Riding the Blues

Kenny Wayne Shepherd

by Jason MacNeil

THERE ARE MANY blues guitarists who can perform well, but 10 minutes afterwards you can't recall who they are or what exactly they played. Then there are legends like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Buddy Guy, and B.B. King, whose precision and emotion are so jaw-dropping and stellar that you'll have the notes in your head for weeks. Louisiana native Kenny Wayne Shepherd fits into that latter category with ease – and he's only about half the age or even less than of those aforementioned guitar greats.

The son of a concert producer, Shepherd – who witnessed John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters perform when he was just three – began playing guitar around the same age but didn't read music, something he still doesn't to this day. It wasn't until he witnessed the late Stevie Ray Vaughan perform and was “blown away” that the thought of a childhood pastime with blues music evolved into an artistic vocation. Shepherd says that focus came to him for certain in his early teens.

“I was just always attracted to this music,” he said in a 1998 interview with Blues Access magazine. “I like all kinds of music, but this is just the music that grabbed me. It always has a real groove to it, and there's always a message to the music and the lyrics and it's about playing from the heart. And that's what music is all about.”

When he was 13 Shepherd was brought on stage by musician Bryan Lee during a New Orleans gig. Lee, a blind guitarist, was one of the first to lend a hand to Shepherd, who was being denied a shot due to his rather impressionable age. It was around this time Bill Pfordresher, a producer of former rock band Ambrosia, spotted the young guitarist and saw a star in the making.

“He's [Pfordresher] actually the guy who discovered me when I was 13 years old,” Shepherd told GetAmped magazine last year. “He said: 'Hey man, you should go into the studio and make a record.'”

After some demos, music legend and record company mogul, Irving Azoff signed Shepherd to a recording contract. In 1995 his debut Ledbetter Heights proved that he would be no flash in the pan.

“You never know what to expect. Every time you put a record out you never know if people are going to love it as much as you do,” he said of his debut in a 2011 interview with Get Ready to Rock. “I was pleasantly surprised. Within a matter of months it sold half a million copies.”

From that time forward Shepherd – much like fellow blues guitarist peer Jonny Lang – has continually forged upward in blues rock circles. Ensuing albums Trouble Is... and Live On achieved platinum status and every album he's released has topped the American blues charts.

Although Shepherd has recorded sporadically over the years, his commitment to the blues is without question. In 2007 he released an album and documentary film entitled 10 Days Out: Blues From The Back Roads. The adventure – formulated from a conversation with producer (and former Talking Heads member) Jerry Harrison – took him to visit several blues greats including B.B. King, Pinetop Perkins, Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown, and Hubert Sumlin.

Perhaps the biggest coup for Shepherd was finding musicians who performed with Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters and inviting them to play together with him. The fact six of those players died before the project was released only made the odyssey more poignant. “These guys are pulling on my heart strings,” Shepherd says in the documentary, clearly sensing the urgency to get things done before Father Time comes calling.

Shepherd spent time working on various projects including the Experience Hendrix tour in 2010 alongside Lang, Steve Vai members of Double Trouble (Stevie Ray Vaughan's backing band) and Los Lobos, among others. In 2011, he released How I Go.

Shepherd's latest project is The Ride, a collaboration with Stephen Stills and keyboardist Barry Goldberg, who formed The Electric Flag with Mike Bloomfield. While initially aimed to be rooted in the blues, Shepherd told Billboard magazine the project seems to lean more towards Still's sonic stomping grounds.

“It was interesting because our band is supposed to be somewhat of a blues band, but the songs sound like vintage Crosby, Stills & Nash, so I'm kind of interested to see the direction that our next album will take,” Shepherd said, adding the trio's synergy was almost immediate. In the meantime he has plans to release an as-yet untitled blues covers record featuring Robert Randolph, Ringo Starr and Joe Walsh in early 2014.

“It doesn't really sound like a covers album because I've dug real deep into a lot of people's catalogues and tried to find songs that haven't been done a million times,” he told Billboard. “We tried to make it all our own but pay homage to the originals, too.”

Over the next few years you can expect to hear young blues guitarists inspired by Shepherd's continually growing body of outstanding work.

“I certainly try to reach out to young players whenever possible and extend myself and just try and encourage them,” he told GetAmped. “There's a younger generation of guys that are coming along that I've met along the way. I feel like my responsibility is to just be a good example like B.B. King was to me. B.B. King has been a tremendous example of how to handle yourself after 60 or 70 years of doing this. He's one of the most gracious people you would ever meet.”

Shepherd has nearly 20 dates planned for later this year with The Rides, but he will also headline some of his own shows, including the Florida Blue Blues & Music Festival on October 26 at the Sarasota Fairgrounds.For more information about the Florida Blues & Music Festival, call 800-514-3849. •

September-October 2013

(left to right)
Stephen Stills, Barry Goldberg,
Kenny Wayne Shepherd