Earlier this month, Kenny Wayne Shepherd released Lay It on Down, an album that broadened his sound more than any of his previous releases, touching on soul, country and hard rock. The guitarist made a name for himself as a teenager, focusing on modern electric blues, and managed to perform alongside icons like B.B. King and Buddy Guy, while releasing albums and touring practically nonstop for over two decades.
We caught up with Shepherd while he was on tour in Norway for a conversation about his growth as a singer and a lyricist, what he learned from B.B. King, and the album he played to drive his grandpa nuts.
AllMusic: It's good that I was the first one on this call, because the hold music was your new single, and you've probably heard it enough.
Kenny Wayne Shepherd: I try not to record stuff that I don’t like. Some musicians really don’t like listening to their own records. Actors have a problem watching themselves sometimes, too. I try not to overanalyze things, I think that’s what gets people, when they start saying, “I could have done this, I should have done that,” or whatever, so when I put it out, I’m done with it. I enjoy listening to it with no regrets or second-guessing it.
AllMusic: Did you feel that way from the start or did that come with experience?
Shepherd: Going all the way back to my first record, I still enjoy listening to that album. I don’t go around blasting my own music all the time, but any time it comes on or if my kids want to listen to it, I can listen to my albums top to bottom, and I enjoy them. Somebody told me early on as my career was just getting started, "Don’t let anybody talk you into doing something that you don’t believe in or that you’re not absolutely sure about." Then I figured out why; my first album was very successful, and as a result, I’m still playing songs off of that record almost 25 years later. The moral of the story is, you don’t want to compromise your musical integrity or beliefs, because if you allow yourself to be talked into doing something that you’re not sure about, and then you have a hit with it, then you have to play it for the rest of your life, so you need to make sure that you really dig what you’re doing.
AllMusic: Did you ever have to put your foot down about something like that?
Shepherd: Not really. I’ve always dictated the path from the get-go. In the very beginning, there was a lot of pressure from people, “If you’re going to be successful doing this, you have to sing,” and I wasn’t comfortable with the sound of my voice at that time, that wasn’t the voice I heard on my records, and I was insistent that somebody else do the singing. That was an example of how from day one I was not going to let myself be pressured into doing something that I felt otherwise about.
AllMusic: Have you always felt comfortable as a lyricist?
Shepherd: I’ve always written poetry since I was a kid, and a big part of writing songs is finding the right way to put poetry to music. In the very beginning, I was a little self-conscious. It’s revealing to put yourself out there with your songs, especially when they’re personal. And as a young person, I needed a bit of navigating to help me tell the stories I wanted to tell. From my first record, I hooked up with a number of different songwriters, and eventually found collaborations that worked really well. Other people inevitably bring something out of me that would not have come out otherwise if I was left to my own devices writing the songs, and it’s also good for support. If I’m having an off day but there’s a writing session scheduled, maybe that person’s having a very productive day and they can lift the session up a bit. I like writing with other people; I write stuff by myself but I tend to prefer collaborating.
And I sing a lot more now, too. Since my fourth record, I sang almost that whole album, and from then on, I’ve sang lead vocals to varying degrees on each record. But I’m involved in every aspect of my career, from songwriting to lyrics to vocal melodies, producing, arrangements, finding the members of the band, the tour, the business, approving this, the merchandise, all of that. It’s my business, and nobody’s really going to be able to make the decisions. My dad and I have been partners from day one, and he’s done a really good job of steering the ship most of my life. I got more involved as I got older in every aspect of my career, because who better to run it than me?
AllMusic: Luckily it sounds like you got a good dad, not a shady stage dad.
Shepherd: He’s a good dude, we’ve had a great run, and we’re very close. We had to go through a lot of family experiences along with business experiences, too. I was a teenager trying to be my own man, figure out what that means, and then being successful and having a business and touring and everything that comes with that, but we navigated our way through all of it, and we’re still very close, and we still run the business together, so everything ended up great.
AllMusic: You've said that you've been working on embracing subtlety in your playing a bit more. Would you have had the ability to sit back on song like "Hard Lesson Learned" if you'd written it 20 years ago?
Shepherd: I did my first record and I was just blown away to have the opportunity to make the record, and it was successful, and then everybody started telling me about the sophomore slump, and I was determined to really plant my flag and get my space in the music world, so I went into the studio with something to prove. But I don’t feel I have to prove that to anybody anymore, and it’s great when you’re young to have that kind of motivation and that drive and passion to show everybody what you’ve got, but that’s when you look at a guy and say, “He’s young, he’s energetic, he has talent, but there’s still stuff to learn,” so I’ve spent the last 25 years learning, and I think it’s benefited my playing.
AllMusic: You're calling from Norway, how is Scandinavia as a market for the blues?
Shepherd: Europeans supported blues music and musicians during an era when Americans were looking for something else. Blues music was mainstream music when it first became popular, and when that started to die down and people were getting into the rock and roll of the 60s and the disco of the 70s, America didn’t have a lot of support for blues music, and the Europeans supported them. I think a lot of them learned about blues music because of people like Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and Jeff Beck, these people who became huge stars over here that were totally influenced by people like Muddy Waters and B.B. King and Albert King and Robert Johnson and all these blues musicians that they gave so much credit to.
AllMusic: You've toured with several blues icons; did you get the sense that they were still learning?
Shepherd: B.B. certainly had his sound, but when I played with him, he always tried to play something different. Sometimes I’d be going up onstage with him every single night, for weeks, and he was playing something different every night, which tells me that he’s still searching. Early in my career, we had been on the road nonstop, and one night I realized I’d played the exact same show, note-for-note, as I had been doing it, and I said, “If I do this the exact same way every night, I’m not going to progress, I’m not seeking, I’m not searching for new and different things.” So I made a promise to myself that I’d never play the same show the same way twice.
AllMusic: You've played on the Experience Hendrix shows, which feature all different kinds of players. Do you intentionally avoid picking things up from someone like, say, Zakk Wylde, if they seem too far outside your purview?
Shepherd: There’s always something you can learn from anybody, no matter what their style of playing is. Zakk has a huge talent, so I guarantee that there’s things that he plays or has played that if I wanted to, I could go and take some of that and incorporate it into what I do and it would bring something new to my arsenal. So there’s always somebody that can do something else, if you keep your ears and eyes open.
AllMusic: Going through your photos over the years, there never seems to have been a specific Kenny Wayne Shepherd "costume."
Shepherd: Yeah, for better or for worse, I’ve gone with whatever I felt like wearing at the time. Sometimes it’s been more dressy and sometimes it’s been way more casual. Back in the 90s, I had an Adidas endorsement, so I was wearing Adidas windbreakers and stuff onstage, and I think most people look back at the 90s and find some photo of themselves wearing something they’re embarrassed about. I would never go up wearing a windbreaker onstage now, we have more of an edgy rock vibe to what we’re all wearing now, but I’ve never felt like having to have a specific uniform to go out and do what I do. The music needs to speak for itself, but I do take into consideration my appearance, a lot more now than back then, even. We owe it to the fans and to ourselves to walk out and be professional, act professional and dress professional, which doesn’t mean you have to wear a suit and tie, but just come out trying to look your best.
AllMusic: When you debuted, every review had to mention your age. Were you eager to get older so that people would stop referencing it so much?
Shepherd: I was never bothered by it, because people wanted to talk to me, so I was just grateful that people were interested in what I was doing. Age was always a factor, because the music I was doing, from my earliest recollections of trying to play music, I wanted to play blues music and people were always baffled by it, because I was a kid, so age was always a factor. “What is this kid doing playing blues music, what does he know about blues music?” But I understood the curiosity. What’s crazy is that even now, I’m 40 years old, and almost every article that’s written about me still mentions my age, but that is who I am. It’s my story, it’s my life, and maybe there’s going to be someone who’s going to read that and still be finding out about me for the first time and it will be interesting for them.
AllMusic: You talked about working closely with your dad on your career. Did you ever get into any music that annoyed him?
Shepherd: I never intentionally tried to annoy my dad with music; we really saw eye-to-eye on the music we listened to. His dad, on the other hand, my grandfather, I’d go into his room and I’d take out the vinyl of ZZ Top’s Fandango! and put it on the player and crank it up and be jumping on his bed, playing air-guitar to that album, and he’d be yelling down the hall, “Turn that stuff down!” It was the typical scenario of the old guy yelling at the kid to turn that loud rock and roll down, that certainly happened.