There is no point in trying to deny that we have all, at a certain point of our youth, made big dreams about life. It's part of our DNA and we can't help it. For most of us, those dreams, through the years, settle into a more common everyday's dynamic, with bills to be paid, a family to look after etc.
For some others, though, those dreams become a wonderful reality. If you are a musician in your teenage years and you find yourself in a world where you get to grow up surrounded by the attention and the consideration of artists of the stature of B.B. King and Stevie Ray Vaughan and have someone like James Brown writing his thoughts about you on the sleeve notes of your debut album, that means that you might be someone really special.
Kenny Wayne Shepherd IS that special. The Louisiana-born Guitar Prodigy and singer/songwriter has deservedly earned that respect and consideration given by his protegees at an early stage of his career throughout the last quarter of a century, thanks not only to his formidable talent as a guitarist but also to the quality of his bodies of work, shifting from a more raw Blues and Blues/Rock approach to music in a more, especially in later years, expanded musical dimension, where genres like Blues and Rock can live happily together with layers of Soul, Country and R&B as well, still maintaining his own, distinctive sound.
With a new album out called The Traveler, Shepherd has followed brilliantly the sonic path that brought the new album's predecessor, the 2017 album Lay It On Down to the top of the Blues/Rock charts of half the world, this time, raising the level of his songs, lyrically and musically, to a remarkable peak of excellence of talent and artistic maturity.
Bluebird Reviews meets Shepherd backstage, during one of the Tour dates part of his European Tour, to talk about the making of the Guitar Maestro's new album. The first question that comes to mind is about Shepherd working again with co-producer Marshall Altman on the making of The Traveler and whether the choice was dictated by the commercial success of Shepherd's previous album, Lay It On Down or, perhaps, because the Guitar Maestro felt natural working with Altman once again because he felt that The Traveler was the natural "segue" of the Lay it On Down album. "We actually decided it long ago, when we were doing the Lay It On Down album. Marshall and I were talking about the next album, therefore we were already planning on working together for whatever the next album was going to be. Just as we have finished this record (The Traveler), he and I are already talking about the next album! I just really like working with him, you know. He just brings something kind of new and different to the table. He is a hard worker and he is there every step of the way. There is a certain vibrancy about him, you know. He likes to get people excited and he brings also a kind of young and youthful approach to the music as well, which I think is good. We really have a productive working relationship and I don’t see any reason to stop that working relationship now. I was very pleased about how well the Lay It On Down record went. It is a great album and also commercially did really well. The Traveler album is really a good example of how, by working together again, it helped to bring in full focus where all our strengths are and I genuinely think that is one of the reasons why the new album is so good".
One of the greatest things about songs, is that everyone feel them on a personal level in a different way than the one intended by the artists who wrote them. The Traveler, to our website, it gives a feeling of movement, intended in many different ways, like, moving forward in one's personal life or even career. We ask Shepherd whether he felt, while working on the making of The Traveler, that most of the lyrics of the album had a common pattern, almost like a concept album would. "It wasn’t necessarily my intention at all. I just try to do and write whatever song I feel inspired to write, you know, but generally, the messages in my songs are a little more positive but also, as I am getting older, kind of reflecting on my life or the things that I have seen or experiences or lessons that I have learned, things like that. Just like you said, for every song, the interpretation can be different for each listener and that’s one of the great things about music. For me, is that we can write a song about one thing but, someone who is listening to it, they can apply the lyrics in a completely different way into their lives, which is beautiful".
Photo courtesy of Greg Logan
One of the most welcome innovations, in The Traveler album, was Shepherd playing once again slide guitar, something that he had not done since his 1999 album Live On. Is this something that many of the Guitar Maestro fans are likely to hear in the near future on Shepherd's next releases? "(Smiles) I don’t know about that. I like to play slide but I am not a great slide guitar player. If you think about all these guys like Derek Trucks, such an amazing slide player; Johnny Winter, another extraordinary slide player. Me, I just can do enough to fake it (smiles again)! I’ll do it when I hear it and I feel it like it is the only sound that will fit a specific song, but I have never been happy with my vibrato on slide, I haven’t quite mastered the control of it. I feel a little less inclined to use it that often. I am a bit of a perfectionist and when I hear guys that can play it, like Derek Trucks, for example, I hold myself to that standard and I can’t play it like him, so it gets a little discouraging, you know (smiles)".
In the sleeve notes of Shepherd's new album, there is a very touching tribute to two people sadly no longer with us and very close to the singer/songwriter and guitarist, artistically and personally, Paul Allen and Mark Selby. The latter was, in particular, somebody that has been co-writing songs with Shepherd since Day One of the artist's career. For that reason only, it must have been particularly hard for Shepherd to include, in his new album, a song like Gravity, co-written with Selby, a tune that felt like a conscious swansong written by that amazing artist and songwriter (Selby passed sadly away in 2017 from cancer). "When we wrote that song, Mark was in the midst of the cancer that took him away from us and it was interesting that some of the songs that we were writing at that time and some of the messages that were coming out were really powerful. You know, Mark and Tia (Sellers, Selby's wife and also co-writer of some of Shepherd's songs) both had such a way with lyrics. They can write so many different meanings in one song's lyrics. I remember, about that specific song, that I was kind of watching that song taking shape at that time and wondering myself what the true meaning might have been, behind that song, as we were writing it. I really wanted to include several songs that we had written together, in particular the ones we have written over the last year of his life and I strongly wanted them to be part of this record, because I felt that was important. His presence in my life goes all the way back to when I was writing my very first song, so I felt that it was very important that he would be a big part of this record. There are more songs that we have written together that we have not released yet so we'll see when the right time is, to bring those out. It's a devastating loss for me and especially, of course, for Tia because he was her husband. The three of us together really molded and shaped the true sound of the Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band since the early days so, you know, that landscape has now changed and I fully intend on continuing to keep Tia involved but Tia and I have never written without Mark before so it's a kind of a new scenario for us, so we will see what happen".
A lot of people has been asking Shepherd, through the years, about his musical and personal relationship with the late great B.B.King but not so many have asked the Louisiana-born artist about another of his all-time music heroes, Stevie Ray Vaughan. Bluebird Reviews was wondering whether Shepherd got to know Vaughan as well as B. B. King on a personal level and, if so, whether Vaughan gave him any useful advice, when they met. "The best piece of advice that he ever gave me was the message that he wrote on my guitar, when he signed it. He said "To Kenny, just play it with all your heart" and that's what I try to do every time, when I walk out on a stage. I worry and focus more on playing with heart and soul, rather than thinking about accuracy, because I try and transfer that emotion that comes straight from your guts that helps people feeling music in the same way we feel it on stage. That's probably one of the greatest pieces of advice anybody has ever given me and it has been at the core of my approach to playing guitar from the very beginning. I didn't get to know him the way I would have liked to, because that time, when he signed my guitar, it was the last time I ever saw him and not very long before the day he passed away. But I do feel very fortunate and privileged about having had the opportunity to watch him playing and meeting him many times. The impact that he had on me, it put my life on a path and he is definitely very responsible for me, to do what I do".
Speaking of music heroes, Jimi Hendrix has always been another of Shepherd's most favorite music artists of all time, so much so that he finishes every live performances by playing, as an Encore, one of Hendrix's classics, Voodoo Child. Given the excitement and the body language that goes on stage, when Shepherd plays that song, our website was wondering what kind of emotional catharsis takes place into Shepherd's heart and soul, every time he plays that song, night after night. "There are certain songs that are so great, like Voodoo Child, that are always fun to play and to me, that is the greatest guitar anthems ever written, you know. That song never gets old, like even if we were playing that song tonight in the same way we played it the previous night, it still feels like a fun song to play. That's one of the most amazing aspects about that song and also the fact that it provides a wide open musical gate for improvisations. Even if we, say, do something different in a spontaneous way for 40 or 60 seconds, night after night, on that song than we did the previous night, it still feels like a lot of a fun thing to do".
The Traveler is a wonderfully crafted record on many levels. Our website is curious to know whether there were challenges of any sort, from a sonic point of view, especially, when recording the new album. "It was more about getting used to the studio, to be honest with you. I had worked in that studio something like 8 or 9 years ago and, at the time, I just did some overdubs there, never an entire album. So, getting to know the room and getting familiar to multiple setups for the band, like, in one side of the room there was a completely different sound than the other side, so we were trying to figure out which one sounded best and worked best for the band. The first three days, they were a bit of a challenge to get everything right with setups but once we figured everything out, it was all very productive".
The way that Shepherd's life and career so far has been constantly flowing into new sonic directions, it feels almost like having the foot all the way down on the accelerating pedal of one of Shepherd's many fast cars (Shepherd has been collecting cars for quite some time) on an imaginary never ending highway. Before we part company with one of the most talented Blues/Rock artists of this generation, we ask Shepherd whether he feels like still "traveling fast", in his personal life, paraphrasing one of the verses included in that splendid ballad that is Tailwind or, through the years, has he learned to shift the gears down a little and enjoy the ride for a little longer. "Well, the answer is both, because I like the adrenaline of driving fast in a safe environment, of course but, you know, you get this thrill when you put that pedal all the way down and if you are always safe and careful, then you are never gonna get that feeling. But, at the same time, I have also learned to grow up and enjoy the scenery, as it goes by and soak it up. I would say, yes, pretty much both but, the real question is, "How long can it go on for?", you know, because I have seen guys like B.B. King that was going well into his eighties or guys like Buddy Guy or even people like Pinetop Perkins, who was well in his nineties still playing his music, before he passed. So, I guess that the question yet to be answered is more, will I be 90-years old and still trying to have that pedal all the way down or, will i like to take a step back, at some point and just relax, a little bit? Nobody knows answers like that, I guess, unless we meet again in half a century and you ask me again the same question"!
The Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band is currently touring Europe and the whole of the Tour Dates for Europe and the rest of the world, they can be find at Shepherd's Official Website