By Steve Houk

A blues guitar master reveres the past while also savoring the new sounds it inspires.
Photo courtesy White Mountain Boogie and Blues Festival

There is almost always a seminal moment in a musician’s life, that instant, that blink of an eye, where they hear something, or see someone play, and think, “Now THAT’S what I want to do for the rest of my born days.” It can happen when you’re 5, 15 or 50, but when it happens, a sometimes life-changing musical journey begins.

For Kenny Wayne Shepherd, his came at the ripe old age of 7, yes, seven, when his radio personality/music promoter Dad got him into a Stevie Ray Vaughan show. There is no seminal moment more crystallizing for any musician than Shepherd had that night, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Seven year-old Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Stevie Ray Vaughan meet at a 1984 SRV concert
Photo courtesy KWS

“I remember that concert, it was a pivotal point in my life,” Shepherd, 40, said from England on a break during his current tour. “I was always interested in music and always drawn to the guitar. I’d had a few plastic guitars my Grandma gave me, but man, once I saw him play, it was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I need a real guitar instead of these little toy guitars, and I want to be…I want to do that.’ And, it wasn’t that I wanted to be him, it was that the way he affected me man, even at seven years old, I was completely blown away, completely entranced and moved by what he was doing up there. I was so fixated on him, it’s like the whole freakin’ world could have blown up around me and I would have been oblivious to it. So I just wanted to learn how to affect people that way with that instrument. And I got serious about learning how to play guitar from that moment forward.”For years now, watching Shepherd play has no doubt done the same thing for budding wannabe guitarists worldwide. Thirty-three years after his SRV epiphany, Shepherd is considered one of the blues’ most exceptional and spearheading artists, having released six #1 blues albums, garnering five Grammy nominations, collaborating with legends like most recently in side project The Rides with Stephen Stills, and cementing his place on the top shelf of the present day blues guitar masters. And he’s not laying back, he’s doing the opposite, with a stellar and somewhat different new record, Lay It On Down, just out this month. Shepherd plays two nights at Ram’s Head in Annapolis August 14th and 15th, both shows are sold out.

Shepherd recorded Lay It On Down in his hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana, not a first for him, but certainly always a very meaningful experience.

“The studio had just been built when we did my last record there,” Shepherd fondly recalls. “And we really enjoyed working there, so when it came time to do this record, that’s where I wanted to do it. That’s where I was born. That’s where I was raised. My family’s there. That’s where I found my love for music and guitar. It’s just something that seems right about creating music in my hometown.”

Photo courtesy KWS

Shepherd didn’t do anything that different as far as the recording process on Lay It On Down, but the result is a premeditated departure in overall style from his previous efforts, with an Americana/country roots-based approach, yet of course replete with more of Shepherd’s shredding guitar magic.

“The last record was all traditional blues and it was cover songs, it was like a soundtrack of my childhood, you know? So I felt that it was appropriate for this record to be more contemporary and new sounding, to have all new songs rather than cover songs, ‘cuz if you’re doing cover songs, you kind of have a road map in front of you, you know? But when you have new songs, that’s what making a record is all about, is getting really creative in the studio all in a room together making the record. Not like going in there with it all planned out from the get-go. And so we’d go in there with my basic demos, acoustic guitar and vocal, and then we start building the album one song at a time. And, it’s a pretty cool process, I love doin’ it.”

Photo courtesy KWS

Despite the new sounds on Lay It On Down, Shepherd has always been a die-hard advocate of the core music that got him playing for real in the first place, the blues. So any highlight reel of his career must also harken back to his stunning two-time Grammy-nominated DVD/CD 10 Days Out: Blues From The Backroads (2007), an epic journey through the backroads of blues history that saw Shepherd sitting on front porches and jamming in juke joints with some of the blues’ most talented players, as in some cases, most unheralded as well. It was one of Shepherd’s aims on the project to be sure those who had been forgotten didn’t stay that way for long.

” ‘10 Days Out’ was my attempt at creating a unique project to show my love and appreciation for blues music, the genre as a whole, and for blues fans too. But it was also to help give exposure to some of these blues musicians that were really talented people but never got to the level of someone like, B.B. King, for example. So we put them together in a project with B.B. King, put them on that same level with guys like him, and the same with guys from Muddy Waters’ and Howlin’ Wolf’s bands, hoping to expose some of them to a greater audience, hopefully. The really sad thing is like 16 or 17 of those people are now dead, and like six or seven of them died before the project came out. Just goes to show that none of us are going to be around forever. And so there’s a lot of great musicians that are out there, and we need to appreciate them while they are here.”

As reverent as he is of the blues of the past, Shepherd is clearly glad to see things like the GRAMMYS bringing back the new blues categories, and he relishes the fact that blues music can remain true to the legends while also breaking new ground.

“I’m glad that they put that category back, because it acknowledges that there are new artists coming along, and people that are trying to take the genre and move it forward into different directions. If you look at popular music, any kind of popular music, and you trace it back to its roots, you’re inevitably going to wind up back at blues. And so that’s why you’re able to take it and do so many different things with it.”

Photo courtesy KWS

And it’s that next batch of blues musicians, some who are starting out as young as Shepherd did, who will hopefully strive to keep the blues alive for generations to come.

“I think there’s no shortage of interest in blues music, no shortage of young people trying to play blues music, just go on to YouTube and type in blues guitar and you’ll see all kinds of kids both male and female doing it. I think for the genre to continue to be relevant and new and innovative, I think that the contemporary form of blues music should be acknowledged and appreciated as well. And I think it has been, and it will continue to be. I know it continues to grow, you know, I think it’s in great hands.”

And what about that seven year old that’s sitting there mouth agape air-guitaring to a 40 year-old Kenny Wayne Shepherd? As Shepherd puts it, inspiration and all-important recognition for those who came before have thankfully been part of the blues game since the beginning.

“Here’s the thing, it doesn’t matter what kind of music you do, or who you are, if you’re successful and you affect people with your music, then that means you’re going to inspire other people with your music. And there’s inevitably going to be somebody that is going to come along and be inspired by you. That’s what happened when people like the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton were all inspired by these amazing blues artists and became just massively successful. I think that in blues music in particular, you have a history of giving credit where credit is due, and acknowledging your influences and your inspirations. Clapton was always very quick to point out his love for blues music and the artists that he loved that inspired him, and helped him to become Eric Clapton. So in that regard, I think blues artists have largely gotten the acknowledgement that they deserve, and if I can inspire someone, then all the better.”

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