Kenny Wayne Shepherd Interview

Photo: Kenny Wayne Shepherd by Mark Seliger

Kenny Wayne Shepherd Interview

By Martine Ehrenclou

Five-time Grammy nominated blues-rock guitarist, multi-platinum artist Kenny Wayne Shepherd is regarded as an incendiary and soulful player, singer and songwriter. A riveting live performer, Shepherd is one of the most talented and distinctive guitarists of our time.

25 years into his career, Shepherd is revisiting his blockbuster 1997 album Trouble Is… with a full-on reinterpretation of the album that united modern blues with rock and roll swagger. To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the album, Shepherd is set to release Trouble Is…25 on December 2nd. The album will be accompanied by a live DVD filmed at The Strand Theatre in Shepherd’s home town of Shreveport, Louisiana.

To record Trouble Is…25 Kenny Wayne Shepherd assembled the original band members from the Double Trouble lineup and producer Jerry Harrison with Noah Hunt handling all lead vocals as he did on the original.

Just 18 years old at the time of the original album, Trouble Is… became a monumental record not just for him, but for his brand of blues infused rock and roll. Selling millions of copies, Trouble Is… featured the hit single “Blue On Black” and blasted Shepherd into mainstream rock. The song remained #1 on the mainstream rock charts for a record-breaking 104 weeks.

Over the last 25 years, Shepherd has released seven acclaimed solo albums and two with his all-star side project The Rides, alongside Stephen Stills and Barry Goldberg.

In the interview, Shepherd shared that he has an entirely new album that’s slated to release next year.

Kenny Wayne Shepherd joined me by phone from his home in Shreveport, Louisiana. I asked him what it was like to go into the studio with most of his original crew and revisit the songs.

Shepherd said, “I wish Tommy could have been there, but he’s been retired from music for some time now. But it was cool. It was great revisiting all these songs and being able to have almost the entire same crew. We brought Jerry Harrison back in for producing. We had Noah, myself, Chris Layton, Reese Wynans.” He added, “One of the biggest takeaways for me is that 25 years later, all these songs are still great. It’s still good music, it’s still relevant. It still holds up. I look back and go, man, I was 18 years old when I did all this stuff, wrote these songs. It’s pretty impressive and I’m really proud of it.”

“I was 18 years old when I did all this stuff”

On the upcoming Trouble Is…25, Kenny Wayne added a new song “Ballad of a Thin Man,” a Bob Dylan cover. On the original album Trouble Is…, he’d cut out the track because he was concerned that it might be too outside the box for his fans. His producer Jerry Harrison fought hard for it but Shepherd prevailed.

I asked, “Considering that you disagreed with Jerry Harrison about including ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ on Trouble Is…, how did you go about choosing this song for the new album?”

Shepherd explained. “I decided to do that because I wanted to give people something unique. It was an opportunity to give them a look behind the curtain. Nobody knew about this song or that we had recorded it and that it was intended to go on the record and got cut the last moment. I thought this would give them something cool to sink their teeth into.”

Admitting that his song “Somehow, Somewhere, Someway” was one of my favorites, I said, ‘Your guitar solo is beautiful. There’s space between the notes, emphasis on groove, bending the notes, vibrato. I’ve seen you live a few times and you never cram in too many notes or lose the soulfulness. Did that originate with the influence of the blues masters you originally studied?”

“I try to practice restraint and to practice letting my heart intuitively guide me through the solo”

“I think that my approach to playing is certainly based around a lot of my influences’ approach to playing,” Shepherd said. “Look, there was a defining moment in my life and my career where I noticed a lot of guys starting to do this shredder style of playing where they played faster and more notes and they were playing all kinds of stuff that I was not playing. I was like, should I be doing that too?

“I went back and I listened to my influences and the guys that really moved me–I listened to B.B., Albert King, Albert Collins and others. I would listen to a song and then as soon as I started to feel something inside of me, I would stop and I’d go, okay, now what were they doing? Not one time were they ever playing this super-fast, crazy run up and down the neck of the guitar.”

Kenny Wayne Shepherd, photo, interview

Photo: Kenny Wayne Shepherd by Mark Seliger

Continuing, Shepherd said, “They were always playing a restrained approach to a couple of notes and they’re just milking it for all it’s worth and just putting their heart and soul into it. I was like, that’s how I like to be moved when I listen to music and that’s how I want to move people when they hear my music, so that’s going to be my refined approach to playing. I can play fast, but I try to practice restraint and to practice letting my heart intuitively guide me through the solo making process of the songs.”

I brought up one of the first times I saw Shepherd perform live at The Annenberg Theater in Los Angeles at a B.B. King Tribute that included Susan Tedeschi, Derek Trucks, Slash, Joe Bonamassa, Joe Louis Walker, Keb’ Mo’, Jimmy Vivino and others. “When you played your guitar solo, it brought down the house and you received a standing ovation. Can you tell me what it’s like for you when you are playing a guitar solo like that? It seems like you give into the music, as if you become one with it.”

Shepherd shared, “Well, that’s the idea. That’s what I try to be every time I pick up the instrument. I try to just be a conduit between the music and the instrument and the emotions that are flowing out of me. Just to be a conduit between all of that to the people and just let it flow. Sometimes I’m better at it than others and sometimes it’s more challenging, but that’s the goal for sure.”

His song “Blue On Black” from Trouble Is… and the new album with Noah Hunt on vocals, became a #1 hit on the Mainstream Rock Chart for 104 weeks. As a fan favorite, it’s obvious what listeners think about the song. I wanted Shepherd’s take on it and why he thought it shot to number one.

“I think it’s just a great song and you could say I’m biased, but I say that objectively,” Shepherd shared. “When the guys from Five Finger Death Punch called and said they were going to record a version of it, I said, ‘Hey, you might think I’m biased, but I just believe it’s a great song and I believe this song crosses genres and generations. I think if you guys release it as a single, it’ll go to number one because I believe that the song is a good one.’ And it did. There’s just something special about it. It’s unique. It’s a hundred percent all its own.”

It’s a given that Shepherd’s Trouble Is… is a timeless record. But I wanted to find out more. “Apart from its 25th anniversary, what else drove you to reinterpret and record Trouble Is…25 now?”

“I think it was to bring attention to and have an opportunity to really celebrate more than just acknowledging, hey, here’s 25 years of this record,” he said.  “To really do it up and draw some real attention to the significance of a quarter of a century of this record that’s still being enjoyed. We’re selling out concerts where people come hear this music still today. I think it helps us to put an exclamation mark behind 25 years of this.”

“I think it helps us to put an exclamation mark behind 25 years of this.”

Kenny Wayne Shepherd has had a longtime collaboration with vocalist, rhythm guitarist Noah Hunt who’s handled many of the lead vocals including those on the album Trouble Is… and the forthcoming album Trouble Is…25. A singer with a rich, soulful voice, he and Shepherd have for the last few years shared lead vocals.

Curious about how he and Noah Hunt have worked together so well, I asked, “It’s a different kind of setup with him being lead vocalist on many of the songs and you doing lead vocals on others. Can you tell me how that works?”

Shepherd was forthcoming. “In the beginning, it was like we were constantly having to remind people that I’m not the first one to do this. Look at Carlos Santana. Look at Jeff Beck. Look at Eddie Van Halen. There’s a long list, honestly. But the stereotype is that if you’re the namesake of the band, then you must be the lead singer as well. There was some resistance in the beginning because of that, but I think it was the smart move because when I was young, when I opened my mouth to sing, I sounded like a kid. But when I picked up my instrument to play guitar, I did not sound like a kid. It just didn’t really work. It wasn’t the sound that I had for my music, so I was not willing to compromise my vision.”

“When I picked up my instrument to play guitar, I did not sound like a kid.”

Kenny Wayne continued. “If that meant having somebody else sing, then so be it. Noah sang lead vocals on the second album and the third album, and then I sang lead vocals on the fourth album. Since then, it’s evolved into a situation now where if we put 10 songs on a record, I’m probably going to be singing five out of the 10 and he’s going to be singing the other five. ”

“The perception of it is a little bit distorted, but it is what it is. I think it served me as best as it possibly could, because I don’t think I would’ve had the success that I did have if I would’ve been singing on the first and second albums. I just don’t think my voice was ready. But it was a natural evolution.”

“Your voice is ready now,” I said.

Kenny Wayne replied, “It’s become a thing where it’s like you know what? Noah has been with me for 25 years now, and he’s a great singer, and he sang on a lot of those songs. I’m also ready to be considered the lead vocalist in my band. How do we navigate that? The end result is that we share the responsibilities now, and it’s actually broadened the scope of what we’re able to do as a band, because he and I have very different voices. There’s certain songs that are better suited for me and my vocal approach, and then there’s songs that are better suited for him. Without either voice, there’s certain songs that would probably never appear on a record.”

I asked Shepherd about what’s coming up for him. He mentioned the Trouble Is…25 album that will be released December 2nd, the tour, the anniversary package, the documentary film about making the original record, a DVD release of the first show of the 25th anniversary tour and for the first time a vinyl version of the Trouble Is… record.

Kenny Wayne then subtly interjected, “We also have a whole new record that we finished in February 2020. An entirely new record, all new songs and everything, that I’ve just been sitting on waiting to release because COVID postponed that. That’s probably going to come out next year at some point as well. It’s really exciting stuff. We picked up where we left off on The Traveler, which I think is one of the best records that we’ve made. This is definitely a continuation of that and I’m excited to put it out there and see what people think. It’s contemporary, it’s modern, it’s my brand of blues rock and roll or whatever you want to call it.”

“We also have a whole new record that we finished…that’s probably going to come out next year”

Shepherd added another new piece of news. “Then we were just in the studio again with Jerry Harrison two weeks ago, and we were doing some really cool outside the box cover song stuff. We just went in because it would be fun to do it, but I think we’re going to put it out as a record probably in a couple of years. It’ll be really interesting and fun to see people’s reactions because we were doing songs by bands that you probably would never have expected us to do.”

“Can you give me a hint? Are we talking blues infused rock & roll or something else entirely?” I asked.

Shepherd said, “On the first Rides album, Jerry Harrison produced that one, we did an Iggy Pop song, “Search and Destroy” and people were like, oh my gosh, Stephen Stills and Kenny Wayne Shepherd doing Iggy Pop? Crazy. It was a lot of that kind stuff. We went in and did another Iggy Pop song, we did Billy Idol, we did Genesis, INXS. And then there’s some other things. I don’t know what’s going to wind up on the record yet. We haven’t actually chosen the final songs, but we did some Bad Company. But yeah, a lot of it’s like, whoa, really? Wow.

For more information on Kenny Wayne Shepherd and his forthcoming album Trouble Is…25 see Here  and video Here 

“True Lies” from Trouble Is…25

 
 




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