It has been eight and a half years since Chris Arnold interviewed guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd for Blues Blast Magazine. Over that time, Shepherd’s profile has continued climbing with frequent touring dates at theaters and blues festivals around the world. He has released three studio recordings to great acclaim, including The Traveler, released last year. He also did a limited edition live recording, A Little Something From The Road Vol. 1, in 2015 as part of the Record Store Day event. Three of his albums have achieved platinum sales levels.
Shepherd has been nominated for six Blues Music Awards, receiving the 2011 Rock Blues Album Of The Year for his Live in Chicago project, featuring blues legends like Hubert Sumlin, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, and Bryan Lee, who gave the thirteen year old Shepherd his first opportunity to play live on stage. That album was also nominated for a Grammy Award, one of five nominations the guitarist has received. His other Blues Music Award was for DVD Of the Year for 10 Days Out: Blues From The Backroads, a project that had Shepherd playing with a variety of blues artists across the country. In 2013, he joined with Stephen Stills and Barry Goldberg to form The Rides, touring several times and releasing two albums.
These days Shepherd is at home enjoying time with his family while waiting for the world to regain some semblance of normalcy. Getting asked if his six children were tired of having him home got a quick chuckle from him.
”I don’t think so. I guess I could go do a group poll and report back! It seems ok so far. My kids are used to me being gone, coming and going. I do try to plan our touring schedule so that when I am home, it is a significant break so that I can spend time with them. I am fully immersed in what they are doing. At home I focus on them, not anything else. We take our winter breaks starting around Thanksgiving each year, and I am home for several months before heading back out on the road. So they are used to having me around for extended periods of time. The only difference is that I am not usually home at this time of the year”.
Shepherd and his band were featured on the January sailing of the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise, playing several well received, high energy sets during the week, Following that, they took off for a special event.
“We flew over to do a festival in India, the Mahindra Blues fest in Mumbai. It is a two day festival and they were celebrating their tenth anniversary. It was very cool. It was my first time in India, so I was very excited about going. That was right as we first started getting some awareness of the virus issue. The festival was a sold-out event for both days, held in a large venue for multi-thousands of people. They had Buddy Guy, Keb’ Mo’, us, and Larkin Poe, plus several Indian blues bands. It is encouraging to see blues music touch people all over the world, even in some places where you wouldn’t even realize that there was an audience for the music”.
Always willing to experiment with his sound, the guitarist added two horn players to the mix, giving the band an even more powerful sound.
“Any time you add a new instrument into the band, it changes the dynamics. And it should, in theory, change a little bit of what each of us is playing. You have to accommodate that instrument, so you have to leave room for them. Over the years, I have gone back and forth on having a keyboard player, or not having a keyboard player in the band. I have done the power trio with just rhythm section with a lead vocalist. When there is no keyboard player there, I have to adapt my playing to fill more space. I have more responsibility and ground to cover sonically”.
“When we bring the keyboard player back into the equation, it changes my role again. If I would continue to play the way I was without keyboards, I would be playing all over the top of him, and things would inevitably start clashing. As it turns out, the parts that I normally play on guitar are actually very well suited for horn parts. If I have to change what I am used to playing, that is cool because it keeps everybody on their toes. It makes the band more aware of what’s going on with the music. The horns have been a great addition. If you have been playing things a certain way for awhile, and then you introduce a new element, it makes it all new again. It also allows us to cover more material. If we wanted to cover some blues song that is really heavy with horn sections, we wouldn’t have been able to do it accurately before. But now we can!”
“There is a fine line between filling the space and overplaying. It is a real art. If you listen to groups like the Muddy Waters Band, especially on the Hard Again album, which is my favorite blues record, you hear that. You have guys like Pinetop Perkins on piano, James Cotton on harp, Johnny Winter and Bob Margolin on guitar, all these guys are going for it at the same time. But they are also staying out of the way, weaving in and out of each other. That level of playing is a real art form. If you think it is simple, then show me that you can do it and the conversation can rest right there”.
Shepherd is proud of his last release, The Traveler.
“For me, that record has a nice broad range. It has the blues based rock that I love to do. Then there are what I call contemporary blues sounding songs. The song “I Want You” would be my definition of what contemporary blues is these days. I have always been a sucker for a good ballad, or doing something different, like in a 6/8 time which is different for us. “Better With Time” is a song with an R&B vibe to it. I tried to have a broad palette with a lot of different sounds. The goal is to create new music, not just regurgitate all of the things we have done before. You want people to hear the record and not think that they have heard it all before this new came out. As a writer, performer, and a producer, that is what you need to keep things interesting”.
When it comes to songwriting, Shepherd has a number of people that he has collaborated with over the years. The process can be a team effort at times, or mainly the work of one writer with a great idea.
“It usually starts with the music, a certain groove or guitar lick that I came up with. I’ll take it into the room and we start hammering out some lyrics and the vocal melody. I participate in all areas. The process for writing each song is different. That is why I like co-writing. On one song, you bring something in, and one of the guys just runs with the idea, taking it one direction, steered by him. The next time it could be someone else, or it could be me, or could be equal input from all of us”.
“I started focusing on singing lead vocals myself back in 2004. It is still not something I do all of the time. When it comes to writing songs, I was never much of one to have a list of vocal melodies that I can draw from, so that is one area I lean on the other writers for, as I feel they are much better in that department than I am right now. And lyrically, I am not an endless well. I am not Bob Dylan, I can tell you that! I like to write lyrics but it is nice when you collaborate because it relieves some of the pressure of doing it on your own. And, inevitably, they will have an idea that you would never have had otherwise. You may not use the idea on that particular song, but it might be the spark for a different idea from someone that does get used in a song. You just never know”.
“It is the same as playing with the band. I would much rather be on stage with the guys, sharing in the experience, than be up there playing with myself, by myself all the time. When I was young, I would write entire songs. But when I was real young, I was so shy and almost embarrassed to throw one of my songs out there, because it is so personal. So just out of my own insecurities, I would bring someone else in as a co-writer just to add something to the song. But that was also how I learned how much I love creating music with other people, not just doing it all myself”.
“Over the early years of my career, I would release a new record every two, two and a half years. Now, with the Internet, as things have progressed, so many artists and bands have websites and everyone is jockeying to get people’s attention. I think the model has moved to putting out more music more frequently to keep your engagement with your fan base. You have to do that because there are a billion other companies and bands trying to get their attention at the same time. When I formed The Rides and started doing records with them, I was on a schedule where I put out out a record, then we did the first Rides album, then the following year I did my release, and then came back to The Rides again the next year. Every year I had a new album out, and I have kind of stuck with that schedule since then.
Our audience still likes to buy complete albums for the most part. But the younger audience is consuming music differently. They don’t buy whole albums. In fact they don’t really buy anything, they just stream it. We are examining what is the appropriate model for putting out music these days. Some people feel that it is going towards putting out singles instead of albums. Who knows?”
On the last two projects, Marshal Altman has shared the producing credit with Shepherd. The guitarist certainly appreciates Altman’s contributions.
“He has a lot of great ideas. He gets out there in the studio in the middle of the room with the band. He is especially strong at working on the vocals and the arrangements. I appreciate his approach to making music. His strengths and my strengths really come together, and I think it it is a winning combination”.
Shepherd considers his band to be family and an organization, so he is doing whatever he can for the members to make sure that they are taken care of.
“We are rescheduling all of the dates that have been canceled, well, actually more like postponed. It is a matter of trying to figure out what the politicians and the government will allow people to do, and when we can go back to work. Everybody wants to go back to work. The reality is that a lot of people who work nine to five, or musicians, if we aren’t working, we don’t get paid. The majority of the country can’t sustain this type of stuff for the rest of the year or something like that. Besides trying to make a living at music, this is what we live to do, beyond making money to do it. It is a bummer to not be out there doing what you feel you were meant to do”.
When his last keyboard player decided that he did not want to tour any more, Shepherd toured for a year and half as a trio with a vocalist before circumstances dictated another change.
“We were putting out a new record, and decided that if we were going to recreate that album appropriately live, we needed to add keyboards back into the show. My dad actually discovered our current keyboardist, Joe Krown, through some mutual friends. He is from New Orleans, so there is that Louisiana connection, which I thought was cool. Joe is a great guy, and has been a good addition to the band”. Krown has been a fixture on the New Orleans music scene, and also did a lengthy stint as a member of Clarence ‘Gatemouth” Brown’s band.
Asked about how he goes about selecting band members, Shepherd had a ready answer.
“There are a lot of criteria to consider for a band member. Obviously talent is paramount, then intuition and the ability to listen to hear what other players are playing, and be able to compliment that. Also, personality is huge given how much we work and how much traveling we do. Personality and attitude can sometimes be as important, or even more important, than musical ability. You can have a really talented guy out there, but if he is making everyone miserable being around him, that doesn’t serve the greater good.”
Shepherd has been playing his own special model of the Fender Stratocaster guitar since 2008, a model that is part of the Fender consumer line designed to his specifications. But that is about to change.
“We have a new version that is coming out in July. It is a completely redesigned guitar. All of the specs on the new one are unique compared to the earlier version. I can’t go into the details about it until Fender issues a press release. The previous model was spec’d out by me, with a very specific shape and size for the neck. The radius was twelve inches, so it was flatter which in theory makes it play a little faster. I also like very large frets because I play heavier strings, so that makes it easier to bend. We worked on the sound of the pick-ups for well over a year to get them to sound a particular way. The original had three different paint treatments available so that you could choose three different finishes. It also had Graph Tech saddles on the bridge that helped eliminate string breakage. So there were a lot of things about it that were unique. The new one that is coming out is going to be even more unique, and be noticeably different from the first KWS Signature guitar”.
Life continues to be an adventure for a guitarist who has been playing live for three decades. And Shepherd is looking forward to what lies ahead.
“I don’t have any regrets. I got a very early start, and most people don’t have this opportunity to begin with, especially at such a young age. I don’t feel like this is where I ended up. We are still growing our audience, still exploring new things musically, so we are still making progress on a daily basis. I won’t know where I end up until it is all said and done. But if it all ended today, I would be very proud of what I have accomplished. I am also very grateful for all of our fans, who have allowed us the ability to do what we love to do for so long”.
(Readers can view Chris Arnold’s 2011 interview with Kenny Wayne Shepherd here: http://www.bluesblastmagazine.com/featured-interview-kenny-wayne-shepherd/