that's what he does when he's not shredding and cajoling the bejesus out of the six-string with both blazing ferocity and subtle restraint. (For those into the technical aspects, Shepherd plays several different guitars on his recordings, including numerous Fender Custom Shop models, but he says that his 1961 sunburst Strat is "my woman.")
Of course, Kenny Wayne is especially animated when talking about the
current album, "Live On," where the goal was actually to get "more back to our roots": "We did some shuffles, like 'Shotgun Blues' and 'Losing Kind.' Even
the real modern sounding stuff like 'Was' and 'Every Time It Rains,' really, they're just Mississippi Delta blues songs that I wrote and turned into
something different. We wanted to make this album real diverse, and to kind of put something for everyone on there."
"Live On" was recorded at The Record Plant (where "Trouble Is..." was done), the House of Blues in Memphis (where debut Ledbetter Heights was created), but mostly in Austin, Texas because "it's just such a great city - the vibe is great and everything." As with the previous album, "Live On" has plenty of great guest appearances, though Kenny Wayne notes that "none of it was planned in advance. It just kind of came together as the album came together. I mean, I 'heard' different people on different songs, and some things sounded very appropriate for certain musicians. Like, Les Claypool plays on the (old Fleetwood Mac) song, 'Oh Well,' and James Cotton is on 'Shotgun Blues,' and Dr. John is on a bunch of different tracks. Warren Haynes is on 'Wild Love' and 'You Should Know Better.' And Arion Salazar, (bassist) with Third Eye Blind, he's on 'Electric Lullabye.'
Shepherd also brought along several collaborators for the songwriting on the new album, just as he has done on previous recordings. But, he elaborates, "Usually it's an equal collaboration effort. I usually come up with most of the riffs, and the guitars and the music. We all contribute to the lyrics - I help write lyrics as well. It makes it more my music, you know."
However, the other regular members of the Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band are bassist Keith Christopher, drummer Sam Bryant, and vocalist Noah Hunt, whose rich and soulful baritone first appeared on the second album. Still, as superb and well-suited to the band's songs as Hunt's vocals are, the question begs to be asked when and if Shepherd might be willing to tackle the vocal chores himself. Though he did the lead vocals on one track on the first record, and sings backing vocals on many of the other songs, he has been subtly chided in some past reviews for not also taking center stage vocally, no matter what his own perceived shortcomings there might be. (It has been aptly noted that other greats like Hendrix and Vaughn weren't always flawless singers, but that their singing - as well as their playing - gave them even more riveting depth and power in connectin giwth their audience). Maybe its just part of the immense pressure the public has put on him to be "ripe" before his time, or maybe (and more likely) it's the perfectionist's pressure he puts on himself. Either way, Shepherd seems tentatively willing, but not quite ready be the whole package - just yet: "Oh yeah, I might possibly do it ... in the future. Right now, I'm still developing my voice, and the guitar is something that comes a lot more naturally to me than singing. And so it's something that's just kind of like ... a work in progress."
Though he says he likes "all kinds of stuff, I have wide musical tastes" he points to Willie Nelson (with whom he recently recorded) and Eddie Van Halen as other non-blues guitarists he particularly admires. But of course, in the blues tradition of always paying homage to the "Masters," Shepherd is effusive in his praise of Stevie Ray Vaughn, to whom he has constantly been compared, as well as others like Jimi Hendrix, BB King, Albert King, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and Albert Collins, et al. In fact, the story of how he saw Vaughn play at age seven, while attending a show with his father (who was also the promoter) is well documented. According to the legend, Shepherd had an epiphany of sorts at that concert and took up the guitar with a vengeance only a short while later. Though he does not dispute the story, Kenny Wayne falls short of saying he was obsessed with the learning to play: "It was just kind of a labor of love; it was something I wanted to do. I'm completely self-taught and I totally pursued the instrument by myself. It was definitely something I enjoyed doing, and I was just playing for myself."
However, at 13, he had already begun a steadily increasing series of public performances. Though it might not have been the typical American adolescent experience, Shepherd seems to have no regrets about it. "I went to high school, I mean I graduated from high school [in an accelerated program at a magnate school in the Shreveport area] and everything. But I would go and play shows on the weekends and stuff. I put my band together when I was 15 and we started doing gigs. Then I recorded my first album during the last three months of my senior year in high school. I was going to school during the week and recording on weekends ... But I still feel like I got to live a pretty full childhood."
In explaining how that first deal with Giant Records came about, Shepherd displays a quiet self-assurance: "There was just a buzz going around the industry. 'Cause it was kind of unheard of for somebody so young to be playing this kind of music. So, when that buzz got created, I pretty much had record companies beatin' down the door!"
No doubt about it, in addition to his many "gifts" which include a close family, a father that was already in the music business before Kenny began playing (Ken Shepherd is his son's manager), and extraordinarily precocious understanding of his instrument in a genre that is known to take a life time to perfect, Shepherd has apparently been doing those other things that he controls right as well. That said, what advice would he give others out there that would like to be in his shoes? After a pause to weigh his words, Shepherd replies, "Well, just persistence ... And don't sacrifice yourself and your music for anything, you know. Because you've got to play this music for the rest of your life, and you have to live with it. It's your name being put on the music. So, always make the music that makes you happy."
In light of where Kenny Wayne Shepherd's life and music are already at right now at age 22, it's only natural to wonder where would he like to see it headed 20 years from now. "Well," Kenny laughs, aware that I can probably predict his answer, "Hopefully I'll still be making music - touring and making records!"
For more information on Kenny Wayne Shepherd, please visit http://www.kwsband.com.
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