Kenny Wayne Shepherd: Guitar-slinger to blues-singer
The most noticeable difference between the Kenny Wayne Shepherd who will perform this week at the Belly Up, and the young bluesman who embarked on a career hiatus five years ago, is that this one steps up to the microphone. Since leaving the stage for what became four years of an almost complete break from music, Shepherd has added lead vocalist to a job description that had previously been limited to guitar-slinger.Handlers had been suggesting that Shepherd become a singer from the time he signed his first record deal. But Shepherd thought his voice back then was an ill fit for the swaggering blues-rock fueled by his guitar-playing. The problems of being a teenager with grown-up guitar licks.”I was 16 years old and had a 16-year-old’s voice,” said Shepherd by phone, while driving through Los Angeles. “I sounded like a kid. And when I played guitar, I didn’t sound like a 16-year-old. So I didn’t want to open my mouth and give it all away. The voice that was coming out of me wasn’t the voice I wanted to be a part of my music.”The voice he wanted to complement his playing was that of Noah Hunt who, with a 1970 birth date, was a relatively old bluesman. Hunt was the featured lead vocalist on Shepherd’s second CD, 1997’s Grammy-nominated “Trouble is …,” and 1999’s “Live On,” albums that put Shepherd in the upper ranks of contemporary electric blues guitarists. The success those albums spawned, however, led to a serious case of burnout. Having spent most of the years since he was 16 on the road, Shepherd parted ways with the touring life. He moved from his native Shreveport, La., to Los Angeles, and instead of a steady diet of gigging and recording, he rode motorcycles, collected automobiles, tried surfing – “briefly … that was a hazard to my occupation,” he said – and took only the occasional concert date. When it was time to return, with the release of last fall’s “The Place You’re In” and a resumption of heavy-duty touring, Shepherd decided it was time to be the singer.”It gives me a new avenue to express myself,” said the 27-year-old, whose earlier phase included stadium concerts opening for Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. “And for an artist with an unlimited appetite for music, you’re going to jump at that eventually.”
While he takes lead vocals on almost all of “The Place You’re In” – Hunt gets two tunes, and Kid Rock shares the singing duties on “Spank” – Shepherd still views his singing as a work in progress.”I’m satisfied with it to a certain degree,” he said. “Like anything, the more you do it, the better you get at it. I accept that I’ve been playing guitar for 20 years, and singing backup for a few years.”Growing up on guitarShepherd hesitates to say whether he was instantly good on guitar. “It depends what you mean by good,” he said. But he allows that there was an inborn talent. “I just felt like I was blessed with an ability to play guitar.”Plus, guitar was an instant passion, especially relative to his slow ride to singing. His parents weren’t musicians; the crowd at school was into sports. But as soon as Shepherd saw Stevie Ray Vaughn perform in Shreveport, he knew where he was headed. Shepherd was 7 at the time; before he turned 8, he had his first guitar.”If not for Stevie Ray Vaughn, I don’t know if I’d know who I am as a musician,” he said. “After I met him, all I wanted to do was play guitar. He taught me how to play guitar, indirectly.”Vaughn guided Shepherd toward music, and specifically toward blues-rock. But the late Vaughn was hardly the only influence. Shreveport has been filled with the blues since well before Elvis Presley emerged from the city a few miles from the Texas border. And the depth of emotion that marks the blues might have captured Shepherd’s attention, no matter where he came from.”I’m a product of Louisiana,” said Shepherd. “So the blues has a heavy influence on all the music in that area. And the blues is the most passionate music I know of. So I was naturally drawn to it – everything from Robert Johnson to Muddy Waters to B.B. King to Stevie Ray Vaughn to Jimi Hendrix.”
Shepherd’s first appearance onstage came on New Orleans’ Bourbon Street, where Shepherd’s father convinced Brian Lee, a blind bluesman, to let his 13-year-old son sit in. Within two years, Kenny Wayne had his own gigs, leading a band through the tri-state area of Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas. At 16, he landed a record deal with Warner Bros. The only thing that didn’t come easily was convincing his classmates that he actually did have a career.”They thought I was a liar,” he said, mentioning that he isn’t sure if he’ll be attending his 10-year high school reunion this year. “I told them I had a record deal, and they thought I was full of s–t.” The kids knew he played, but few of them checked out the music for themselves. “The kind of music I played was for their parents more than for them.”Shepherd had no problem convincing those who actually saw him perform. Even as a teenager singing – rather, playing – the blues, Shepherd had an emotional connection to the music of sorrow, sex and experience.”I don’t know who came up with the idea you have to be old to play the guitar,” he said. “T-Bone Walker played as a teenager. B.B. King wasn’t always 78. Jimi Hendrix died at 28. When I was 16, I had had a couple of girlfriends, a couple of broken hearts. I had been picked on. Everyone starts playing the music they’re drawn to when they’re young.”Shepherd draws a distinction between a child and a teenager, and between the guitar and the voice. “When you hear about an 8-year-old singing, ‘My baby’s gone’ – you know they don’t know about that,” he said. “That’s why I wasn’t singing it. But I could play it.”Lost and foundThe next-to-last song on “The Place You’re In” is “Burdens,” a heavy rock song whose chorus laments, “I’m a hazard to myself / Why can’t these problems belong to someone else?”The lyrics are textbook blues, but are lifted from the pages of Shepherd’s recent past. The four-year break wasn’t due just to road weariness, but the excesses that came with nonstop touring.
“My priorities were a little mixed up,” said Shepherd. “The partying came first. And that’s not a way to live, depending only on whether you’ve got a buzz on.”There may be a perception that drugs and booze contribute to a musician’s ability to unleash his inner blues. And it may be true that such substances have fueled some of the great blues performances. But Shepherd says that didn’t apply to him.”This music is all about playing from your heart and soul, getting as deep down into it as you can,” he said. “And all that stuff is a barrier, it gets between your music and your soul. All that stuff turns you into a bad person.”Now living a sober life, Shepherd is drawing on his drug-filled years for his music. “I’ve had experiences that most people haven’t,” he said. “I can relate to a lot of things people go through.”Those experiences are closely tied to Shepherd’s emergence as a singer. While “The Place You’re In” is more rock-oriented than past recordings in sound, it is also more introspective. The lyrics to songs like “Alive” – “It’s a brand new day / Roads take a turn, I think I found my way” – are based in the writer’s life.”A lot of the songs are very personal to me – things I went through, the girl I’m in a relationship with,” said Shepherd, who says the latest album doesn’t mean he has abandoned the blues. (His next album, already recorded, is a true blues album made with obscure Southern blues players.) “With songs that direct and personal – having someone else sing about your woman – that’s just weird.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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