Kenny Wayne Shepherd Finds His Way Home
Five-time GRAMMY nominee Kenny Wayne Shepherd burst on the scene in the '90s as a hot young gun of blues guitar. In the years that have followed, he has matured into one of the foremost contemporary interpreters of the blues tradition, not to mention the fertile delta where the blues intersects with rock and roll.
Goin' Home, Shepherd's new album released on May 19, literally took him back to his historic hometown of Shreveport, La., where he cut an old-school analog recording of classic songs by blues legends Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Albert King, Buddy Guy, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and more. Along with his own dream-team blues band, Shepherd is backed on Goin' Home by a stellar cast of friends, including GRAMMY winners Joe Walsh, Ringo Starr, Keb' Mo', and Warren Haynes, among others.
In an exclusive GRAMMY.com interview, Shepherd discussed the blistering intensity that burns on Goin’ Home, his GRAMMY history and plans for a sequel to his nominated 2007 album 10 Days Out — Blues From The Backroads.
How did the concept — recording a set of blues classics and doing it in your home town of Shreveport — for Goin' Home take shape?
The 10 Days Out … album and film were very well-received, and that was all traditional blues. So this album is in a similar vein, but it's a different kind of project. It's all music that really inspired me to first pick up a guitar when I was young. Historically, in a lot of cases, cover albums are just a way for a band to satisfy their last commitment in a record deal — a throwaway project. But that is not the case at all for me. This record turned into a real labor of love. And with the recent completion of Blade Studios, we've got a real top-of-the-line recording facility right in town. We've never had that before in Shreveport. I just felt that the only place to do this record would be in my hometown, where I grew up listening to all this music and where all of this influence actually took place.
A lot of the legendary blues artists whose songs are covered on the album are people you first met and even played with as a teenager, right?
Exactly. And in the liner notes, I tell stories about each one of these artists, why their music is included and the impact they had. But yeah, I first met Buddy Guy when I was 14 years old. And the first time I met B.B. King and Bo Diddley was when I was 15 and did one of my first real tours opening up for those guys. My band opened the show and then came back on as Bo Diddley's backing band. Can you imagine how awesome it was to do that at age 15? And B.B. has said a lot to me over the years about keepin' it going. So this stuff brought me way back. Vivid memories of my childhood came to the surface, listening to their music and exploring the material for this album.
For your guitar leads, were you concerned with paying tribute to whatever guitarists recorded the original song? Did you cop any signature licks?
A little bit. I wanted to preserve the spirit and integrity of the original artists, but also to interject some of my own personality — and the personalities of my band members — into our versions of these songs. So there are some musical nods. The most obvious is in our version of Stevie Ray Vaughan's "The House Is Rockin'," which I almost didn't even do, because I just didn't want to hear it from people who talk trash about what a big influence SRV was on me. But my drummer Chris Layton, who played with Stevie, looked at me and said, "How can you do an album of your biggest influences and not have an SRV song on there?" But we wanted a little Kenny Wayne in there too. So I start the solo section paying tribute to exactly the way SRV played it. But then in the middle, I go off on my own, then come back and resolve it the same way he resolves his. That was a great example of giving a firm nod to the original while also taking some of my own creative liberties.
Do you know the John Mayall version of "Looking Back," as well as the Johnny "Guitar" Watson original?
Yes I do! It's interesting that you brought that up. We did the song as a kind of hybrid, lyrically, of the Johnny "Guitar" Watson and the John Mayall versions. Mayall had these lyrics — and I don't know where he got them from — about the girl in the song. He made her a blonde; all this stuff about yellow golden hair and wanting to follow her everywhere. And all the recordings of the song by Johnny "Guitar" Watson that I ever heard talked about the girl having black hair. Maybe John Mayall just changed it to suit him. But I liked that verse from his version, so we put it in our version.
What was it like to get your first GRAMMY nomination for Best Rock Instrumental Performance at the 41st GRAMMY Awards in 1999?
I was pretty pumped about that. It was a huge honor to be nominated. I mean, I was so young. That was the first time I was attending the GRAMMYs and it was as a nominee. So that was extremely exciting for me.
Your more recent GRAMMY nominations have been for what might be called heritage projects. Things like 10 Days Out … and Live! In Chicago shine a light on some classic bluesmen. What's it like to be in that position — a kind of gateway to blues history?
Being nominated in the instrumental categories was always cool. As a guitarist, it's always great to be recognized for your playing. The blues category, though, is a very special one for me because I love blues music. It's the reason why I play the guitar — the genre that inspired me to pick the instrument up in the first place. I have a very deep love and appreciation for the blues. So to be nominated in that category is a huge honor, because this is the category that all my heroes would be in. To be recognized by my peers in that category is extremely special to me.
You've spoken recently of doing a follow-up to 10 Days Out … . Can you say more about that at this point?
Yes. We've just started to plan the logistics of the thing, but we're hoping its release might coincide with the 10-year anniversary of 10 Days Out … . That album was done in 2004, but the whole project didn't come out until 2007. Making an album is one thing. Shooting and editing a whole film takes a lot more time. So we're thinking if we start on this new project now, in 2014, we should be giving ourselves enough time for it to come out in 2017. It would be really cool if we could have it out on the same day.
(Veteran music journalist Alan di Perna is a contributing editor for Guitar World and Guitar Aficionado. His liner notes credits include Santana Live At The Fillmore East, the deluxe reissue of AC/DC's The Razor's Edge and Rhino Records' Heavy Metal Hits Of The '80s [Vols. 1 and 3].)