Lookin' Back: Kenny Wayne Shepherd

Kenny Wayne Shepherd

When it comes to recruiting guest stars to appear on a new album, more often than not artists will round up a collection of pals and label mates that just happen to be in the area and available at the time. It’s a decent barometer of how high Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s star has risen that for his new album he called on a Beatle and an Eagle.

“Me, Ringo, Joe Walsh and some other guys were all hanging out in the studio one day and I asked them if they’d be interested in playing on this record because they love the blues,” Shepherd says. “They agreed and did it very quickly. I think everybody who contributed to this record brought something unique.”

The record in question is Goin’ Home, Shepherd’s seventh studio album, and his first comprised solely of cover versions. It’s a gutsy move for the Louisiana guitar-prodigy-turned-revered blues statesmen. Since signing his first record deal while still in his early teens, Shepherd has proven himself to be one of the finest exponents of blues songwriting of his generation, packing a style that harks back to the sound of his heroes while adding in a pinch of modern rock edge.

It’s a stylistic combination that quickly hit paydirt. Shepherd’s 1995 debut Ledbetter Heights peaked at the top of the US Blues Chart and eventually went platinum, while its follow-up, Trouble Is…, spawned three hit singles and cracked the Billboard Top 200. The upward trajectory was continued by 2011’s How I Go, a record that became Shepherd’s seventh US Blues number one in a row and the first to make a dent on the UK chart. And while many would have looked to maintain their momentum by knocking out a quick collection of new cuts cobbled together on the road and from snippets cranked out at soundchecks, Shepherd was eager to take his time and have a little fun, while doffing his hat to those that went before him.

Of the decision to record a covers album, he says: “It was an opportunity for me to pay tribute and homage to a lot of my heroes and the music I grew up listening to and that inspired me to play music in the first place.”

A quick glance at the album’s track listing throws up few surprises in terms of names: Freddie King, B.B. King, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Bo Diddley are all present and correct. But Shepherd was keen to scratch beneath the surface of the most familiar cuts from these icons.

“When I look for cover songs I try to find ones that aren’t so obvious,” he says. “Born Under A Bad Sign, I think, is the most covered song on this record. Everything else you have to dig a little bit deeper into people’s catalogue to find these songs. My fans might be familiar with Bo Diddley, Albert King, Stevie Ray Vaughan and these guys, but maybe they haven’t heard these particular songs by them and maybe this can motivate people to dig deeper themselves and see what hidden gems they can find. Bringing these songs to a new audience is the goal for this record.”

With the tracks chosen, Shepherd headed into the studio with his tried and trusted band: vocalist Noah Hunt, bass player Tony Franklin, keyboardist Riley Osbourn and drummer Chris Layton. The fivesome did so in the knowledge that wild tangents and seismic style shifts were not on the menu here; instead they were looking to evolve rather than reinvent these treasured cuts.

“The idea was to keep the spirit of the original songs intact,” Shepherd explains. “Some people like to go completely in a different direction when they cover a song. I like to keep the integrity of the original and then add our own personality on to that.”

Shepherd believes that the way in which the record was laid to tape with the band playing live in a single room was key in capturing the atmospheric, rootsy vibes found on the original songs they were covering.

“We recorded the old-fashioned way. We set up in the same room, including the vocals – whether it was myself, Noah or someone else singing. We had minimal overdubs, all of the instruments were bleeding into each other; it was the way records used to be made. We did it all to two-inch tape, all completely analogue and mixed it to half-inch tape. We tried to make the record in the spirit that the original albums were made.”

The tight-knit five-piece was joined by a slew of star guests as they sought to produce a record steeped in raw authenticity and masterful musicianship. Of course, being mates with the world’s most famous drummer helps. On recruiting a Beatle, Shepherd says: “Ringo’s a good friend of mine, I’ve known him for going on 12 years. He asked me in 2012 to play on two songs on his record. When it came time for me to do this record, he and I have talked a lot about him being a huge fan of the blues, so I thought this would be a project he could sink his teeth into. Ringo played on Cut You Loose, which was originally a Buddy Guy and Junior Wells song. The few times that we’ve jammed together have been incredible. Any guitar player would die to be able to turn around and see Ringo Starr playing drums for them.”

As well as Ringo and Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh, Shepherd also welcomed the likes of three-time Grammy winner Keb’ Mo’, funk icon Robert Randolph and Gov’t Mule founder/long-time Allman Brothers Band guitarist Warren Haynes through the studio door. The latter played a key role in the track he guested on, helping to make it get onto the album in the first place.

“The reason we recorded Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody’s Home was because of Warren. Warren and I played together over the years and we did a show in Austin, Texas and a month later in Paris and at the end of the show we jammed together and we played that song. When we looked into this record I asked Warren if he had ever recorded that song and he hadn’t, so I asked if he’d mind if I did that song and if he would come play and sing on it. I was very happy for him to be a part of it.”

As a man that has enjoyed and endured repeated comparisons with Stevie Ray Vaughan throughout his own hugely successful career, it is testament to Shepherd’s strength of character that The House Is Rockin’, from Vaughan’s 1989 In Step album, is included among Goin’ Home’s track listing. But Shepherd admits that it was one that led to some head-scratching and soul-searching.

“At first I wasn’t going to do a Stevie Ray Vaughan song,” he admits. “There’s a lot of people that still try to pass me off as some kind of SRV wannabe. He was instrumental in me being inspired to play the guitar and the time that I met him at seven years old and he sat me on the amp at the side of his stage and let me watch his show, my whole life changed. You learn from your heroes and it’s what you then do with it that defines you as an artist. I’ve done a lot of songs that Stevie Ray Vaughan never would have done. Just to avoid that whole comparison, I was not going to do one of his songs.”

But, drummer Chris Layton, who was at the kit with Vaughan’s Double Trouble for more than a decade, finally helped Shepherd see sense.

“Chris said, ‘How can you do an album of your biggest influences and not put a Stevie Ray Vaughan song on there?’ He was right. Rather than ducking the criticism, I embraced it. Over the years this guy has been a huge influence on me and he always will be. If anyone wants to hate me over that, then they can hate away.”

Given the additional scrutiny that was sure to be on his choice of SRV track, it’s understandable that Layton once again steered the creative ship.

“Chris ultimately made the call to do The House Is Rockin’ and I think that was a great call. At first I didn’t want to change anything about the song, I just wanted to do it as he did it because I couldn’t think of any way to make it better. Then I realised if someone wants to hear the song note for note, they could just listen to Stevie’s version of it. On the solo section my piano player does his own solo and then I pay tribute to Stevie’s original solo, but in the middle of it we made it longer and I interjected some Kenny Wayne Shepherd in it and then we ended it with the Stevie Ray Vaughan solo. We tipped the hat and paid tribute to it. I think we did justice to it and I put my own stamp on it as well.”

Another song that has been very much Kenny Wayne Shepherd-ised is Muddy Waters’ Still A Fool. Clocking in at several minutes longer than the original version, Shepherd’s take has hefty dollops of his rock influence ladled all over Waters’ stripped-back arrangement.

“That one has the most Kenny Wayne Shepherd signature sound to it out of all of them,” he says. “It has some real aggressive, heavy guitars and a hard rock kind of edge to it. That’s why it is the last song on the standard CD. That leaves the listener with the impression that this is what they can expect from the next all-original Kenny Wayne Shepherd album.”

It takes a confident artist to tinker with sacred songs recorded by such titans of blues, but Shepherd has certainly left his mark here. He’s done so while putting himself right up front more than ever, taking lead vocal duties on four songs, Freddie King’s Boogie Man and Can You Hear Me by Lee Dorsey, as well as Still A Fool and The House Is Rockin’.

On his gradual progression from guitar hero happy to stick to the shadows to fully-fledged vocal-handling frontman, he explains that it was his inability to match his idols, rather than a lack of bottle, that previously held him back. “I had the hardest time throughout my childhood with the thought of singing, because I wanted to sound like Muddy Waters and I don’t sound like Muddy Waters,” Shepherd sighs. “Forever I could not accept that, so I was fine with somebody else singing who could do a better job than I did. I have standards for my music and I won’t compromise those standards. And I feel I did the right thing early in my career by having somebody else doing the singing. If I would have tried to do it back then, I might not have had the success I have had. At this point in my career I have started singing more.”

Shepherd admits that it was working with yet another legend that helped him find his vocal confidence. “When I did the [Can’t Get Enough] album with my band The Rides with Stephen Stills and Barry Goldberg, Stephen really pushed me. I had been singing more on my records but he said, ‘You need to do this, man. You need to do this and own it and really step up.’ So I sang half that record and Stephen sang the other half, and every night I was singing half of the show. That really pushed me over the edge and made me comfortable doing it. Now I actually find myself trying to incorporate more songs into the set that I can sing, because I’m really enjoying it!”

This period of maturing into a well-rounded songwriter, guitarist and singer comes at a time in which Shepherd stands proudly among a clutch of mainstream, million-record selling artists that have blues residing deep within their souls. In addressing the state of blues today compared to the heyday of many of the artists featured on Goin’ Home, Shepherd is confident that there’s a bright future ahead.

“The blues is in good hands. There are new generations supporting and playing the blues. I’m very proud to be part of that. I was one of the first of my generation and there’s more than a few of us that started 20 years ago doing this. It is a testament to the longevity of this music that we have had careers that are 20 years and still going. It’s hard to do that with a lot of types of music.”

As our time with Kenny comes to a close, we return to those artists covered on Goin’ Home, the Stevie Ray Vaughans, B.B. Kings, Buddy Guys and Muddy Waters of this world, and what it is about these innovators and their songs that still speak to us after all these years.

“Each one of them created a signature sound for themselves and an identity that was unique to them,” Shepherd offers in response. “From their stage persona, the sound of the voice, the way they play guitar, that’s why they were as big as they were because they were unique. The other day I was driving and I heard Albert King doing a version of a Howlin’ Wolf song. Some of these guys recorded the same songs but each one of them did it in a different way because they had their own approach and their own style. It’s that uniqueness about them that made them who they are – and it’s also the uniqueness about them that helps influence what I do, and hopefully has contributed to the uniqueness that I have.”

Thanks to the deft splicing of the ethos of the icons and his own signature sound on Goin’ Home, Kenny Wayne Shepherd has proven his uniqueness beyond doubt, and also shown that he’s right, the blues certainly is in good hands.

COVERING A CLASSIC

Drummer Chris Layton on re-recording an SRV cut.

“I’ve noticed a lot of people shy away from doing Stevie tunes. At first Kenny hadn’t even put a Stevie song up on the suggestion list. I knew he was a big influence on him. Maybe he had a little bit of doubt about doing a song that would sound like Stevie, but in the end we did a really good version of The House Is Rockin’ and he plays great on it. I said, ‘You’re gonna do a Stevie track, aren’t ya?’ He said, ‘Well, yeah, I should.’ The attitude of that tune and lyrical content were right for Kenny. I thought the approach of how we did it as a Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble song would fit Kenny and this band well. Kenny wanted to sing, as well, so I thought that was a good straight-ahead song, a real rock‘n’roll tune. It was just, ‘Let’s rock it, have a good time, don’t bother knockin’…’ It all fits together real well. The fact that he said, ‘Let’s do that’ and it came off real good is a whole other thing all unto itself. If people want to compare it [to the original] then that’s up to them.

“Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble were a pretty simple band, in our approach. On all of those records we came up with songs at the studio, we didn’t come up with 50 songs and then choose the best 11 and tweak those and tear them apart. We would go, ‘Hey, check out this idea.’ We’d jump on it and take it somewhere. There wasn’t a lot of dissecting. Stevie was like a fountain of inspiration with his playing. He’d pick up his guitar and something different would come out every time. A lot of songs came out like that, something would hit you and you’d just keep on playing. He was very special.”

_Goin’ Home is available now, via Provogue Records. _