Interview: Kenny Wayne Shepherd, an Insight to Music, Career and Family

Sometimes you just know you are in the presence of greatness. I recently experienced this moment watching Kenny Wayne Shepherd and his band perform September 4, 2014 at the Turning Stone Showroom in Verona, N.Y . It was one of those moments you just automatically realize you’re in the presence of a legend; a history maker; a significant part of a musical phenomenon. His ability to entrance his audiences by drawing them in to each and every note and keep them on the edge of their seats is mesmerizing. Now add to the mix a collection of the most talented musicians of the same caliber, and you have the perfect storm.

Kenny Wayne Shepherd - Turning Stone
Kenny Wayne Shepherd – Turning Stone

I had an opportunity prior to the show to speak with Kenny and ask him a few questions. A little tongue-tied and star struck, I found him kind, patient, accommodating, a true professional, and one of nicest and most humble individuals I’ve met. He made me feel right at ease immediately as we spoke about his career, his family, and his passion for music and cars.

Kathy Stockbridge – NYS Music:   Hi Kenny…thank you so much for agreeing to speak with NYS Music. We really appreciate it. We’re extremely excited about you coming to the Turning Stone, and doing the show for us here in Central NY. I have to say I’m kinda late to the party as I just discovered you one day when I was watching tv. I believe it was a documentary on Palladia or AXS, and I must say I was amazed. You blew me away. So I am really excited to be covering the show tonight, and bringing the review and interview to our readers at NYS Music. Thank you so much.

….after discovering you, I was super impressed to learn that you are completely self-taught. Talk to me a little about how that came about.

Kenny Wayne Shepherd:   Well I just play by ear. I don’t read music. I learned to play songs by sounding songs out literally one note at a time, and piecing these songs together literally from the first note to the last note, which was a tedious process.

KS:   Yes, I imagine it was. When I read about the process…you listened to the music, and then turned off the tape and learned the notes…getting that one down pat and then turning on the tape to listen and learn the next one.. it gives me hope I will be able to pick up an instrument and teach myself how to play one day, that it can be done. Very impressive.

So after teaching yourself to do that, at the age of 13 you were discovered and got your first record deal? Talk to me a little about that.

KWS:   When I when I was thirteen a friend of ours Bill Fordam, he was a record producer, saw me play down in New Orleans when I was a kid. He asked my dad have you ever thought about taking this kid into the studio and making a record? So that was when I was thirteen. And when I was 14, I actually went in and did my first demo recording which Bill produced. Then when I was 15 I put my band together and started doing live shows. Then when I was 16 I actually signed my record deal.

KS:   You grew up in Lousiana, which is the heart and soul of jazz and blues and R&B. How much of that influenced what you play today and what you like to play?

KWS:   I think a lot of it. I mean, I was exposed to all kinds of music because my dad was in radio, so he played a lot music on the radio, and we went to a lot of concerts. And being that I’m from Shreevport, its like is a perfect location. Shreevport has a rich musical heritage itself, but we would make road trips all the time and drive down to New Orleans to see live music; or go to Dallas, Texas and see live music; or Austin, Texas; or Memphis, Tennessee.  We’re surrounded by all these music cities, in addition to all the great music being generated in my hometown as well. I had a pretty rich childhood.

KS:   Do you find yourself being drawn to that genre, that type of music, or do you like to mix in different genres to make your own sound?

KWS:   Well, my first real love musically is blues and traditional blues music, and that’s always the foundation of everything I create.  But sometimes we’ll push our music into different directions mixing in rock.  Makes it a little bit more contemporary and opens up more possiblities.

KS:   Now you’ve collaborated with some of the most influential blues and r&b musicians in the world, and had the opportunity to open for huge name bands such as Aerosmith, Bob Dylon, Rolling Stones, I mean HUGE acts. ..What makes them stand out…the ones you’ve collaborated with, the ones you want to collaborate with in the future..what are you looking for this point and time in your career?

KWS:   Well I don’t know. I’ve really gotten to play with just about everybody I could think I think I ever could have wanted to play with. So at this point I’m not really sitting around with a pen and paper thinking, hmm… who else I can go play with..Really Im just focusing on my own music and challenging myself musically every time we make a record, and every time we walk out on stage and perform no matter who we are playing with.

KS:   So what is your creative process like right now…do you like to sit down and jam with the band, or do you put something together in your head and then go and record it, or how do you..?

KWS:   All of the above…when we go and do sound checks every day before the shows, we start jamming on something totally spontaneous and that always helps come up with ideas. But then other times, it’s just me sitting at home with a guitar and I usually when I pick up a guitar more than five minutes, then usually something starts coming out, something new. Then what’s great is having the technology we have today..with my phone I have the ability to record my ideas on the spot so I don’t forget them.  Since I don’t’ read music, it’s not like I can write them down on paper.  So it’s a big help. But usually it generally starts with music, then lyrics, then vocals and such and matter of things like that come after.

KS:   Well I read that this new music you are touring with, the Going Home album, was recorded in between gigs on an eleven day stint at is this different from some of your previous albums, and what were you trying to achieve with this new album?

KWS:   Well this album is really us paying tribute and showing our respect and appreciation for artists in particular that have influenced me over the years and their music.  So it’s us doing our versions of their songs, and its kinda like the soundtrack of my childhood. These are all songs that I grew up listening to as a kid, that I cut my teeth learing how to play guitar listening to these songs. So it was a lot of fun. We did this album all live in the studio.  We recorded it the old-fashioned way on two-inch tape, and we didn’t use any modern trickery like auto tune or anything like that. It’s really an honest album, recorded in the studio..the original recordings, and I think the end result is a really fun record to listen to.  And it’s certainly going over well in the live shows.

KS:   I am really looking forward to hearing it live. Now you have a really great band behind you, just tons and tons of talent up on that stage. How did you guys all come together? Did you collect them as you went along? Did you just find each other? You’ve been together now for a while haven’t you?

KWS:   Well every situation is unique you know. I had a different guy sing lead vocals on my first album, and on the second album is when Noah and I met and he’s been in the band now seventeen years. Chris I met when I was 15 or 16 the first time I played down in Austin, Texas at Antones. I opened for this man, Bill Carter, who wrote a couple Stevie Ray Vaughn songs, and Chris was playing with him that night. That was the first time I met Chris.  We became friends, and he played on my first record with me, and has played on almost every record since. He’s been in the touring band for 7 or 8 years now full-time which is great. And Riley?   Chris recommended Riley, so that’s how we met Riley. And Tony? I met Tony because Tony was actually working at Fender Musical Instruments. He was an artist representative over there.  He decided he wanted to get back into playing music so he joined the band.

KS:   You have been credited in bringing back a new generation into jazz and blues.  As a child growing up in an area where it was abundant, what appealed to you about that genre? How do you bring the audiences now that appeals to them today?

KWS:   I think for me as a kid I identified with music because music is about as real as it gets.  Straight from the heart. And when people play music from the heart,  it’s like the most organic place it can happen.  Age doesn’t play a factor.  As far as our music, I think we have a fresh take on the music just by the way we interpret it.  I think that people dig it.

KS:   I think so too. Personally I think this generation is more open to a variety of music.  More so than previous generations.  I have a son that is 16, and he and his friends listen to anything and everything from early Beatles to rap and hip hop. I find I appreciate their openness to listen to all types of music, especially blues and jazz.
Youre a family man as well  How do you do with juggling the touring , the recording, the family and the kids. How have you worked this part out?

KWS:   That’s the challenge for me now. Tying to find the right balance. I have a commitment to my fans, and I certainly have a commitment to my family; and trying to be able to fulfill my obligations to both and never leave one or the other neglected. Sometimes my family will come out and travel with me on the road when it’s possible.  Some of my kids are in school, so some times that’s not possible.  It’s really just trying to look ahead when we book the tours, and scheduling my work, and make sure there’s also consideration taken into account for the family so that I can be there for them. And trying to not be gone too much.

KS:   Do your children show any signs of being musically inclined?

KWS:   Oh yeah!

KS:   Naturally talented huh?

KWS:   It’s definitely in their blood.  But it’s not anything I’m trying to push or really even encouraged that much as no one encouraged me to do it.  I did it.  I was drawn to it, and I did it because I wanted to.  And I did it because I loved to do it. And I feel like if they want to, they’ll find their way.

KS:   I have to say most musicians I have spoken to say it’s something they knew they would always do…there was never a back up plan. It was just something they always knew they wanted to do.  And it just happened.

Is there anything new on the horizon we should be looking forward to here?

KWS:   Yah, at the end of this year I’ll be going into the studio again with another band that I have, called The Rides. Stephen Stills and Barry Goldberg and I put a band together last year and put a record out under the name of The Rides.  We’ll be going into the studio this winter, and doing a second album that will come out next year. So we’ll be on the road next year promoting that. And then soon after that, I will be back in the studio with my band making another record with my band.

KS:   Oh my are a really busy person! I really appreciate you agreeing to speak with us. I try to give my readers an insight into those I interview that is outside the realm of music and more on a personal level. If you don’t mind playing along I have a quick speed round of questions I ask…you don’t have to…but we would love it if you could.

KWS:  We’ll see.

Social Speed Round

KS:  Your on tour and have a day off to do anything in the area you are in you ? 1. Catch up on sleep 2. Hit the road and sightsee 3. Or this..

KWS:   For me on my day off I exercise then we try to find some place local to eat that has that “you only can find in that town atmosphere”.  We like to find something unique that you only can experience in that area we are visiting.

KS:  You have a chance to be on a reality tv choose this show to show off your…

KWS:   If I was on any reality tv show it would have to do with cars because I’m a huge car it would have to be something to do with cars.

KS:  Go to food on the road?

KWS:   Tripple expresso

KS:   Go to food at home?

KWS:   I actually just started using my vegetable juicer and I started buying all these organic vegetables and like throwing them in this juicer. I have a hard time eating vegetables. But I have a very easy time drinking them. I’ve realling got into juicing since going back home.  The first thing I do is bust out the juicer and make my own vegetable juice. That way I don’t have to eat them.

KS:  Dogs/cats/or snakes?

KWS:   Dogs!  I have a mix…half beagle and half terrier so he looks like a baby golden lab..He’s like 7 years old and full grown..but he looks like a puppy.

KS:   A few names currently on your playlist?

KWS:   Nothing too exciting.. the same stuff you know…like Muddy Waters and Jimmy Hendrics . There is a young rock band though that I’ve been listening to the other day on my phone called Rival Sons.  They’re pretty good,  straight head young rock band.

KS:  Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us. We are stoked for your performance tomorrow night, and look forward to bringing our readers the highlights.

Kenny Wayne Shepherd - Turning Stone
Kenny Wayne Shepherd – Turning Stone

As I reflected upon our interview and sat there watching Kenny, Noah Hunt, Chris Layton, Tony Franklin, and Riley Osborne, I couldn’t help counting my blessings to be experiencing this moment.  A lover of all types of music, there is something about Kenny and his band and their music that touches your soul.  It reaches inside you and you truly experience the music.  As he played covers of some of his favorite songs such as House is Rockin’ by Stevie Ray Vaugh and his BB Medley, as well as original favorites such as Deja Voodoo and Blue on Black the combination of Noah’s sultry sexy voice and Kenny’s ability to shred like no other, draws you in and definitely puts you under a spell.  I definitely was transfixed.

Kenny Wayne Shepherd - Turning Stone
Kenny Wayne Shepherd – Turning Stone

KWS Set List: Never Looking Back > Somehow > Everything is Broken > House is Rockin’ > Search and Destroy > Heat o the Sun > Talk To Me Baby > Can’t Judge A Book > Breaking Up Somebody’s Home > Looking Back > BB Medley > Shotgun > Encore – Blue On Black > King Bee > Oh Well > Voodoo

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