Kenny Wayne Shepherd: The ClassicRockHistory.com Interview

Kenny Wayne Shepherd Interview

Feature Photo: Kenny Wayne Shephard © 2022 Used with permission

Kenny Wayne Shepherd has been celebrating the music of the blues both on stage and in the studio for over thirty years. After meeting the legendary Stevie Ray Vaughan when Kenny was only seven years old, Kenny Wayne Shepherd had become infatuated with the blues and has since dedicated his life to keeping the music relevant to a new generation of music fans while also having great commercial success as a blues artist. In an era in which hip-hop and rap have ruled the airwaves, Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s commercial success as a blues artist is even more impressive. Inspired by many blues artists such as the late B.B. King who also served as one of his mentors, Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s success has also been fueled by his energy, his passion, and his deep understanding of the history of the blues and those who helped shape the blues genre that inspired the art of rock and roll and everything else that came after it.

In 2010, Kenny Wayne Shepherd released the blues documentary 10 Days Out: Blues From The Backroads. In the documentary, Kenny Wayne Shepherd meets and plays with many of the blues artists that played a major role in shaping the music of the blues. The unrehearsed jam sessions and interviews seen in the film offer an exhilarating experience of the history of the blues and its importance as a true American art form. It is a topic that we dived deep into in this interview. When we spoke, Kenny Wayne Shepherd was getting ready to start his Backroads Blues Festival tour that would feature Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, Buddy Guy, and of course the Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band.

Brian Kachejian: Hey Kenny how are you doing?

Kenny Wayne Shepherd:  I’m good, how are you?

Brian Kachejian:   Thank you so much for calling in. We are a site that looks to turn younger people onto rock’n’roll music by writing consistently about it, and by connecting all the musical genres that came before it, all around it, and after it because you know, that’s how you pull so many people in. And of course, that’s the point that you argued in your film 10 Days Out that I think you made so abundantly clear. I bring up the film 10 Days Out up because I really want to talk about it, but also because it’s tied into what you’re doing right now.

Kenny Wayne Shepherd:  Absolutely!

Brian Kachejian: Which is the Backroads Blues Festival. Is it going well?

Kenny Wayne Shepherd:  Yeah, it’s going good. So, the documentary film is called 10 Days Out Blues From The Backroads. The festival that we’re launching this year is called the Backroads Blues Festival which like you mentioned, is an extension of you know, the documentary film. So, the documentary’s purpose at the time was first of all to do something unique because of my love and appreciation for blues music and the artists who created it, have cultivated it, and inspired me to make my own music and give the Blues audience something unique and interesting to kind of sink their teeth into.

I think we more than accomplished that with the documentary film you know the Blues From the Backroads project, so this is just an extension of that. Its same purpose is to give the Blues audience something really unique and exciting to experience and it’s also because of my appreciation for the blues genre and the blues community, just another effort on my behalf to try and do what I can to keep promoting the genre, promoting the artists within the genre, and to keep turning new people onto the music.

So, the ultimate goal is that this becomes an annual event and its purpose will be to tour the country featuring the hottest names in blues music today. That’s men, that’s women, that’s acoustic, that’s electric, that’s modern contemporary blues, that’s traditional blues, whoever and whatever is happening in the genre is who we’re going to be looking at to be part of this thing moving forward.

Brian Kachejian: And that’s such a great thing to do. I mean younger people need to be turned on to this music, to learn about this music, because it’s so vital to all of modern music. I mean like you say in the film, you know if it wasn’t for the blues, there would be no rock’n’roll, there would be no hip-hop, rap or dance or whatever type of musical genre that’s been going on, it all kind of begins with the blues and it’s very clear from your film, that’s an argument you’re making, and it’s very clear that’s what you’re doing right now. You seem to be kind of taking the mantle on from B.B. King who used to do a Blues Festival, correct?

Kenny Wayne Shepherd: Yeah, well that was you know the kind of inspiration behind this is that you know as a kid and as a fan, I used to go to the Blues Festivals that B.B. King put on every year. And I got an opportunity because of that to see B.B. King and Etta James and Joe Cocker, Stevie Ray, Jimmie Vaughan, and Robert Cray, and the list goes on and on and on. I mean some of my greatest concert memories you know growing up was going to see that festival. And then when I started my professional career, I joined the festival and became a performer on the festival many times over the years, so I went from being a spectator to being a headliner or a co-headliner of the festival and created memories doing it that way as well.

There just hasn’t been anything like that since, and I just think you know this is just so special to me and I think it’ll be really special to a lot of other people to have the opportunity to see this one and you know my hope is that this becomes the “go to Blues Festival” that everybody is looking forward to each year, and waiting to see what the lineup is and waiting to see what cities it’s going to go to and to get their hands on their tickets.

Brian Kachejian:   Yeah, well you know that’s what it’s about, it’s about spreading the word, and you do that with concert performances, and trying to get young people out. I mean it must have been mind-blowing for you to be in the audience seeing guys like B.B. King and then all of a sudden standing on the stage right next to them. How did that feel to be standing right next to these guys and playing with these guys?

Kenny Wayne Shepherd:   I mean you know, it’s incredible. Obviously, I mean the tours were one of the ways in which I really cultivated a very private and personal relationship with B.B.King. He became like a father to me over the years and part of that was from spending so much time with him doing the festival tours. But really those are the things that are the most valuable and memorable to me is like you know, I can’t tell you how many times I played “The Thrill Is Gone,” with B.B on stage, but to me, the memories that really first come to mind that are most significant, are the ones that we shared backstage, you know on a personal level, just having a conversation, man to man, him telling me stories and giving me advice and stuff I’ve done

Brian Kachejian: Yeah, those are moments I guess you’re gonna treasure forever.

Kenny Wayne Shepherd:  Absolutely!

Brian Kachejian: I was watching the one scene in 10 Days Out when you were sitting with B.B. King, playing “The Thrill Is Gone,” And I was blown away just listening to him playing, the way he could play just one note, and just make that one note sound like a million notes.

Kenny Wayne Shepherd:  I mean well that was one of his talents, the man had the ability to speak volumes with one single note and that’s kind of you know, that’s part of the approach that I’ve taken with my playing over the years. It’s like….. I mean,  I listen to guys like him and Albert King and Freddie King and Albert Collins and even Stevie Ray and stuff like that, and when I was listening to their music and I would be moved inside right like I would feel something, there would be a moment in a song where I would feel my spirit being moved and I would stop and I’d be like what just happened?

Inevitably, it was never because somebody was playing like a flurry of notes or the most complex scale that they could think of, it was like they’re playing at one, two or three notes and just milking it you know for everything that it was worth, and I just realized, I’m like well that’s what moves me and that’s how I wanna move people. I wanna stir up that kind of emotion in people who are listening to what I play, and so that’s what I focused on, and that’s why you hear my entire approach to playing the instrument is all based on raw emotion and feel.

Brian Kachejian:  Yeah I mean there’s that old blues saying “less is more.” It seems that’s what you’re doing too. I mean I hear so much of what B.B. King was doing in your playing. I was watching a video on your website where it looked like you were in a garage or something during COVID and you were strumming along, accompanying yourself on a separate track in the lower part of the screen, and then in the main screen, you were playing notes that just cried. I mean that’s the only way I can come up with describing what I was hearing you play. And it was just by yourself, and being able to play like that just by yourself and have it filled with so many emotions.

Kenny Wayne Shepherd:  Yeah that’s what it’s all about. For sure, I appreciate it.

Brian Kachejian: In the film that you did (10 Days Out) and I hope you make a sequel to it because I think it’s very important, there are just so many lessons in that film about being a musician, about life itself, there are so many great scenes from the beginning with Bryan Lee. I just loved the scenes between both of you. How he’s talking about you. How he talks about hearing you play for the first time, and before that you’re saying how when you were young, you weren’t getting the chance because…. you were young,  and then it was Brian who heard your playing and gave you the chance.

Kenny Wayne Shepherd:  Yeah, Brian was the guy who first gave me the chance to get up on stage with him, and you know that’s why I try to keep them involved in things that I was doing you know because he gave me that chance, he gave me that opportunity and you know I mean Bryan he played on my first album, he played some guitar on my second album

We had him in 10 Days Out, and took him out on the road with us many times. Bryan was very important to me and you know it’s not without his help that I would have had the opportunity to get on stage that the first time and build that confidence to kind of move forward and create my own band.

Brian Kachejian: Yeah, you seemed really comfortable playing with him on that stage like you were having a really good time and it was all really loose. 

 Kenny Wayne Shepherd: Absolutely, well the whole thing was loose. All that stuff was unrehearsed like we just rolled in every day to wherever we were going to find the musicians and you know wherever they were residing at, and we just set up and it was all spontaneous, completely unrehearsed.

Brian Kachejian:  Well, that’s what blues is really all about. It’s all about the moment, and I guess it depends on who you’re playing with, I mean what you hear from the other guys in the band inspires you to play what you’re going to play.

Kenny Wayne Shepherd:  Absolutely! Well, you also have to make sure when you’re doing something like that, and you’re going to play with these guys and you’re trying to make an album right and a film and it’s all about the music, you gotta make sure you got guys that have the chops to get the job done. Obviously, we had Double Trouble there with us, and you know as far as rhythm section goes, there’s not just really many other rhythm sections in the world that are more equipped to do something like that than those guys.

Brian Kachejian: Yeah that’s probably one of the best rhythm sections in rock and roll history. Tommy Shannon and Chris Layton. Those guys are just powerful and being able to lay down and get all the different types of grooves that they’re able to just come up.

Kenny Wayne Shepherd:  Yeah!

Brian Kachejian:  It has to influence your soloing when you’re playing with those guys.

Kenny Wayne Shepherd: Absolutely, but you know I grew up playing along to their music so it’s actually pretty interesting because I’ve played along to their songs so much as a kid that you know when I first got the opportunity to play with them in person, it just all felt very natural.

Brian Kachejian: In the film, I love the scene also that kind of bookmarks the scenes with Bryan Lee. The scene with Clarence Gatemouth Brown was really enjoyable to watch and also very different from the scenes with Bryan Lee.

Kenny Wayne Shepherd: Well, Gatemouth was a real character and he’s a real legend for rock and roll too, but he didn’t really like having the Blues label thrown on him. But I thought you know his contribution to Blues music and rock’n’roll is significant, and who he represented you know as far as the state of Louisiana goes, and as far as guitar players go, that he was an essential part of the documentary.

Brian Kachejian:  Well I thought the scene was very interesting where he kind of stops the band and he kind of looks over at the piano player and basically says “hey man you’re playing a little bit too loud, you know it’s it’s hard for me to solo over that.”

Kenny Wayne Shepherd: yeah well you should have seen the parts that we didn’t include.

Brian Kachejian:   I was figuring there was some really good stuff there, maybe an outtakes reel later on, or… well maybe not.

Kenny Wayne Shepherd: I don’t think so.

Brian Kachejian: But you know there’s a lesson there I mean for all musicians you know when they’re first starting out, I mean you guys weren’t first starting out, but you know for younger people, you know one of the lessons that musicians have to learn is to listen to each other while they’re playing, and sometimes that can get lost

Kenny Wayne Shepherd:  Yup, absolutely!  You gotta have ears and eyes for sure.

Brian Kachejian:  Yeah and so I think having a scene like that is very important for younger people who are just checking out the documentary  and even for teachers to say hey look at this,  this is what you’re not supposed to do, you know you have to listen to each other, you have to surround the soloist with a groove so that they can shine, and then when it’s your time to shine, it’ll be your time to shine

Kenny Wayne Shepherd:   Absolutely

Brian Kachejian:  The documentary is so important because you had met up with all these Blues legends who were in their 90s and especially Henry Townsend who was 94 years old when you met him.

Kenny Wayne Shepherd: I can’t remember how old Henry was, and some of those guys you know, that whole section there with him and Honeyboy Edwards, those were the two oldest guys at the time that we met with. I think Honeyboy Edwards was older than Henry so I don’t know how old Henry was. I don’t really remember to be honest with you exactly how old they were at that time

Brian Kachejian:  Now Henry played with Robert Johnson, is that correct?

Kenny Wayne Shepherd: No, I think it was Honeyboy that played with Robert Johnson.

Brian Kachejian:  So you’re talking to somebody who played with Robert Johnson which is where so many historians say a lot of this began, or at least we kind of discover it because he was one of the first ones to be recorded.

Kenny Wayne Shepherd: Well he was certainly the first one whose recordings you know went to the mainstream audience and really gained some traction. But yeah, I mean that’s like that’s going about as far back as you could possibly go to the beginnings of this genre.

Brian Kachejian: do you ever wonder, that even though we know about Robert Johnson because of his recordings, there had to be so many other Blues musicians back then during that time period that were never discovered because they were never recorded but might have been also doing incredible stuff?

Kenny Wayne Shepherd: Absolutely without a doubt

Brian Kachejian: Some of that stuff will probably never be heard because they weren’t recorded. Or maybe they were, and we just don’t know about that stuff.

Kenny Wayne Shepherd: You know there’s no telling that. Robert Johnson wasn’t the first person, he didn’t invent Blues music. Blues music itself is an evolution, you know some people singing spiritual songs out in the fields obviously, and then changing the words eventually from songs about faith to songs about suffering and stuff.

So the whole thing was an evolution itself.  It’s not like overnight, some guy like Robert Johnson went and actually sold his soul to the devil and invented Blues music. It was a gradual thing that was probably you know a generational involvement, you know evolution, where you know, it just evolved into this sound.

I’m sure Robert Johnson probably learned how to play guitar from those guys, who would learn like they would have an uncle or father or brother or somebody like that, maybe even a sister that played an instrument that they would watch them and then they would learn from them. You know I mean just very much like it is today, except I guess people are learning from people on YouTube instead of them sitting on the front porch. But he just gets a lot of credit because you know there’s so much mystique around him and its history, and that story, and then also I mean he wrote and recorded some of the most popular Blues standard songs in history.

Brian Kachejian: Those are so many important points that you’re making because Robert Johnson gets a lot of credit because we know of him because we know those recordings but like you said, I mean Blues goes back to slavery, and probably further back than that. Blues is about pain, it’s about relief, I mean would you say that’s sort of correct?

Kenny Wayne Shepherd: yeah but look I mean, you can do just a quick little search you know online and find out, that you know Robert Johnson wasn’t the first, he wasn’t even the first recorded Blues artist according to the Internet, you know there was other people that were recorded before him. Somebody supposedly was recorded back in 1908 and Robert Johnson stuff was recorded you know in the late 1910s and early 1920s and things like that, so yeah like I said, I think his popularity and a lot of the credit goes to him also because of his incredible talent. I mean you listen to him play guitar and if you really tune into what he’s doing, it sounds like there are three different individual players playing guitar at the same time, but he’s doing it all himself and singing which is absolutely mind-boggling.

Brian Kachejian: It’s a fascinating time period in history where all of this comes from, and it’s so wonderful that you’re presenting it on stage, and in documentaries and like I believe I’ve heard you say, you’re trying to keep it alive, you feel like you’re the guy now, and one of the guys now that needs to do this, that needs to keep Blues music alive.

Kenny Wayne Shepherd: Absolutely, I mean you look you know, part of me thinks that you know, I don’t like, I kind of don’t like that phrase because you know we’re talking about a genre that’s been alive now for over 100 years

Brian Kachejian:  right, so maybe we should say popular, would it be better to say keep it popular or keep an awareness of it?

Kenny Wayne Shepherd: Yes, keep it relevant and current, to help keep it evolving and to inspire new talents you know, to be interested in the genre and come into this and make a name for themselves, and infuse new life into it. You know I mean I  think that as long as people are able to hear those recordings, like it’s always going to be there, it’s already been around for over 100 years, it’s just that you know it’s reciprocal to its popularity. And so I think it’s important and it always has been important to me to spread the good word about Blues music because of all the inspiration that the genre provided to me.

And so you know, I just made up my mind when I had an opportunity to sign my record deal that I was going to do my part to promote the genre, even if all the music that I do is not traditional Blues, everything I do is rooted in the Blues. The Blues is the foundation of all of my music, no matter what, and so I feel that I have, you know I owe it to the people that inspired me to play and become the musician that I am, to spread the word about them in their music and genre that inspired me.

Brian Kachejian:  Well you are inspiring many people both young and old. How are the rehearsals going for this these shows?

Kenny Wayne Shepherd: Yeah, it’s going good. Everything is going to be great. I’m having to make some last-minute adjustments to the set ’cause I recently had surgery that was unexpected last week and it’s kind of taken a lot of energy out of me. So I’m having to adjust the setlists because of that, so like you know most recently in my shows I’ve been singing lead vocals you know the past several albums as well as Noah Hunt who’s been the lead vocalist in my band for the past 25 years. So it’s kind of evolved into a thing where I sing lead vocals about half the show and he sings lead vocals the other half of the show.

But as a result of this surgery, for some reason, I feel like I’m low on oxygen, so singing has been incredibly challenging for me for the past week. So, I’m making a few changes, because there are several songs that I really enjoy singing and like to include in the show but if I physically am unable to do it, then we’ll have to make adjustments to the set and you know it may be a situation where I’m I end up just playing guitar all night and allowing Noah to do all the vocals.

But regardless, it’s going to be a great show. I mean we’ve got 30 years’ worth of material that we’ve recorded and that we can perform with me singing and without me singing, so either way, the people are going to get a great show. Buddy Guy is going to put on a great show, Kingfish is going to put on a great show, it’s going to be a fantastic time and I couldn’t think of a better way to start this tour.

Brian Kachejian: Is your band the Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band the house band, or is everybody using their own bands?

Kenny Wayne Shepherd: You know it’s very similar to the B.B. King thing, everybody brings their own band. You know I think there’s enough right now of those kinds of shows where you know you have this big lineup of players and there’s like a house band and then they just shuffle guys on and off the stage every three or four songs. I mean there’s enough of those kinds of things going on right now.

I didn’t want this to become another one of those. Who knows what will be in store for the future, but right now the blueprint is that every artist brings their own band. You know because people feel most comfortable with their own musicians for sure and then you know maybe at the end of the show there’s a jam session at the finale. We’re gonna have to get everybody together and have some discussions about that when we start the tour.

Brian Kachejian:  So who’s in your band?

Kenny Wayne Shepherd: Right now we have Joe Crown on keyboards and Joe was a long-time member of Gatemouth Brown’s Band before he joined my band I guess four or five years ago now so he’s on keyboards. Chris Layton from Double Trouble is on drums. Kevin McCormick on bass. Kevin played with Jackson Browne and Crosby Stills and Nash and Melissa Etheridge and a lot of other people over the years. And then Noah Hunt on the lead vocals and guitar and then myself on lead vocals and guitar.

Brian Kachejian:  wow that sounds great. I love Noah Hunt’s voice. Both on the low and the high end. I just love listening to him sing. You guys really complement each other.

Kenny Wayne Shepherd: Yeah, he’s got a great instrument.

Brian Kachejian:  I don’t want to keep you too long, I just have one more question that I want to ask you. You’ve toured all over the world what about the food, where do you like the food the best?

Kenny Wayne Shepherd: To be honest, if I’m being completely honest, I’ve had a lot of great food in a lot of great places. Right before COVID, we went to India for the first time, and you know real authentic Indian food which was really incredible. But out of all the experiences in every place that I’ve been to, I’ve got to say so far, the crown goes to Italy. I mean I’ve never had any better food anywhere in the world than I had in Italy.

Brian Kachejian:  Any particular part of Italy that you enjoyed the most? 

Kenny Wayne Shepherd: Rome is incredible. I mean you know I haven’t really gotten out to the countryside but I hear that it’s amazing and beautiful just like in France too, like I’ve never really been outside of the big cities in those two countries. I hear it’s incredible but Rome it’s just absolutely mind-boggling.

You know the Colosseum and all the Cathedrals and I mean the works of art. I mean everywhere you go you’re just surrounded by it. I mean unbelievable, it just especially makes you realize how new of a country we actually live in here, you know you don’t realize it until you go to a place like that, you see those buildings that have been standing for so long and then you compare them to all the new construction that we’re surrounded by and you go wow there’s some significant history though that was taking place long before there was the United States of America and it’s pretty fascinating to be surrounded by all that.

Brian Kachejian: yeah that’s the thrill of going to Europe and going to all these different European countries I was in Italy a couple of years ago myself with my son and  never had a dish of carbonara like I did in Italy in Rome, I mean the pasta there is incredible, and did you notice how the dishes are much smaller there than they are in the states

Kenny Wayne Shepherd:  yeah well a lot of places not just Europe a lot of people don’t eat the size portions that we do over here, and that’s obviously a cultural thing

Brian Kachejian:  Well Kenny I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you speaking to us here today and I look forward to the shows.

Kenny Wayne Shepherd:  yeah I appreciate it man, and thanks for helping us promote the festival.

An In-Depth Interview With Kenny Wayne Shepherd article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2022

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