“Hey, man, let’s get out of this place.”
The year was 1991, and Baton Rouge swamp blues artist Kenny Neal was so sure that he’d blown his audition for the Broadway play Mule Bone that he just wanted to get as far away from Lincoln Center as he could get.
“I’d never done anything like that. I flew up there to read for the part. I looked at my manager at the time and said, ‘That reading I just done was awful. No way I’ll get this, but I know one thing. Albert King is playing at the Blue Note tonight.’ So, we went to see Albert King, and we got a flight the next day going back to Florida and we go, ‘Man, they never would call me back. At least we got a chance to see Albert King.’ That’s all I kept saying, and then about a week later they called me and said, ‘Congratulations, we want you,’ and now I’m really nervous about it. I’m going. ‘Whoa, they want me.’ So, I went on and swallowed that pill and went to New York, and they gave me a coach. Her name was Novella Nelson, and she coached me for about three months before I went into rehearsal.”
Novella taught Kenny to trust in the moment, to let things flow. In fact, that has become his mantra in both the decisions he makes about his career and in the way he delivers on stage. In fact, one of his albums is called Let Life Flow (2008 Blind Pig). Being in the present – in the zone as it were – is what guides him in the way he writes his music and in the delivery. Every time he delvers a song it’s different.
“I have a guitar here by my bed, a little black acoustic guitar thatI have in my bedroom, and when I pick up a guitar I never play the same thing ever. It’s like I don’t know what comes to me, but when you just pick up the guitar and sometimes I hit a riff like, whoa, that was a cool riff, and then I’ll get my phone, and I’ll tape it because I know I’ll never play it again if I don’t tape it. So I grab it at that moment, and then I’ll go back and review it and a lot of times they become songs.
“I don’t know where it comes from if you want to know the truth, man. It’s just like my head is full of melody, and it just comes to me like that. I could be outside on my Bobcat or on my tractor and the tractor could be rolling and make a certain type of roaring noise, and I’ll start singing to it because I hear a melody. I hear a rhythm. Even with the windshield, I hate windshield wipers. When my windshield wipers is going, man, I can do so many songs to the windshield wiper.”
Trusting in the moment and letting things flow in response to happenstance have propelled Kenny through a career that includes six albums for Alligator, two for Telarc and his just released Blood Line for Cleopatra. Kenny is the son of Raful Neal, a Baton Rouge singer/songwriter/guitarist who was Buddy Guy’s early musical partner. Raful turned Buddy down in 1957 when the future blues icon invited him to take the train from Baton Rouge to Chicago to seek their fortunes as musicians in the city that Muddy Waters was building as the home of electric blues. Instead, Raful stayed home to be father to Kenny, his first new born in a family tree that would include 10 children. Both Raful, and his wife had been adopted, and as strong as the music’s pull was on Raful, a talented bluesman himself, the pull of establishing a family legacy was greater.
Known for his Louisiana swamp boogie, Kenny would become the first of 10 children in Raful’s new family tree. Kenny has made his brothers, sisters and cousins part of his band throughout his career. He has been around musicians since before he can remember. “It comes to me when I’m performing. I feel like I’ve been here with the guys years ago before my time.”One of his first memories concerns Slim Harpo, most famous for his 1966 hit “Scratch My Back.”
“That’s one of the first things I remember when he brought this trailer to my dad’s – my dad used to share this trailer they would haul equipment in, and I remember he told me to go in. He brought it to my dad’s house for my dad to use it. And he said, ‘Go inside and see if there’s anything left inside the trailer.’ And I went into the trailer. He closed the door, and it went pitch black dark, and I freaked out. So (he put me) down and went into his Cadillac, got a harmonica under his seat and gave me the harmonica and said, ‘Oh, son, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you cry.’ He was apologizing, but I couldn’t stand Slim Harpo after that. I would go out in the back yard. I wouldn’t even come inside and see that guy.”
That said, Kenny went on to record A Tribute to Slim Harpo (True Life, 2005) with his dad. Raful died before the album came out. “After I got older, I realized how special it was to be around these guys and where I got it from. I didn’t like (Slim Harpo) for what he did to me, but when they would get in the house and practice, I would be the little kid that crawls up on my daddy’s lap and sat there watching. So, I was taking it in every time my dad had a rehearsal. I had Slim, James Johnson, Rudolph Richard, all these guys played on that record “Scratch My Back,” and they would be by my house all the time. So, when my dad had rehearsal, I mean that was like a concert time for me.”
Kenny was just 17 when he got the call to play bass with his dad’s former partner.
“Man, I was so ready to leave when Sam Guy, Buddy Guy’s brother, came into the club on a Friday night and put a note in my top pocket while I was playing bass guitar. When I took a break, the note said, ‘Call Buddy Guy. Here’s his number.’
“So, I go to the pay phone, and I call Buddy Guy up, and he said, ‘Phil,’ which is Buddy’s brother, ‘Phil Guy told me you’re playing regularly down in Louisiana, and you’re real good on the bass now. I haven’t seen you in a long time, but if you’re interested, I have a show at Antoine’s in Austin on Tuesday and (see) if you can do it. I’ll call your dad and talk to him. And you think about it, and if you want to do it, you can meet me on Tuesday.’
“Now, you have to remember I’d never left home before, and he tellin’ me to pack my suitcase. I wanted to say, ‘What suitcase?’ I didn’t even own a suitcase. So, I went home that night, woke my parents up and told my mom that Buddy wanted me to come to Chicago and play with their band, and man, she went to crying. She didn’t want me to go. My dad was about ready to get rid of my ass. He said, ‘No, man, I’m a little nervous, but I’m excited.’
“So, I got my little clothes together over the weekend and (got) a ride with one of my friends who was going to Houston, Texas, and they dropped me off in Houston, and I caught a Greyhound bus to Austin. So I caught the bus, and then I got a ride to Austin and met with Buddy. I don’t know how I did that without having any experience, but I did it, and I went to Austin, found a hotel, then made a call at rehearsal and sound check and then Buddy Guy and Jr. Wells at the time they were both together, and Jr. would call out the songs, and I’d go, ‘Damn, my dad used to play this song. I know this. Buddy Guy’d call out songs, and I know of those songs.’ So, my dad had groomed me, man. I was ready for it, and I go, ‘Damn, this is all I got to do’ So, when we did that first night I had the job, you now?”
Kenny had had his first experience with trusting in the moment, and it was sweet.
Securing a record contract with Alligator Records required a bit more perseverance. Somehow Kenny had gotten a hold of Alligator CEO Bruce Iglauer’s home phone number. “I called him and he’d just gotten out of the shower. ‘How’d you get this number? This is my home number. Where did you get this from?’”
That began a relationship that persists today even though Kenny is no longer with the label
“Bruce is just a straight up guy, and he takes care of business as well. He’s always been straight up with his paper work. He’s always been a nice guy. Now, I’ve put quite a few grey hairs on his head. I take some responsibility for some of that grey that he has.
I don’t think he found out what the real blues was until he signed me up. (Laugh)
We’re still close, but he would never be surprised at what I would do next. (When I signed with Alligator) I was a young kid having fun, and I was putting out records, and he was selling records, and at the same time I was enjoying myself, too. I had a great time launching my career.”
By the time Kenny auditioned for Mule Bone he already had established himself with two Alligator CD releases. But this was a different game. This was Broadway. This was acting.
He went with the flow. “Broadway had zero tolerance, and they’re very professional. You can’t miss one word. They’re pros at that. That really taught me a lot when I got back to the stage as a blues performer. You can’t change the writing, but because of my rhythm I could use the same lines, but I could take my rhythm and change it. I could make it different, make it feel different.”
It was like improvising in music.
“Yeah, yeah. I could tell you something four or five different ways, and it’s the same thing. And I got that from not wanting to be bored on stage. So, I knew it was fun when I’d (put) the other actors off guard ’cause they think I’d deliver the same line the same way tomorrow night, but I’d hit ’em unexpectedly. I had fun, man. They used to come to my dressing room, say, ‘Hey, man, why’d you want to do that to me? You threw me off. You got me off guard.’ I’d say, ‘Cause you weren’t paying attention.’ They were probably used to every night being the same thing. You can just get into that same old routine every night, and then I found out a way to have fun. So I had a gas, man, ’cause I could change up the vibe.”
In 2005 Kenny was diagnosed with stage 4 Hepatitis C, a potentially lethal disease. The doctors were shocked when he seemed to be oblivious to his situation. Raful had taught his son the importance of family and in the last 11 months, Kenny had lost his dad, his brother and his sister.
“At that point I was real ill. The sickness I went through and the medication that I went through was nothing compared to what I’d already gone through when I lost my dad, my brother, and my baby sister got murdered. I buried all three of my family members within 11 months. And then right after I buried my family it couldn’t get any worse than me burying my baby sister. Whatever I had to go through, I was ready for it, so I still hadn’t healed from the tragedy in my family. So I went through all of this at the same time, and I don’t know. It was like a big dream, a nightmare. The doctors was talking to me and telling me my condition and how bad it was, and it was kinda strange to them because I was sitting there not even worried about it.
Family was everything, and it was almost like Kenny’s hepatitis wasn’t even on his radar.
“Both (my parents were) adopted. This was the first family tree, and that was more important to my dad and my mother. I think that’s why they had as many kids because they wanted to start their own family tree, and my dad was always caring, loving, always preached to us to stick together and love one another.
“I still say that on stage every night. It’s very important for family to stick together, love one another, and enjoy life, and that’s what he always taught us. That’s why me and my brothers got along. I mean my family, we see each other every day, but when we see each other it’s like we hadn’t seen each other for months. We laugh and talk, and we enjoy the moment, and that’s what my dad instilled in all of us.”
Blood Line is Kenny’s new album. There are eight family members on it playing an array of instruments, and yet things never sound busy. Each instrument plays a role similar to the Tedeshi/Trucks Band. Kenny plays all the lead guitar. The title cut is most typical of his “swamp blues” in a Dr. John meets Ray Wylie Hubbard number about family blood running deep. “Ain’t Gon Let The Blues Die” is an homage to everyone whose died in the genre from Jimmy Reed to Freddie King and Big Mama Thornton and Otis Redding to John Lee Hooker.
The album is produced by Tom Hambridge who produced two of Buddy Guy’s recent Grammy winners, Skin Deep and Living Proof. Hambridge basically brought Guy into the 21st century writing autobiographical songs for him as well as bringing his live guitar runs into focus on record. He didn’t have to work as hard with Kenny.
“I wanted to invite Tom over and work with him because we always said let’s do something together, but when I got to Tom, everything was already down because I was working with another guy, and he didn’t work out for me. He wanted to manage me and all that stuff. He was a vice president of RCA or something like that. He’s retired, and it didn’t work out with me and him. So then I just took the whole project and got ready to do it, and I said, “You know what? I owe Tom one. Let me call him up because I wasn’t too happy about Blind Pig when Tom and I wrote “Down in the Swamp.” (Blind Pig neglected to give Hambridge a co-writing credit.)”
Kenny performs Friday, October 7th at King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena, Arkansas, and he will share the podium with me, Bob Margolin, Bob Stroger, and Lonnie Shields for the sixth annual Call and response Blues Symposium at the Festival the next day at noon. Roger Stolle hosts a first half at 10:45 with special guests Sean “Bad” Apple, Hezekiah Early, Mark “Mule Man” Massey, and “Lil Poochie” Watson. Expect Kenny Neal to talk about his “blood line” and how his career has been shaped by family values and memories of his childhood with his dad.
“He used to tell my mom to get me ready on a Saturday afternoon when I was about seven or eight years old, and he would put me in that car with them and go to the juke joint. I would sit outside until it was my turn to play ’cause I wasn’t allowed in there, and he would put me on the bar and give me that microphone, and I never forgot that, man. That was like my – you know Andy Griffith and Opie used to go fishing?”
Visit Kenny’s website at: http://kennyneal.net.
Interviewer Don Wilcock has been writing about blues for nearly half a century. He wrote Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues, the biography that helped Buddy Guy jumpstart his career in 1991. He’s interviewed more than 5000 Blues artists and edited several music magazines including King Biscuit Time.