Featured Interview – Kenny Neal

Kenny is back.

Sounds like a pretty innocent little statement, doesn’t it?

Perhaps it means that Kenny has returned from vacation, or maybe made his way back from the grocery store.

Put it this way – if a person saw the 11 letters that make up that phrase scrawled on a piece of stationary taped to a refrigerator, that person would probably have little cause to stop and really think about the meaning behind those three small words.

But when those three small words are spelled out with used hypodermic needles – that’s another matter entirely.

One guaranteed to grab immediate and complete attention.

Kenny is back.

After the harrowing ordeal that Kenny Neal went through a couple of short years ago, those three small words should be shouted with joy from the top of the highest building that Baton Rouge, Louisiana has to offer.

Because Neal had to claw his way back from the very depths of hell, pulling himself through a vortex of pain and suffering that the very devil himself would probably not wish upon a person.

After becoming extremely sick about six years ago, Neal was diagnosed with Hepatitis C, a disease that left him so drained and unable to function on a daily basis. It to ground his recording and touring career to a screeching halt.

Not only did this illness have a critical effect on his vocation of playing the blues, Hepatitis C also forced Neal to undergo a weekly series of painful injections – just to stem the tide of the nasty disease that attacks the liver.

“I took 58 weeks of treatment,” Neal said. “That was every Monday. No getting away from that.”

But somehow Neal found the strength and conviction to pull through all the required treatments.

And when the treatments were mercifully over?

“I kept all my needles and when I finished up with my last treatment, we pulled the needles out of this big container and my wife and I laid them on the floor and we had just enough needles to write ‘Kenny is back’ on the floor. Isn’t that a trip?” he asked. “My wife asked what told me to do that and I couldn’t answer. We couldn’t believe that we had just enough needles to do that. I went through hell and back, but now we’re starting to see the light.”

However, Neal’s trip through the depths of misery was not strictly confined to ones of the medical nature.

For during the same time-frame his body was being battered by Hepatitis C, his heart was wracked with another level of pain all its own.

Because during a heart-breaking 11-month span, Kenny Neal saw his beloved father Raful, along with a brother, Ronnie and a sister, Jackie, pass way.

Despite playing against what looked like a deck loaded not in his favor, Neal found a way to bounce back, landing on his feet with the magnificently-uplifting Let Life Flow (Blind Pig) CD, released to much critical accord in 2008.

The inspirational title track from his comeback even garnered Neal a Blues Music Award (BMA) for Song of the Year.

That folks, is true perseverance.

Because as weak as he was at the time of its creation, it’s a wonder that song ever managed to find the light of day.

“After about seven months into my treatments, I was really sick. I was weak and my immune system was almost shot,” Neal said. “Just about 80-percent of my white blood cells were dead and I was just drained all the time. I was trying to get out of bed to go to the bathroom one morning and I just couldn’t get up. And so I was pushing and struggling and when I did finally sit up on the side of the bed, I said to myself, ‘One thing I know – you just got to let life flow.’ I was talking to myself. But something told me, write that down. I jotted it down by my bed and the next thing you know, the song just took off on its own. I didn’t even really have to work to write it. It told me what it wanted to say.”

Was it perhaps a case of divine intervention?

“I’ll tell you the truth. Even though I’m going to continue to write and play music, it’s going to be hard to top that one,” said Neal. “It just came from so much hurt and grief … everything. That’s heart and soul right there. I really think there was some other power at play there. For me to survive what I went through, it was for a reason. I came back stronger and with a CD that I never dreamed of having.”

While most fans of the blues are quick to name Chicago and the Mississippi Delta as regions central to the development of the genre – and rightfully so – the state of Louisiana’s contributions to the art form are sometimes under appreciated.

But without Louisiana, especially around the Baton Rouge area, we would have no Kenny Neal.

Or Buddy Guy, or Sonny Landreth, or Slim Harpo or Lazy Lester … to name just a few.

“We have our own identity, coming from the south,” Neal said. “Our blues songs have that French influence and also the ragtime – as it was called before jazz, which was created down here – is in our music, too. So we have a mixture of the blues, and then a little west of here, you have the Cajun thing and then you go south of here and have the whole New Orleans thing. Then, there’s the sounds coming down from Mississippi. So the Baton Rouge guys got caught in between all those sounds. And that’s where we come up Slim Harpo and the Polk Salad Annie thing – it all evolved into our own style around here. And that’s something I want to preserve, even though I’ve got my own Kenny Neal thing going on. I’m always going to touch back home. We have something very special around here.”

A young Kenny Neal didn’t have to look very much past his own doorstep to gain entry into the world of the blues – it was provided by his father Raful, who at one time, counted Buddy Guy as a band mate – foreshadowing Kenny’s later tenure in the Legend from Lettsworth’s band.

“We come out of a little place called Urbenville, La., and my dad raised 10 kids off of his harmonica, his juice harp, you know?” Neal said. “And it was because of him that I’m where I’m at. He’s why I do what I do, why I play the blues.”

Kenny, the eldest of the 10 Neal siblings, has fond memories of growing up in a musical family, although those childhood memories stop short of him recalling just exactly how, or when, his ability to pluck a guitar first surfaced.

“Number one, none of us (Neal children) remember ever learning how to play,” he said. “Seven boys and three girls and the weird thing is, none of us can tell you when we learned to play. There’s no such thing for us. It’s just always been there. You just grew up around music and it’s in the blood. And now, my little nieces and nephews and doing the same thing. The next generation is experiencing the same thing we did. It just comes natural to them, too. It’s just in our blood, in our food, man.”

The legendary Slim Harpo, an under-valued bluesman if there ever was one, spent many an evening hanging around the Neal household during Kenny’s youthful days, playing music and also playing a few gags on his buddy Raful’s kids.

“My dad was 21 years older than me and I had a chance to hang with him. And that’s why I was around Slim Harpo, Lazy Lester, Phil Guy and Buddy Guy,” Neal said. “I mean, they were just like normal folks to me. I remember one time when I was a little kid, I got upset with Slim Harpo and told him I didn’t like him. He played a trick on me one time and closed the cellar doors with me in there and things got pitch-black in a hurry. He didn’t know I was going to freak out, but I’ve got a phobia and started screaming and hollering. He tried to make it up to me by giving me his harmonica, but I still didn’t like it. But he and my dad were real big friends and I’m pretty sure they got a kick out of that, even though I sure didn’t. But it was great growing up in that environment.”

Since making his mark as a bandleader in the late 1980s, the one thing that Kenny Neal has managed to do is stay true to those days and his Baton Rouge roots. And the way it sounds, he has no plans at changing up that formula at this stage of the game.

“I don’t ever want to get away from that (the way he was brought up),” he said. “There are probably some guys my age, whose fathers played and they want to move away from their upbringing. They don’t want to be called blues players. They want their music categorized as something else. Not me. I have to keep it real. And I’m proud to call my stuff swamp blues.”

Neal, who has seen his name on the list of Grammy nominations in the recent past, was up for the B.B. King Entertainer of the Year Award, along with the Contemporary Blues Male Artist of the Year at this year’s BMAs, is certainly grateful for all the attention has career has generated over the years.

But once again, the subject of family takes center stage when Neal reflects on those accolades.

“I appreciate people giving me my props and not waiting until I’m dead and gone,” he said. “So I do appreciate the awards. But the most rewarding thing to me was being able to give back to my father. I was able to come back home and take him out on the road with me to Japan, Germany and France … places he never dreamed of going. That’s priceless to me. I’m not a rich man, but I’m a happy man. I was happy to share that with him before he left this world. For me to be able do that, I feel like I’ve already reached all my goals, you know?”

That intimate sense of family is also prevalent at Neal’s Place, a cable television show that found its roots during his struggles with Hepatitis C, back when California’s bay area was where Kenny Neal hung his hat.

“I was so bored by having to take off from playing music, that one day I saw a commercial on TV advertising for people to have their own TV show. So I phoned them up and met with them and then I had a brainstorm to do a talk show,” he said. “I’d have the band sit on stools around me and y and then I’d have a guest on to interview, like Jimmy McCracklin talking about the days when he had the number one hit, “The Walk,” and stuff like that. And then all of a sudden, all these great old-timers started calling me wanting to get on my TV show. And then the show won a W.A.V.E. Award for Talk Entertainment. And there I was, half-dead, couldn’t play and this show takes off. I was like, ‘Whoa.’”

Forty-eight episodes are in the can and are still being shown on the west coast, going out to around 30,000 households four nights per week. Those not living in that part of the country can view Webcasts of Neal’s Place via a link at www.kennyneal.net.

To see Kenny Neal on stage in 2011 is to see a man full of life with a renewed sense of self confidence and seemingly-boundless energy.

It’s almost certain that if you didn’t know that he had been sidelined with a life-threatening condition a few years ago, you sure couldn’t tell it by the way he spreads the gospel of the soulful swamp blues with a big smile across his face.

That goes for whatever continent that Neal and his band-mates happen to be burning up, in support of his latest release, last year’s Hooked on Your Love.

“For me, I know what I come to do. I don’t care if I’m in Africa or Japan or America – I get the same response,” he said. “And I’m glad that I do, because that lets me know that it’s working. I know a lot of performers go to Europe and think that the crowds go crazy for them there – and they do – but I just played for between 15-20,000 people this weekend over here (United States) and I had them in the palm of my hand. So it doesn’t matter for me. I read the people and then make a connection. And once I make that connection, I keep it there. I don’t let them get away.”

And in the end, that’s all the proof we need to know, that indeed, Kenny is back.

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