Grammy-nominated guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd has sold millions of albums worldwide (including the platinum-selling Ledbetter Heights Trouble Is and 10 Days Out: Blues From the Backroads).
Gone is the young Louisiana gunslinger who erupted onto the early-’90s scene with his burn-it-down guitar solos and gut-punch songcraft. The 41-year-old he’s become is even more magnetic and as a grown man and a father, there are different thoughts and feelings that have come into focus.
National Rock Review recently caught up with Kenny Wayne Shepherd as he made his final preparations for his forthcoming UK tour to talk about his new album The Traveler, his side project The Rides, the current state of the blues scene as well as his plans for the rest of the year.
I understand that this week you’ve been in rehearsals for your 2019 summer tour. How have the preparations been going so far?
It’s been going really well. We’ve added a horn section to the band. They are not going to be coming over to Europe with us just yet, but the plan is to start bringing them over with us when we come over in the future, but it’s really nice.
You know, I’ve purposely put a bunch of horn parts on this album. We’ve done horns here and there over the years, as far back as the fifth album – the How I Go record back in 2011. But we’ve never really gone full out with the horns because I never wanted to go too deep into it because I hadn’t had the intention of taking the horn section on a full-time basis.
When you put those parts in there and it’s a big part in the song you’ve got to recreate that live. So anyway, I’ve purposely done that on this record so then I knew that I was forcing myself to have to bring horns out. It’s something that we’ve had in a live show here and there over the years, but I think it’s good for the fans – there’s a new dimension, a new element to the band, a new sound and a new experience. Because we have a lot of fans that come and see us time and time again.
You released your new album The Traveler on the 31st May via Provogue/Mascot Label Group. Could you tell us a little bit about the record? Did you have a particular theme or a sound in mind for this release?
No, not at all. The only thing that I had in mind was to make the best record we could make, and that’s been my goal. The last album, I was trying to make the best album of my career – almost 30 years in. And that same intention has carried over into this album. And, you know, my goal is to just to try to continue to outdo myself and push myself to do better each time we go in and not just to do what’s easiest or not, you know, be on autopilot.
I don’t want to be predictable and I don’t want to choose exactly the same album, even if that’s the easy thing to do. That’s not my style. So that’s the only intention I had was to try and make the best album we can make and I think we made a really good record. We’re all very happy with it.
So you never ever want to make the same record again. You’re always trying to push yourself creatively and artistically would you say?
Yeah, because you know, I mean, what kind of fun is it to the fans if they kind of go Kenny Wayne’s got a new record coming out, it’s going to have this groove and it’s going to have that shuffle. If they feel like they’ve already heard it before it’s even come out, there’s nothing exciting about that.
I understand that you wanted to take on more of the vocal duties than on previous albums. Did you enjoy that challenge and would you consider doing it again?
Well, yeah, of course. I mean, I started singing in the band in 2004 – on the 4th album. I mean I did one song, on my first album and that was it. I did background vocals until 2004. But then after that, I kind of made it back in a little bit because I hadn’t been doing it as much.
So, when I formed the band with Stephen Stills – The Rides, he really pushed me to sing more in that band. So I was sharing all the vocal responsibilities with him on the albums and in the live concerts. Then that forced me to have to do it more. And as a result, I started getting more comfortable with it and started enjoying it more. So, you know, I felt that it was appropriate that would carry over into my own work, which it has, you know. I’m enjoying singing more now than I ever had because I’m doing it more.
And how did Noah feel about you taking on a more active role as a vocalist? Was this something that he was open to or that he encouraged?
Oh, I don’t know. I’m sure he’s fine with it. I mean, he’s been in my band over 20 years and we’re like brothers, so he’s a fantastic singer. It would be really easy for me to just let him do all the singing forever, but again, that’s like the easy way out. So ultimately I think he’s been fine with it and as you know, it gives him a bit of a break in the live concert and he doesn’t have to sing the whole hour and a half to two hours
With this record, in terms of you playing, you’ve kind of gone for a less is more approach, is that right?
Well, just naturally that’s how my playing has evolved. I started honing in on listening to my heroes and going, you know when I listen to their music what are they doing? The moment that I feel moved in my soul. And when I was paying attention to that, it was never because somebody who’s playing a flurry of some crazy amount of notes, you know, really fast or anything like that. Speed is cool, speed is like a wow effect – but, I don’t always want to wow people like that, I want to move people from the inside out. So, once I realized this is what’s happening with these guys when they’re moving me. So that’s probably the best approach for me to move people is in the same way.
At the moment we’re living in quite a strange time. We’ve got both societies here in the UK and the USA it’s really divided. I understand that some of those themes sort of ran through some of the songs on the record. I just wondered do you find politics and the current state of the world interests you or inspires you to write music?
No, I actually try my best to keep politics out of the music. I feel like people know my name because I play music not because I talk politics. Politics are like the most divisive things that I can think of in the world today. And music is supposed to bring people together. And so to me, I just think that my job and my responsibility is to play the music that will hopefully give people an opportunity to forget about all that nonsense. If only for a little if during a concert or while they’re listening to a record.
So there are some observations obviously because I’m living in this world that we’re all living in, things are happening around us. So there are some observations that might find their way into the song, but there’s never an opinion that is cast upon the listener, there’s never a political position taken.
Like the only song that I can really think of that would come close would be like Tailwind, which is just kind of like observing the madness and you know, just the ins and outs of living life day to day in a world that we exist in today. But the message behind the song, it’s not like trying to make you think a certain way or to communicate my political position on anything. The message in the song is to recognize that we’re all equal and we’re all human beings that are trying to just get through this experience of life one day at a time together. And just, you know, it’s like universal love and appreciation.
You’ve got a couple of covers on the record including Turn To Stone by Joe Walsh and Mr Soul by Buffalo Springfield. What was it about those songs in particular that made you want to cover them for the record?
Well anytime I cover a song, it’s always got to be an artist that I admire and appreciate. And then it’s got to be a song that I think we can do a good job of. And I generally like to dig deeper into people’s catalogues and try and find songs that are not the most obvious choice to cover. Not the first song that you think of when you think of those bands are those musicians.
These two particular songs also came from performances. So like I played Mr Soul with Neil Young and Stephen Stills on stage at a benefit concert that we did, and it was such an amazing experience. It was literally like such a cool experience that I thought let’s go on the studio and let’s record it and pay tribute to that experience.
And the same thing with the Joe Walsh thing. I was asked to perform at an event where they were honouring Joe and they had a bunch of musicians that were guest artists and said that they wanted to perform some of Joe’s material. And I chose, Turn To Stone and a couple of other songs. And we did it and it went over really well. And I thought, you know, hey let’s go, let’s do it in the studio, see how it sounds on a recording. I think it’s got one of the stand out guitar performances on the record.
Have you had a chance to perform any of the new material live yet? And if so, what’s the response been like?
Oh yeah. I don’t normally do that, but we started working them up in advance and we did a couple of songs. Actually, we’ve been doing a Woman Like You, but that’s because we were filming a music video for it.
We were just in rehearsals this past week. So we were working up the entire record and we’ll see how much of it makes into the various shows. It all depends on how long our sets are, you know, sometimes we have 75 minutes and sometimes we can do up to two hours. It depends on the gig and the curfew and all of that.
So, but you know, it’s all sounding really good. When we do a Woman Like You, I can see the people in the audience already can identify the song, because they obviously follow the band and are aware of the new record coming out.
Do you have a favourite track on the album and If so which song and why?
Well, right now I go through phases. So like if you talk to me like four months from now, my favourite four months from now may be different than what it is today. But yeah, right now it’s a song called I Want You, just because to me, it’s not the lyrical prowess because it’s not the deepest lyrical song on the record by far, but the musicianship – to me that song defines my brand of contemporary blues. You know, it’s just like, it’s really like if you asked me to play you something that defines what Kenny Wayne Shepherd thinks contemporary blues music is, that would be the song that I played to you. And you know, it’s got an extended guitar solo, it’s got a great platform for exciting guitar playing. The horn section and the groove, it’s just like everything about it really like makes me feel good.
I just wanted to touch briefly on The Rides. I mean, it’s been about three years since the last Rides album – Pierced Arrow. Is there any plans to reprise that project at any point in the future?
Oh yeah. We’ve been talking about it and Barry, Stephen and I all want to do another record. We’ve just been extremely busy. So it’s trying to find the opening in our schedules that’s been the challenge. I was touring on my last album and Stephen was out on the road here in the States. So Barry and I got together and wrote a few songs. And so it’s just a matter of trying to get together with Stephen and finding the time off and get into the studio. So you know, most likely all that stuff is going to take place you know, November/December and January. That’s normally when we get together in that kind of stuff.
You’re going to be going out on the road with Buddy Guy this summer. I mean, he’s pretty much the last in the line of those sort of blues greats of old. With that sort of old guard fading do you feel there is now a responsibility to carry the torch for yourself and your generation of blues guitarist to keep the blues alive?
Well, I mean look – on one hand, I don’t like that phrase ‘keep the blues alive’, because it makes it sound like the genre is on life support or something and there’s some struggle to keep the heart beating. And the reality is that the genre has been around for over a hundred years. And there’s new life being breathed into it every single day. There’s no shortage of young people that are getting turned on to the music, that are trying to learn how to play blues music. There are young artists that are coming up trying to make a name for themselves. The attendance and the interest in the genre right now, I think it has a renewed interest. There’s a new audience coming in and finding out about blues music and, you know, this is the cycle that happens – it seems like every 10 years or so.
So you know, it’s like I do feel like me and other artists that came around at the time that hit the scene that are still doing it, yes. I mean, we have a responsibility. I think our responsibility is to continue putting out the best music that we can to represent the genre in the best way possible and to also encourage other young artists to get out there and do their best. But the idea that you know, that you’ve got this genre of music on life support – I just don’t necessarily agree with that. And I don’t agree that the whole thing about rock being dead too. I don’t agree with that either. I just think that just because something’s not in the mainstream, doesn’t mean that there’s no audience for it or that there’s nobody out there creating new music for it.
That’s very true. In terms of your own musical taste, what do you like to listen to you when you are kicking back at home?
Oh, you know, blues – I mean, my kids listen to all kinds of stuff. You know, I hear things that I wouldn’t normally hear just because of what they will try and put on in the car. And then I usually end up changing the channel, you know. And so like, you know, I listen to blues music. I mean that’s my love, but you know, swing and jazz and usually for the 1940s, 50s, 60s and some from the 70s. But I’m kind of an old school dude, you know, there’s nothing really surprising about, about what would be on my playlist.
We are roughly halfway through this year. I just wondered, have you got the rest of this year mapped out?
I mean, we’re going to be obviously putting this record out and working it. And you know, that will carry us into next year for sure, and beyond. So like, for the next year/year and a half, we’ll be supporting this record. We’re going to be trying to make the next Rides album happen. And then we’re also working on, trying to start the next 10 Days Out: Blues From The Back Roads documentary film, you know, the follow-up and the one that we did that with a little over 10 years ago.
The Traveler by The Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band is out now via Provogue/Mascot Label Group. A UK tour that includes an appearance on the Outlaw Country Stage at Ramblin Man Fair, as well as several headline shows will get underway at The Boiler Shop in Newcastle on the 17th July.