Kenny Wayne Shepherd has just turned 40; a mere pup in the great scheme of things but pedigree belies
age. His latest album, Lay It On Down (Mascot) is the eighth to be released under the Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band moniker and marks a new chapter in what is already an impressive playbook of events.
Aged thirteen, the boy from Shreveport, Louisiana, made the blues-rock world sit up and take notice. Having witnessed Stevie Ray Vaughn at a Labour Day gig in 1984 – a show that left the seven year old, sometime guitar player “pretty mesmerised” – young Kenny, having already dabbled a bit, picked up a guitar in earnest and taught himself how to play, little dreaming of what lay ahead.
“I really didn’t know what I was expecting back then and certainly not when I first went up on stage. I was just hoping I didn’t make a fool out of myself,” Kenny said, laughing. “I’d never been on a stage before that night and I just figured it was either going to go one way or the other. Thankfully it went really well and gave me the confidence to move forward.”
As places go to make your stage debut, Kenny certainly picked a good one. “That first gig was on Bourbon Street, New Orleans. It was with Brian Lee & The Jump Street Five. Brian was this amazing blind blues player and I’m really grateful that he gave me that first opportunity. I was only supposed to play two songs, but I kept getting this terrific response and Brian liked what he was hearing and I finally got down from there at about 3 AM.”
“It was a fantastic experience and gave me the motivation to move on with my music; that’s the point when I started thinking about putting my own band together. It was really cool of Brian to let me play because he had no idea who I was at all.”
Lay It On Down is the Kenny Shepherd Band’s first album since Goin’ Home in 2014. This isn’t to say, though, that the Grammy nominated, multi-selling guitarist/writer/vocalist has been idle during the interim. “It’s interesting and, really, a matter of context. Yes, this is the first Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band album since 2014, but I have another band called The Rides with Stephen Stills and Barry Goldberg.”
“We’ve been writing and recording, as well as releasing an album of our own (the band’s second release, 2016s Pierced Arrow) in between Goin’ Home and Lay It On Down, so it’s not like I haven’t been releasing new music, it’s just been with these guys in another band.”
“I’m on a self-prepared schedule right now of doing one album with my band followed by an album with The Rides and so on. As a result, whenever you put out an album and with whichever band, you need to go out and tour so it is
naturally going to appear as though there are gaps in the creative output schedule, but in fact there isn’t. If you keep up with both bands, there is actually a consistent stream of new music being put out there.”
Baby Got Gone kicks Lay It On Down off at an incredible pace and rarely does it drop. With Goin’ Home being a covers album and featuring songs recorded by Bo Diddley, BB and Albert King, Lee Dorsey and, of course, Stevie Ray Vaughn amongst others – and featuring guests as diverse as Ringo Starr and Joe Walsh – variety is clearly the key of life for Kenny Wayne Shepherd. Lay It On Down is very different to its immediate predecessor in just about every way, though not in its eclecticism.
“Ultimately we go into the studio with a lot of songs, then narrow that list down to what I believe are the ten best to fit on the record,” Kenny explained. “Once that’s been determined, a lot of thought goes into the track listing because we record under the assumption that people are going to listen to the entire record, not just the odd track from it. In today’s world, there are a lot of people who might only get one or two songs they hear on the radio, but I make albums that are meant to be listened to from start to finish and take you on a musical journey of sorts.”
“There are a lot of high notes on this record that are played at a high tempo, with Baby Got Gone being followed quickly on by Diamonds & Gold and Nothin’ But The Night, but there are a lot of more gentle songs, too: Lay It On Down itself and Hard Lesson Learned are two examples. I think the end result is that this is an album that provides a great experience and tells a lot of great stories. It creates a lot of different emotions through the lyrics, and leaves you walking away with a joyful feeling.”
The harmonies that are accompanied by the acoustic guitar, bring a deliciously mellow sound to the title track. “That song in particular, for me, is determined by the lyrics and the vocals. Somebody did ask for my favourite guitar solo on the album and I sited this one because it isn’t a typical Kenny Wayne Shepherd solo; it’s very melodic and plays to the song. I really don’t do too many acoustic solos on my albums either, so it’s quite refreshing really. That track is a very special one and it’s why it ended up being the title track for the record.”
Along with the pace comes a feeling of the album being recorded live. “We specifically record things in an old fashioned manner, which means we set everybody up in the studio and play at the same time. We do the least amount of overdubs possible and I really hate the idea of songs being emailed or whatever so that pieces are added a piece at a time by different players. I really need the room for the human element to take its place and for spontaneity.”
“These things are really important for the creative process, I believe, so when we go into the studio, my demos are really bare. I’ll play it on an acoustic, then someone will come in and add their part and so on, until we start finally recording the finished song. That allows for a lot of creativity in the studio; creativity you wouldn’t have if we weren’t all playing together in the same space. You also wouldn’t have that live sound you’re talking about. When albums are recorded when the players aren’t in the same space, you can hear the difference on the finished song.”
So with mellowness and track listings sorted in the studio, when is it determined which songs Kenny sings and which long-time collaborator Noah Hunt vocalises. “Once the songs are written I can kind of tell, although there are always one or two songs that can surprise me either way.”
“On this album, for instance, Marshall (Altman, the record’s producer) wanted me to sing Louisiana Rain because it is such a personal song for me. Once I tried in the studio though, I found it was too low for my voice and that if we tried to change the key to accommodate my singing, then it lost some of its fire.”
“A lot of the time I pretty much know, but there are times it doesn’t work. It’s the same the other way around, too, when sometimes I think Noah’s voice will fit a song whereas it ends up for whatever reason to fit mine better.”
Kenny Wayne Shepherd is appearing at the Ramblin’ Man Festival on July 29th, followed by Holmfirth on July 30th. He then tours extensively in Europe and beyond, before returning to the UK in October and November for a string of dates. Unsurprisingly, each country reacts differently to the music.
“The fans are very passionate about this kind of music and our shows are always well received pretty much everywhere we play which is fantastic. What’s interesting is that we’ve kind of been rebuilding a following in the UK and Europe over the past few years. I’d played there a lot early in my career then didn’t come back for around twelve years or so for a variety of reasons.”
“So over the past five, six years we’ve been in the process of rebuilding our fan base over there to some extent. It’s cool because playing in Europe kind of takes me back to the early days and it’s fascinating watching things develop nearly twenty-five years on. We played in Holland at the beginning of June and it was obvious a lot of the audience were seeing us for the first time. It’s really interesting watching the people with curiosity on their faces at first, then slowly converting so that by the end everyone is on their feet. It is an amazing process to watch.”
In 2007, Kenny released the twice Grammy nominated DVD–CD project, 10 Days Out: Blues from the Backroads, which documents his travels across America to jam with and interview the last of the authentic blues musicians. Blues greats including Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Bryan Lee, Buddy Flett, B.B. King, blues harp master Jerry “Boogie” McCain and a whole raft of others are included on the DVD so if you haven’t seen it, what’re you waiting for? If you have, then listen up!
“We’re considering doing a follow up to that and I’ve just started digging into some of the people, but I’ve not made any decisions yet. Unfortunately we’ve lost a lot of significant blues players since 10 Days Out was completed; over 16 of the people we featured on that project alone have already died, you know. It’s really sad and, consequently, the list of Old School blues musicians is getting shorter and shorter. As it stands, I don’t know who is going to be a part of it yet, but whatever we do it’ll be interesting.”
So, with dates for the Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band looming, what about The Rides? Can we expect to see them over in the UK any time soon? “I would hope so,” he said. “We had two occasions where tours were put together and confirmed, then for one reason or another they didn’t happen. It’s really disappointing for me, because I really want to bring The Rides to Europe. I really love being a part of it, it’s a lot of fun, and I think the fans over there would really dig seeing us live. It’s not been for the lack of trying, I can tell you that. We just did a tour of The States which finished in March and were having discussions even then about going back into the studio to make another album at the end of this year, so there’ll be new music coming. With that there will be another tour, so maybe third time’s the charm as to playing Europe is concerned. Watch this space, I guess.”
Kenny Wayne Shepherd will appearing be at Ramblin’ Man Fair, Maidstone, on July 29th and The Holmfirth Picturedome on July 30th.
Jul 26: Tollhaus, Karlsruhe, DE
Jul 27: Burg Herzberg Festival, Breitenbach Am Herzberg, DE
Jul 29: Ramblin Man Fair, Maidstone, UK
Jul 30: The Picturedrome, Holmfirth, UK
Aug 01: Amager Bio, Copenhagen, DK
Aug 02: Jamdays, Odense, DK
Aug 04: Notodden Blues Festival, Notodden, NO
Oct 27: Kyps, Poole, UK
Oct 30: The Assembly, Leamington, UK
Oct 31: Tramshed, Cardiff, UK
Nov 01: Ritz, Manchester, UK