Kenny Wayne Shepherd
started teaching himself guitar at an age when most kids are still focused on recess and lunch boxes. And he was just thirteen when New Orleans bluesman Bryan Lee
brought him onstage to showcase his innate talent and already precision honed chops. Four Grammy nominations, two Billboard Music Awards and millions of albums later, life came full circle when Shepherd and his band assembled several generations worth of blues legends, including Lee, at the House Of Blues in Chicago, captured for posterity on the brand new LIVE! In Chicago
Shepherd released his first in a string of platinum albums while still in high school, but the Shreveport, Louisiana born guitarist / singer / songwriter has never forgotten his roots nor his influences.Placed behind only B.B. King
and Eric Clapton
in a Guitar World list of blues guitarists, and a guy who also specializes in rock, Shepherd has graciously utilized his own stature, acting as a gateway for younger fans, to shine a spotlight on the great bluesmen of the pastmost notably onLIVE! In Chicago, the penultimate culmination of a multi-faceted, unprecedented project.
The landmark concert was part of a nationwide tour Shepherd put together in support of the award-winning 10 Days Out: Blues from the Backroads project. The DVD / CD documentary shows Shepherd, whose own Trouble Is...
album boasts the longest run in Billboard Blues Chart history (hitting the 2 year mark),traveling around the country on a ten day trek interviewing and jamming with icons from the blues scene, including the surviving members of Muddy Waters
and Howlin' Wolf
's bands.Joe Matera
spoke to Kenny Wayne Shepherd
recently during a break in recording sessions for Shepherd's next studio album, to discuss working with the legends of blues, how he is keeping the blues tradition alive and the importance of being an all-round musician.
UG: You're taking this call while on a break during a recording session?
Kenny Wayne Shepherd:
Yeah, I'm in the studio today working on my next studio album. I've got Tommy Shannon the bass player from Double Trouble here laying down some bass tracks. We're hoping to have the new album out in March or April of next year. We're about 80% done with it. So if everything goes alright, we'll be getting it out very soon.
So, what can fans of Kenny Wayne Shepherd expect from the upcoming new album?
I think the past two records such as my new live album, has a lot of traditional blues on it and the one before that, had blues stuff from the 10 Days Out: Blues from the Backroads documentary and that was completely traditional blues, so this album is going to be like the middle of the road. It is going to have some blues on it but it is also going to have that hybrid of blues based rock that people would have come to expect from me. I think they're going to be real happy with it. I have been focusing a lot, on every single instrument. And trying to make it as musical as possible and making sure that every instrument is affecting the listener in a positive way. I am also really focusing on the songwriting too and trying some new things too.
On your recent album, LIVE! In Chicago, you worked with Willie Big Eyes Smith and Hubert Sumlin, two of your blues idols, what was that like?
"One of the things about having these guest artists on this live record is, I think, it gives the listener a unique experience."
It was a tremendous experience. I first met them when we did the 10 day project, the documentary that came out prior to the live record. We decided when that project came out, that we wanted to go out on tour in support of that. One of the things about having these guest artists on this live record is, I think, it gives the listener a unique experience. Because most live albums are just live versions of previous material but this album, half of it is live Kenny Wayne Shepherd songs and the other half is us playing with these guys. We are doing some traditional blues songs but stuff we've never recorded before. So, half the album is basically a new listening experience for the fans because they're hearing a few songs that they've never heard us do before.
Did they impart any blues wisdom to you?
They set examples for me when they played the music that made them famous and which really inspired me to make music in the first place. My experience of actually getting to play with them personally, I took away a lot of that, just playing with those guys is a learning process. It is more or less the affirmation I get from their acceptance from playing with me and being part of what I do. It helps me feel that I'm doing the right thing.
Though you are considered a blues artist you can't be really pigeonholed as such, since you have played everything from country to rock. Do you see yourself more of a musician than a guitarist?
That's the way I like to think of myself. I actually leave all my options open to be able to play whatever I want to play. Over the course of my career I've branched out a little bit with different things. My fourth album The Place You're In  was really a rock record than it was a blues record. I like people like Clapton or Jeff Beck, they've done a lot of different things in their careers. I mean Clapton did I Shot The Sheriff' which is a reggae song really. To a degree I'd like to follow that example.
Though you stay traditional within the structure of the blues, you still manage to make the blues sound so fresh and new, what's your approach to that?
I think that is one of the things that make my music unique, in how I can stay true to the authenticity of the blues but also, be able to take it in a new direction. And a lot of what enables me to do that is experimenting with different arrangements and my different influences that go beyond the blues, like rock and country. I am trying to incorporate all that stuff together into my own unique sound. But really, blues is in everything I do because when I learned how to play guitar and was a kid, I was just playing blues. That was how I learned to play and then I started to branch out from there. So the blues will always be heavily noticeable in what I do.
What's a good way for guitarists to approach the traditional 12 bar blues progression to make it more interesting and challenging?
What I do is when I write a blues song is I try and take a 12 bar blues structure with the three chords and interject a couple of different chords that normally you wouldn't hear in a blues song, but ones that work well. For example King's Highway which is on my second album Trouble Is - it is in the key of E and its got this blues pattern to it. Normally if you were going to play it, most people would play it from a E to a G to an A. But I went from an E to a G to a D which is not your typical blues pattern. And yet, it works superbly.
When you're working in the studio recording guitar parts, is it a spontaneous approach or do you like to go in well prepared?
Before going into the studio, I don't have any kind of preconceived ideas of what I'm going to do. I just walk in cold and start playing. When it comes to capturing tones, I try to go for something different on each song whether that is a change of amp or an effect or the guitar itself. On this studio album we've been really experimenting a lot. I'll have multiply amps running in a chain. I will send different effects through each amp, and then combine all of those effects, and try and blend them together to make an interesting sound.
Why do you think a 12 bar blues is so popular with guitarists especially those starting out?
I think a lot of people under estimate the blues. A lot of guitar players think the blues is a lot easier than it is, but it is very challenging to play right. It is really hard to play especially for drummers to play shuffles the right way and for guitar players to play blues solos that really touch people. It is more challenging than people give it credit for. If any musician that finds themselves starting the blues as something simple, I'd challenge them to step up and play more of it and see just how easy they think it is.
When it comes to the live stage what gear do you use?
I normally use three Fender Twins and will crank those up to about eight. But in the smaller venues, I will play two Fender '64 Vibroverb reissues. And on my pedal board I have an Analog Man Analog Delay, a Voodoo Lab Pedal Power 2, an Analog Man BI-CHORUS, a hand wired Ibanez Tube Screamer, an Analog Man King of Tone overdrive, a Tycobrahe Octavia, and a Dunlop Crybaby wah.
You have a signature series Fender Strat that came out in 2008, are any improvements on the model forthcoming?
"I think that is one of the things that make my music unique, in how I can stay true to the authenticity of the blues but also, be able to take it in a new direction."
Yeah that model is based loosely around my 1961 Fender Strat. We tried to get the neck profile similar but the neck on my signature Strat is a much fatter shape than on my '61. It also has jumbo frets which I like on my guitars because I play heavy strings and I use Graph Tech saddles on my guitars to help eliminate string breakage. So we tried incorporating a lot of those things into my signature Strat. But I'm about to start working with Fender again because the version out now is made at the Mexican plant. And though they make great guitars, right now I want to make an American version and I also want to make a custom shop version. So there is definitely some more stuff coming down the pipeline regarding my signature model so stay tuned.
Along with Joe Bonamassa and Jonny Lang, you're part of a triangle of blues players whom all came to prominence within a three-year span in the mid-1990s and are still playing today, and making an important contribution to the blues genre.
I think it is great and I'm very happy with the success that all of us have had. And every bit of success that I have or Joe has or Jonny has, helps everybody. It also helps the genre of the blues because it helps pump new life into the genre itself. And you have to add Derek Trucks to the list too as he is a member of that club. He is an amazing slide guitar player from our generation as well and who has been tremendously successful too. I think everybody is doing their part in trying to keep the music going strong and alive.
How does feel to have such a celebrity father-in-law in Mel Gibson?
He is a great grandfather to my children. And I get along with him just fine. I think having grown up in the spotlight myself, I think some people that aren't used to being in the spotlight themselves, would may have been a little shocked or star struck. But I grew up around people like celebrities, like hanging out with James Brown and B.B King and playing with The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and all those guys and I think that worked to my favor. So I look at people who may be celebrities, or musicians or actors and to me, they're just people like everybody else.
Interview by Joe Matera