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‘Have Guitar, Will Travel’ – A conversation with Kenny Wayne Shepherd

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It’s been 25 years since Kenny Wayne Shepherd stepped into a recording studio, giddy with anticipation over the sessions that would become his platinum-selling debut record “Ledbetter Heights.” Barely 17 years old at the time, the Shreveport, Louisiana guitar-slinger had been labeled heir apparent to the blues-rock throne, or alternately, simply “The Kid,” for years. Keenly aware that an army of brow-furrowing blues purists were prepared to pounce upon anything they perceived as inauthentic, Shepherd opted to let his fingers do the talking.

After nine albums (including seven #1 blues records), many hundreds of performances, world tours, five Grammy nominations, Blues Music Awards, Billboard Music Awards and stages and studios shared with his heroes, Shepherd long ago ceased the need to prove his worth to others, but he says he’ll never stop trying to create the best music he’s ever made.

Shepherd’s newest studio album, “The Traveler,” is the distillation of a life immersed in music and family. Taking stock of the steps he’s taken, Shepherd and his band have crafted a record steeped in blues that incorporates elements of country, R&B, funk, gospel and classic rock on its 10 tracks, eight of which are Shepherd co-writes.

Shepherd’s 1997 classic “Blue on Black” returned to the chart earlier this year in a new version by metal band Five Finger Death Punch that bridges rock, blues and country. With Shepherd himself on guitar, along with guitarist Brian May of Queen and country singer Brantley Gilbert, the reworked tune shot to the top of the rock chart when released to raise funds and awareness for actor Gary Sinise’s charity dedicated to first responders.

Shepherd and his band, including vocalist Noah Hunt, Chris “Whipper” Layton on drums, keyboardist Joe Krown, and bassist Scott Nelson have toured heavily this year behind “The Traveler,” with dozens of U.S. dates and multiple trips to Europe under their belts, including a date at Maine Savings Pavilion at Rock Row in Westbrook on June 22.

A summer co-headlining tour with blues legend Buddy Guy offered an opportunity to see the two guitarists burning it up together onstage. It could happen again this weekend when Shepherd and Guy bring their respective bands to the historic Palace Theater in Waterbury, CT on Sunday, November 17.

Stephen King’s rock and roll radio station, WKIT 100.3 FM, has played virtually everything released to date by the Kenny Wayne Shepherd band, according to Bobby Russell, station GM and co-host (with Mark “The Shark” Young) of The Rock and Roll Morning Show. According to Russell, the station currently has 17 of the band’s cuts in rotation, including songs from “The Traveler.”

“The first song on ‘The Traveler’ is ‘Woman Like You,’ and it sounds so great on the air,” Russell said. “I’ve always tried to find artists that fit in with the classic rock that we play.”

Russell remembers when Shepherd’s “Ledbetter Heights” arrived at the radio station in 1995.

“I thought ‘this kid is awesome,’ and he sounded good on the radio next to Eric Clapton and Tom Petty. There are some artists that automatically get added to the playlist when they put out something new. The Kenny Wayne Shepherd band is in that category as far as WKIT is concerned.”

As Muddy Waters so perfectly stated in song: The blues had a baby and they named it rock and roll. WKIT has demonstrated a long history of honoring rock’s roots by airing daily doses of the blues. According to Russell, Shepherd is an artist beloved by WKIT listeners who tune in for both blues and classic rock.

“There’s a famous story about Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s father taking young Kenny to a Stevie Ray Vaughan concert. That experience led to him really taking the guitar seriously, and then Stevie Ray Vaughan’s drummer, Chris Layton, joined his band. It’s wild how that came full circle for him.”

Russell is referring to a concert performed by Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble at Veteran’s Park Amphitheatre in Shreveport, Louisiana, on September 2, 1984.

Vaughan was touring behind his second record “Couldn’t Stand the Weather” when Ken Shepherd, a radio personality and concert promoter, presented the band for a Labor Day weekend show. He brought a 7-year-old Kenny Wayne to the concert and introduced the lad to the band before they took the stage. Today, Shepherd remembers how friendly the musicians seemed, and how Vaughan picked him up and placed him atop an amplifier case to give the youngster a prime viewing spot for the concert that lay ahead.

Just as Stevie Ray Vaughan ignited a blues boom, inspiring two generations of guitarists beginning in the 1980s, Kenny Wayne Shepherd is carrying the torch and putting in the time to pay homage to the legends of the form, while introducing fans to the musicians who continue to inspire him.

During the following interview, Shepherd discusses “The Traveler,” Buddy Guy, Jimi Hendrix, and the joy he feels in bringing his music to fans with the musicians in his band. He also reveals plans for a follow-up to his award winning 2004 DVD/CD project “10 Days Out: Blues From the Backroads” (released in 2007) that documented Shepherd’s journey of interviewing and performing with the last of the original blues masters.

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The Maine Edge: “The Traveler” is a hit not only with critics but more importantly, your fans. How gratifying is it to see that reaction to the new songs?

Kenny Wayne Shepherd: I’m really happy with the response for “The Traveler.” My goal when we go into the studio to make a record – this one in particular – is to make the best album I’ve ever made. It’s gratifying to feel like we’ve accomplished that. You never know how a record will turn out. We’ll make a record and I’ll live with it for months before anybody hears it. I know what I think about it but it’s always good to get fresh ears on it and hear what the public thinks about it.

The Maine Edge: Is it a surreal experience to write a song, take it to the band, watch it come to life in the studio, and then to the stage, where the audience sings it back to you?

KWS: That’s exactly what’s happening. Everybody is singing along and you can see the people who already know the songs. You can see and hear their reaction from the first few notes of the new songs, and when we get through the whole song, you can see how it’s affected them. We’re doing about half of this record right now in the set and every one of them is a winner. They’re all coming across really well with the fans.

The Maine Edge: I have a lot of respect for how you work. It seems that you like to maintain long-term relationships with musicians and songwriters.

KWS: That’s right. Some of the songs on “The Traveler” were written with longtime collaborators, like Mark Selby and Tia Sellers. The three of us have written a bunch of songs together, including “Blue on Black” and “Déjà Voodoo.”

I worked with Danny Myrick, Dylan Altman and Marshall Altman – the co-producer on the record – on the last album, “Lay It On Down” (2017). At the time, they were new collaborators for me. I wanted to step outside of my comfort zone and find some new writing partnerships. We wrote some great songs on “Lay It On Down” so I went back to them so we could write some songs for the new album. Things are working and it’s creating what I think is new and fresh sounding music that’s very relevant for today.

The Maine Edge: When you’re writing, can you hear the finished arrangement in your head or does that usually happen once you bring it to the band?

KWS: A little bit of both. When we’re writing a song, I can kind of hear the end result in my head and then it’s just a matter of accomplishing that. When I’m recording demos with basically an acoustic guitar and a vocal, we’ll sing the song into a cell phone or tape recorder – whatever is handy – and then all the magic happens in the studio where we start adding all of the instruments. Sometimes the arrangement can change in the studio.

The Maine Edge: A few months after releasing “The Traveler,” you released a Blu-ray audio version of the album with surround sound, a high-definition stereo mix, and some fascinating in-studio video. The 5.1 mix gives the listener the feeling that they are actually in the studio with the band. It’s a very cool listen and I wish more artists would follow your lead.

KWS: I’m all about fidelity. I love making music sound great, and I want the listener to have the opportunity to hear the music the way we heard it as we were creating it. We did mixes in 5.1 and 7.1 Dolby Atmos, so they have plenty of options to have an immersive listening experience. It’s another way to bring fans deeper into the music.

The Maine Edge: Every once in a while, you release a pure blues record. Do you think you might have another one of those in the pipeline?

KWS: Oh yeah. I’m always thinking ahead to the next project. My goal is to write a couple of different records over the next few months. One will be a lot more bluesy. Also, we’re really putting the ball in motion to get everything together to go back out and do a follow-up to our documentary film and album that we did called “10 Days Out: Blues From the Backroads,” that came out in 2007.

That was a completely traditional blues project and film that featured a lot of traditional blues musicians. We’re working very hard right now to get everything together to get everything organized to go do another one of those.

The Maine Edge: You’ve toured and performed a number of times with Buddy Guy over the years. What does Buddy mean to you as a person and as a player?

KWS: As a person, Buddy Guy has been one of my heroes since I was a kid. He’s given me a lot of great advice and I’ve had a lot of great times with him on and off the stage. As a player, I feel sometimes that people don’t always realize how unbelievable Buddy Guy is on guitar. He’s one of the guys who inspired Jimi Hendrix to be Jimi Hendrix. That is no small statement. That’s a major thing.

The mark Buddy Guy has made on music and rock and roll history cannot be overstated. Buddy is the real deal, and he’s one of the last direct links we have to the Chicago Blues era of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Junior Wells, and all of those guys he played with back in the day during the Chess Records era.

The Maine Edge: There’s a famous story about Jimi Hendrix showing up with a tape recorder when Buddy Guy presented a guitar clinic prior to his performance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1967.

KWS: That’s a cool story because it makes Hendrix – who’s called the greatest of all time - even more relatable to us regular guys, because we’ve all done that. When I was a kid, I was listening to other people’s records, and once in a while, I could get my hands on a VHS video of a live performance. It was rare in the days before YouTube to find this stuff. I would listen and watch those tapes to try to learn licks like Hendrix did.

The Maine Edge: You are co-headlining shows with Buddy Guy, including the performance coming up Sunday, November 17, at the Palace Theater in Waterbury, Connecticut. Will you and Buddy sit in during each other’s set?

KWS: Yeah, we did do that on the last leg of the tour. We tend to make that call on a night by night basis, depending on what’s going on. We’ve done it before and there’s a definitely possibility that it will happen again.

We’re going to continue into next year, working this record and bringing the music to the people. Our shows consist of a combination of new material, and as many of the songs from the catalog as we can cram in there that we feel people want to hear. Everybody seems to walk away happy.

The Maine Edge: Most of your band has been with you for years. Do those guys feel like your second family at this point?

KWS: Yeah, this is a family-run operation in the first place. We treat people like family and we like to have long-term relationships because that’s how I like to run my organization. I like to show my loyalty and appreciation to people and I think they show that in return. Plus, you get that history, man. Musically, you can do so much more when you have that amount of time playing with other plays. Just instinctually, so many more things can happen in the music.

Last modified on Tuesday, 12 November 2019 07:42

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