KENNY WAYNE SHEPHERD: FOR 25 YEARS, HEíS BEEN LAYING IT ON DOWN! The PCC Interview with The Blues-Rock Guitarist-Singer-Songwriter

By Paul Freeman [August 2017 Interview]

It all started when he was three years old. Kenny Wayne Shepherdís grandmother redeemed her Green Stamps to get him a little plastic toy guitar. Little did she know that this would be his first step towards becoming one of the preeminent blues-rock guitarists of his time.

Shepherd went on to record his first album at age 16. He has collaborated with the blues legends he idolized. Fender created a line of Signature Series Kenny Wayne Shepherd Stratocasters. And he has earned a wealth of honors, including Billboard Music Awards, Blues Music Awards and five Grammy nominations.

The blues have always been at the heart of Shepherdís music. His father was a radio personality and concert promoter. So Shepherd enjoyed absorbing an abundance of live music, as well as tons of records.

He has been making impressive albums since 1995. Shepherd feels that 2007ís CD/DVD project ď10 Days Out: Blues From The BackroadsĒ is one of his most important. For that one, he interviewed and jammed with such greats as B.B. King, Clarence Gatemouth Brown, Etta Baker, Hubert Sumlin, Honeyboy Edwards and Pinetop Perkins.

Shepherd has been part of the ďExperience HendrixĒ tours and has recorded and hit the road with Stephen Stills and Barry Goldberg as part of the group The Rides.

Shepherd is now on tour with his band, playing songs from throughout his career, including several tunes from his new smash album, ďLay It On Down.Ē

Shepherd and his wife Hannah (Mel Gibsonís daughter) have five children. So he tries to balance family life with being a road warrior. At 40, Shepherd is just hitting his prime as a blues guitarist.

POP CULTURE CLASSICS:
ďLay It On DownĒ ó great album. The fact that it takes a number of different directions, musically, and has still had such a strong reception, does that make it all the more satisfying for you?

KENNY WAYNE SHEPHERD:
Well, for me, I wanted to make a contemporary-sounding record, because the last one was basically, a traditional blues cover album, paying tribute to some of my heroes. So this one needed to be all new material and I wanted it to have a contemporary sound and show the diversity of the talent we have in the band.

So yeah, Iím very satisfied with the response. It universally seems to be very well received. Obviously thatís always a relief, because you never know how people are going to react. So itís always good to see people react positively.

PCC:
Recording live in the studio ó was that a key to the intensity of the tracks?

SHEPHERD:
Well, thatís the key to recording, in my opinion. To make it a really great album, the way music is supposed to be played is to record it with people playing all together in the same room, instead of emailing things back and forth across the internet and people layering parts on one at a time. So I feel like itís a must, for the music I do.

PCC:
You co-wrote all the tunes. Whatís your writing process like ó how does the collaboration work?

SHEPHERD:
Well, I come in the room and Iíve got hundreds and hundreds of music ideas that Iíve recorded over the course of the past several years. And so I just kind of sift through those and find one thatís speaking to me that particular day, that stands out as something that I think would be good to write. And then I present it to the people that Iím writing with and we dig into it. And somebody starts kind of hammering out a vocal melody and then we start coming up with the phrasing. And then the lyrics follow. And the next thing you know, youíve got a song.

PCC:
Is the feeling of performing on stage as exhilarating as ever? Whatís the feeling you get out there? Whatís the effect you most want to have on your audience?

SHEPHERD:
Itís great. Itís always fun to do new material, because it adds something new and different to the show. Weíre doing 60 percent of the album right now on the stage ó six out of 10. And weíll be adding more songs, as well. Weíve got them all worked up. Iím just trying to find the right way to put them in the set.

Weíve got such a large catalogue and there are songs that people expect to hear every night from our catalogue. So itís hard to squeeze it all in and not end up playing for like four hours, which is really too long for a concert.

But itís great. And gauging the reaction of the fans, you can tell whoís already heard it, who owns the record. Theyíre kind of moving and singing along. And then you see the people who are experiencing it for the first time. You watch their reactions and itís exciting, too.

PCC:
How has your guitar style evolved over the years?

SHEPHERD:
Well, I think that, for me, itís been more about learning how to let the song breathe and to find space and allow space in the music and give other instruments opportunities to step forward and not always be playing something just for the sake of playing it.

PCC:
What was it about the blues that first hooked you, how old were you?

SHEPHERD:
Well, my first concert was Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker when I was three years old. So it was a pretty early introduction to blues music. And, I donít know, man, thereís just something about the honesty in the music and that itís played from the heart. And itís about feelings, more so even than the words in the song. So thereís something you can connect with, even if youíre too young really to understand what the song is about. Blues is about transmitting emotions through instruments. And I think everybody can get in touch with that.

PCC:
How important was it, in terms of your development, that your dad was so involved in music?

SHEPHERD:
Well, yeah, he exposed me to all the music that I grew up listening to. He kind of put me on that path, if you will. And then took me to every concert that came to town. And all those things, I was absorbing óand they were molding the musician that I was going to end up becoming, though I didnít know it yet.

PCC:
Who were some of the other performers who made a lasting impression on you in those days?

SHEPHERD:
Well, thereís a lot. When I was a kid, ZZ Top. Billy Gibbons was always a big thrill for me, listening to his music and seeing those guys play. Obviously Stevie Ray Vaughan. But I also liked a lot of different kinds of music. So watching James Brown was incredible. I was a big James Brown fan. Hank Williams Jr. was a very exciting performer. I saw him many times. The whole spectrum of different kinds of music ó I grew up listening to it all and seeing live performers from every genre. And honed in the ones that are typically mentioned as some of the greatest of our time.

PCC:
Is it true your grandmother got you plastic guitars, by redeeming Green Stamps, when you were just three?

SHEPHERD:
Yeah. Those are the first instruments that I learned to play silly little things on, like ďMary Had a Little LambĒÖ. or ďSmoke on the WaterĒ or whatever. You learn that kind of stuff, because itís not too many notes. And it was easy to put those kinds of things together on my little toy guitars with nylon strings. Thatís what I had to play around on for years, before I got my first real guitar.

PCC:
And then you managed to teach yourself to play?

SHEPHERD:
Well, yeah. I play by ear. And it was a tedious process, learning songs one note or one chord at a time, from start to finish, and then memorizing it by playing it over and over and over again, along with the tape or the CD or record or whatever. But after doing that for so many years, eventually something clicked and I started to understand more about the instrument.

I mean, I had a couple people that would show me some things here and there, friends of my family. But any real formal, long-term musical training, that just didnít happen for me. I had a hard time trying to grasp the whole idea of music theory and reading music and things like that. It just never clicked for me.

There was a guitar class in my middle school. But the time I was taking that class, I was already like beyond what they were teaching. And so I would just fake it. I would just learn the song by ear and pretend to read the music and would get an A in the class. And it was fun having the class. But I was already beyond that level ó you know what I mean?

PCC:
Do you think that might have been an advantage in some ways, not getting bogged down in theory and rules?

SHEPHERD:
Well, for the kind of music that I do, I would say yes. Most of my heroes, if not all of them, are self-taught musicians or learned from a family member or whatever. They donít read music ó B.B. King, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Muddy Waters, Albert King ó none of those guys could read music or anything. Itís intuition and emotion that drives the music that I play.

PCC:
You met Stevie Ray when you were just seven. Was that a turning point?

SHEPHERD:
Well, for me it was, yeah, because just watching him play was unbelievable to me óthe passion, the emotion that he put into it. I was just entranced by him. And all I wanted to do from that point forward was to get a real guitar and try to learn how to play it ó and with that same kind of passionÖ and to try to affect people the way he affected them.

PCC:
What did it mean to you, as a kid, having guitar as a means of self-expression?

SHEPHERD:
Well, I think it was great, because it was an outlet. I spent hours and hours and hours every day, after school, playing guitar in my room. I mean, who knows what my life would have been like without it? But I tell you, it was really fantastic to have that outlet to express myself. Maybe if I was having a bad day or whatever, going into the room and closing the door and picking up my guitar and just immersing myself in music is another way to get away from negativity thatís out there. It certainly continues to help keep me saneÖ on a daily basis.

PCC:
Recording at 16, did you have any doubt at all that you were ready? Was the experience what you had imagined?

SHEPHERD:
Well, yeah. I didnít really know what to expect. And certainly didnít know what to expect from the album. I just wrote the songs that I wanted to write and I recorded the album that I wanted to record and then just put it out and hoped for the best, just see what happens. Thankfully, it connected with the people and they embraced it ó and embraced me as an artist. And here we are, 25 years later, thanks to the fans.

PCC:
As a young guitar phenom, did some people tend to be skeptical, maybe didnít take you as seriously as they should have, because of your age?

SHEPHERD:
Well, yes, there was curiosity. I mean, that was part of the draw early on ó this kid playing blues. Can he really do it? What does he know about it? Blah, blah, blah. But the bottom line is, the music had to speak for itself. So if there was curiosity or skepticism, they came and saw the show and most people went home believers, you know?

PCC:
Did singing end up being as natural for you as guitar playing?

SHEPHERD:
No, I mean, for me, I had to work at singing. Thatís why it took me so many years to feel comfortable enough to step up and sing on a regular basis. But you know, Iíve always had great singers in my band. My first love is playing guitar. Now I like to express my music in new ways and challenge myself. But I still have a great vocalist in my band whoís been with me for over 20 years. And so I could easily not sing, if I didnít want to, still. But Iím enjoying developing my voice and expressing myself through my music in new and different ways. So itís kind of cool. So between the two of us, and our voices, we have a wide range of stuff that we can cover.

PCC:
ď10 Days Out,Ē playing with all those legends, what did that experience mean to you?

SHEPHERD:
Well, it was probably one of the most significant things that Iíve been a part of. It was fantastic. It was a very timely piece. Sixteen of those people are no longer with us now. Some of those people, we captured their last performances on film, to put in that documentary. And we did it because I wanted to show my love and appreciation for blues music and for the artists that came before me and made it possible for people like me to do what we did.

PCC:
More recently, working with Stephen Stills in The Rides, what did that experience mean to you?

SHEPHERD:
Well, it was great. Heís like a big brother to me. And heís one of the greatest musicians and songwriters of our time. And so being able to write songs with him and to record ó itís just incredible. Itís really been a great experience. Thatís why weíve done two albums and three tours and weíre talking about doing a third album. So everybodyís enjoying it.

PCC:
What impresses you most about Stephen?

SHEPHERD:
Well, heís very impressive, I would say all around. Heís very smart. Itís really something to look through the window of how his brain works, when it comes to telling stories. Itís pretty fascinating, the way heís able to observe the world and put it into words.

PCC:
The Experience Hendrix tour ówas it exciting to tackle that material?

SHEPHERD:
Well, yeah. But Iíve been doing that since the very beginning. Jimi Hendrixís music has always had a big influence on me and what I do. So itís very natural for me to play his music, because Iíve been doing it my whole life. And certainly thatís turned into a really great tour, full of fantastic musicians.

PCC:
All the honors, the Grammy nominations, Fender coming out with a Kenny Wayne Shepherd Signature Series Strat ówhat are you most proud of, looking back at the career?

SHEPHERD:
Really, the thing Iím most proud of is just the fan base that we have established through the music and the people, because, without them, none of that is possible. So 25 years, the fans that have stuck with us that long and continue to show up for us, for our music, without them, none of it would be possible. So theyíre the most important element to the whole machine.

PCC:
You mentioned the 25 years, you recently turned 40, was that a time to reflect on what youíve accomplished and what you still want to reach towards?

SHEPHERD:
Itís just another day to me. Everybody else wants to make a bigger deal out of it than I did. Iím just trying to look forward and take it one day at a time. I donít sit around like, ďLook at what I did!Ē Thatíll be maybe for my family to do when Iím gone [laughs]. They can look at what I did. But I try not to look at myself too much. You know what I mean? I try to think more about others and how I can be of service to other people, more so than ó what more can I do or what more should I do or what havenít I accomplished that I want to accomplish? I mean, come on, man, thereís a lot more to life than trying to focus on all that. I just try to focus on making music that I believe in. And fans continue to react to that.

PCC:
Do you think itís true that blues artists often improve with age, having more life experience to draw upon?

SHEPHERD:
I would say so, yeah. And itís a great thing, because the music allows you to grow old and to continue to be relevant. Itís difficult, if youíre a young pop star, thereís not a whole lot of those kind of people who have been allowed to grow old and successfully make pop music into their middle age years.

PCC:
You mentioned family. How many kids do you have and whatís the age range?

SHEPHERD:
Five kids. From two to 10.

PCC:
Has the family life impacted the music much?

SHEPHERD:
Well, certainly. Iíve written songs about my kids. Iíve written plenty of songs about my wife. But the perspective changes. I think about everything that I do as something that they will have to continue to live with after Iím gone. So every decision that you make as a parent, I think you weigh out the effect that it may or may not have on your children, for sure.

PCC:
And Mel Gibson is your father-in-law? Whatís he like as an in-law?

SHEPHERD:
Heís great. Heís always been very good to me. And heís really great to my children. So Iím glad to be part of his family.

PCC:
From your perspective, whatís the key to keeping the blues alive and thriving in the future?

SHEPHERD:
I think itís just awareness. There are new people coming into blues music on a regular basis that are trying to make a name for themselves and spread the good word about the music. But also, whatever kind of music you make, that you want to call blues music, if itís contemporary, if itís different, if itís not traditional maybe always, you still want to spread the word about the musicians that came before you, that inspired you to do what you do and paved the way for us, so that other people will learn about their music and go back and learn about them, who they were, their influences, as well. It keeps them all moving forward.

PCC:
With the 25 years of recording, with all the great artists youíve worked with, do you feel like youíve mastered the guitar? Does that really ever happen?

SHEPHERD:
Well, Iím comfortable with my ability, but there is always more to be learned, for sure.

PCC:
What are most rewarding and challenging aspects of your life in music?

SHEPHERD:
I find most of it rewarding. The thing that I enjoy most is getting on stage every night and playing for the people, because I believe thatís what we do best. Challenges, I would say the challenges are just the time away from my family, as a father, and not being able to be there all the time for my kids and my wife. But Iíve struck a pretty good balance between my professional life and my family life and dedicating an appropriate amount of time to each.

PCC:
Even though it may not be what you focus on, with all youíve achieved, are there still some goals or dreams youíre still aiming towards?

SHEPHERD:
I just want to continue make the best music I can make. My goal on this album was to make the best album of my career, 25 years into it. And everybody will have their own opinion on that, but I think, yeah, that was my mindset. I wanted to challenge myself. And you canít expect to achieve great things, if you donít set the bar high for yourself. Ultimately, the goal would be just to continue to bring new music to the people and hopefully they continue showing up for it.

For more on this artist, visit www.kennywayneshepherd.net.