Kenny Wayne Shepherd: Welcome Back

Some people call it ‘Baby Jane syndrome’: child stars sinking into car-crash adulthood. Mention it to Kenny Wayne Shepherd and he gives a well-adjusted shrug: never happened to him, man. Having gone from high school to major-label success with 1995’s Ledbetter Heights, the Louisiana blues prodigy is now a relatively grizzled 33, a consistently bankable star and a tireless live performer, with a whip-cracking show that is bottled on this year’s Live! In Chicago album.

Let’s be honest: most live albums are poor.

I find there are lots of bands that just don’t sound as good live. One of the foundations of my career has always been the live show. It’s about the performance, but it’s also the flow: I like to come out swinging, so the first songs in the set are in-your-face, then you have peaks through the evening, like a good movie. I think people have misconceptions; they think blues is a bunch of whining. But blues is uplifting – and any music that does that is good to have around during a recession.

Was it a challenge to be taken seriously as a young bluesman?

Yeah. I signed my deal at 16, and I was recording my first album in high school. So you have to prove yourself. It’s no different than anything else – if you want people to take you seriously, you have to live up to the hype. When I put out my first album there was definitely scepticism, like, ‘What does this kid know about the blues?’. But I think those questions were put to rest when people saw the show. I believe that I’m the real deal, y’know? None of us are inventing anything new here. We’re playing music, and there have been plenty of guitar players before me, and there’ll be plenty after. The bottom line is that I’m trying to do this with passion and intensity.

You’re 33 now. Do bluesmen improve with age?

Not everybody does. There’s a certain fire and intensity to the young player, but it’s kinda like a fine wine or a nicely aged cigar. There’s definitely some aspects of maturity that add to who you are as a musician. When you’re young you have so much to prove. Now I’m at the point where, if you’ve heard me before, then you know I can play guitar, so it’s not about how many notes I can play, but making each note penetrate the soul.

You collect classic cars. That’s a great hobby for a rock star.

Yeah, especially for a guitar player. My interest right now is the 70s American muscle cars, although I have been branching out a bit with classic Italian cars like Ferrari and Ducati. I don’t just buy them, I restore them, customise them, drive them on the track, take them on road trips. There’s a lot of guitar players with the same passion. Right now, one of my cars is on display at the National Hot Rod Association Museum, along with cars belonging to Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Billy Gibbons…

Could you beat Clapton in a race?

I dunno, man. He’s Eric Clapton. I wouldn’t want to challenge him– he beats me enough anyway.

This was published in Classic Rock issue 152.

Henry Yates

Henry Yates has been a freelance journalist since 2002 and written about music for titles including The Guardian, The Telegraph, NME, Classic Rock, Guitarist, Total Guitar and Metal Hammer. He is the author of Walter Trout's official biography, Rescued From Reality, a music pundit on Times Radio and BBC TV, and an interviewer who has spoken to Brian May, Jimmy Page, Ozzy Osbourne, Ronnie Wood, Dave Grohl, Marilyn Manson, Kiefer Sutherland and many more.