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Laying It All Down: In Conversation With Kenny Wayne Shepherd

Wednesday, 26 July 2017 Written by Simon Ramsay

Cut Kenny Wayne Shepherd and he’ll bleed blue. Well, more specifically he’ll bleed the blues. The Louisiana native is a diehard. He has lived and breathed the genre since he helped to reinvigorate it in the mid-90s after bursting onto the block with a blistering sound that, although referencing the greats, gave the blues a youthful vibrancy and crossover appeal it badly needed.

Whether playing classic, slow grinding numbers, imbuing his songs with pulsating rock ‘n’ roll swagger or adding melodic mainstream flourishes, few musicians have done as much to keep the blues alive for modern audiences as Shepherd, who was selling millions of albums before he’d even graduated from being a teenager.  

Shepherd’s latest effort, ‘Lay It On Down’, is, song for song, possibly his strongest and most accessible collection to date. We spoke to the man himself about the record and also took the opportunity to gauge his insight on a wide variety of blues-related topics.

There’s certainly lots of classic Kenny Wayne Shepherd blues-rock on the album, but also new flavours that could open your music up to different audiences. Hard Lesson Learned, for example, could well be a hit on country radio.  

I’ve no problem sending these songs to any format that might be appropriate because I feel we’ve made a good record and good music should be heard. A lot of country music and pop is very political, it’s about big money and connections and things like that. So a lot of times people look at me and go ‘Why would we play a blues guy on top 40 radio?’. At the end of the day I think the music speaks for itself and if I’m able to book a show in a theatre, pack the place out, I’m grateful for that, regardless of whether we wind up on top 40 radio or country or whatever. I mean, that would be great if we did, but I’m not putting all my eggs in that basket.    

What can you say about the album’s delicate title track?

That song is about someone we all know, where you can see the beauty in them but, for whatever reason, they just think they’re not good enough, they don’t deserve to be loved and can’t see in themselves what others see. And it’s just about ‘Hey man, stop carrying around all these pre-conceived ideas that you’ve bought into. You don’t even know where they came from but for some reason they’ve become your truth. Lay it down and try and love yourself and allow people to love you the way you should be loved.’  

From thumping rockers like Ride Of Your life to the R&B vibe of Diamonds and Gold, there are numerous styles on the new album but it flows very well from beginning to end. How mindful are you of that need for cohesion?

I’m very mindful of that. It’s my intention that the listener is going to listen from beginning to end even though I know a lot of people today are going to download this song or that song. I still make albums with the idea that someone can buy the whole record and listen to it from top to bottom. You’re supposed to have different tempos and the key changes from each song have to work and complement one another. We came up with, I don’t even know how many different sequences, before we settled on the final track listing to make sure we got it just right.

I think your audience probably prefers to listen from beginning to end and not just cherry pick tracks.

Well, yeah, a lot of our demographic is the generation that still buys physical music. But we have young people that are fans as well and the goal is to turn more and more young people on to this kind of music also. If you can reel them in with a great song then their curiosity is piqued and maybe they’ll go and check out the rest of it.  

You sing four songs on the new record. When it comes to lead vocals, how do you decide if Noah [Hunt] is going to handle them or whether it’s a track you want to sing?

After the song’s been written I have a good idea who’s going to sing it. But there are times, like Marshall [Altman, co-producer] wanted me to sing Louisiana Rain, because it’s a very personal song about my experiences being from Louisiana and travelling the world and always coming back to my home town, but the key was too low for me. If I tried to change the key it took away the vibe of the song. That was one instance where we were planning on me singing but it didn’t sound right so I handed it to Noah. Things like that end up happening, but most of the time I can figure out who is going to be appropriate for what song.

How would you describe the relationship between yourself and Noah? You have great chemistry and have been together for a long time now.

We always had that. From day one he and I related and I feel like that’s down to fate. You can’t manufacture chemistry. It’s either there or it’s not. And so we’ve had over 20 years of recording and touring to really hone in on it and it’s become second nature now. And the same thing with Chris Layton on drums. He’s been playing with me since my first album. It’s very natural, the intuition is such that we don’t need to open our mouths because everybody knows where each other is going.

Your rhythm section is particularly impressive.

Well Chris, for what I do, he’s the best drummer out there. Kevin McCormack is a tremendously talented bass player and I first experienced making music with him with the Rides. Stephen [Stills] brought him in, I put him and Chris together and they played like they had been together their entire lives. I was like ‘Oh my god, this rhythm section is unbelievable’. Even if two guys are really talented, you can’t just throw a drummer and a bass player together and expect it to work. There has to be some organic chemistry between them and it was oozing from these guys.

Your records are always warm and uplifting and this one’s no different. That said, there’s a common misconception blues music is just depressing. Does that irritate you at all?

It’s not often I run across somebody that has a misconception about blues anymore, but I do remember a lot of people were like, when I was younger, ‘Blues music, isn’t that for old people?’. But blues celebrates the bad and the good, because the bad is just an opportunity to grow and learn. You listen to some of those old school blues guys singing about something really bad, but the way that they say it in a song was often clever and sometimes would make you laugh no matter how bad the situation was. You’ve just got to find one of the best blues tracks you can play for somebody to turn them onto the genre and prove them wrong.

They’d do well to check out ‘Blues From The Backroads’, your album/video project that shone a light on lesser known bluesmen.  Are there any plans for a sequel to that, where you might do a similar thing to help expose young blues guys looking to take the genre forwards?

Yes, the goal is to put that together in the next year. We’ll certainly be visiting older generations of blues musicians. I have considered maybe featuring some younger people that are trying to help keep it alive and well. So we’ll probably have components of both. But, no matter what, when you watch it I want it to be special. I don’t want it to feel like you’ve already seen it before you’ve seen it. So there’s got to be something new and different about it.  

Many young guitarists have early success and it derails them to some degree. You experienced massive acclaim in your formative years yet continued to go from strength to strength musically. How did you stay balanced?

Well, really it’s just about the roots. The way I was raised, the way my family brought me up. I didn’t invent any of this, I just do what I love to do and I’m grateful for the opportunity to do it. I stay focused and try not to take any of it for granted. I think that’s kind of kept my head screwed on over the years.

When you burst onto the scene you were immediately compared to Stevie Ray Vaughan. Did you ever feel pressure being compared to someone who inspired you and had such a huge legacy?

Well, here’s the thing. I know a lot of guys, my age, younger, that have been significantly influenced by him but would never utter the words because they’re too scared of somebody trying to accuse them of wanting to be Stevie Ray Vaughan. The reality of my life is that I met him when I was a kid. He changed my life, inspired me and motivated me to become the musician I’ve become. I’m from the south and a long lineage of blues musicians that gives credit where credit is due. He always talked about his influences and gave them credit, people like Albert King, and it wouldn’t be fair for me to pretend like he didn’t influence me.  

So because of that some people would make accusations, but I found those kinds of things were unfounded and usually came from some place of jealousy or hate and they didn’t know me or what they’re talking about. I was never trying to fill his shoes, just make the best music I can and make a name for myself. I didn’t want to be Stevie Ray Vaughan, but I wanted to affect people with my guitar the way he affected me with his. So if I do that I’m doing my job.    

What was meeting him like?

It was incredible, it was great. He was a really nice guy and I met him several times, the last time was not long before he passed away and he signed my very first Stratocaster for me. But I was just in awe of him because he was such a big hero to me. He was a very encouraging, very sweet human being.

Where were you when you heard he’d died?

I was in the living room of my mom’s house the day before I was starting my ninth grade year at High School and was just devastated, really devastated.

Is the resistance still there from the old guard or do you think you and friends like Jonny Lang and Joe Bonamasaa made it easier for young blues artists that are around today?

I don’t think the resistance is there nearly like it was. I literally had to bust down walls that existed for this kind of music and, especially, for someone young getting played on mainstream radio over here in the US and being commercially successful. After the passing of Stevie Ray there was a big void that a lot of people didn’t want to see filled because he earned that spot. When I came along people were looking at me like ‘What does this kid know about blues?’.

At the end of the day the music spoke for itself and, even if they were still sceptical, they came to the concerts and saw the show and walked away a believer. That opened up opportunities for other people and I think the accumulated success we’ve all had has certainly made people less sceptical of young people wanting to do this music. You still have to stand on your own musically. Just because of what we’ve done doesn’t mean that every kid gets to walk in and say ‘I’m a bluesman’ and have legions of fans. You still have to prove yourself with your instrument no matter what.

Unlike pop music, where artists can burst onto the scene with their best album and then fizzle out, blues guys almost always get better with age. Why is that?

I’m not sure. A lot of pop music is focused on youth culture, which is also why I find it fascinating. You see people that have been very successful pop artists in their 50s or 60s, trying to act like they’re still in their early 20s with their lyrics. It’s just bizarre. But blues music, you’re allowed to grow old gracefully and it’s almost as if, like a fine wine or a great cigar, you just get better with age because you really hone in on your craft. And blues isn’t set in a specific moment in time. That’s what pop music is – it’s what’s popular right now. That’s why a pop song that can be a hit today, 12 months from now can sound totally dated. Blues music is timeless and when you’re dealing with timeless music, age is not a big deal.  

'Lay It On Down' is out now on Provogue.

Kenny Wayne Shepherd Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Sun July 30 2017 - HOLMFIRTH Holmfirth Picturedrome
Fri October 27 2017 - POOLE Mr Kyps
Mon October 30 2017 - LEAMINGTON SPA Assembly
Tue October 31 2017 - CARDIFF Tramshed
Wed November 01 2017 - MANCHESTER O2 Ritz

Click here to compare & buy Kenny Wayne Shepherd Tickets at Stereoboard.com.

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