Interview: Kenny Wayne Shepherd

Teenage phenom turned blues legend, Kenny Wayne Shepherd burst onto the scene with his revelatory second album, Trouble Is… In the 25 years since, he has added several albums to his catalog, played with some of the greatest blues legends, and developed into a guitar idol himself. Recently, Blues Rock Review had a chance to sit down with KWS and talk about the blues and music in general—past, present, and future.

We’ll start with the obvious things coming up real soon. The second edition of the Backroads Blues Fest gets kicked off during the back end of May up in Bend, Oregon. It’s a traveling show. Who do you have on your lineup, and how many dates do you guys have on schedule so far?

Well, it’s kind of an ever evolving situation. So right now, I don’t have the schedule in front of me, so I could be wrong. I know that we have at least four confirmed now and are working on multiple others. The difference between this year and last year is that last year, we had the same lineup for all of them. This year, we’re going to have some different lineups for different venues. Just so you know, that was always how I envisioned the festival working out. We could do either or, because sometimes it depends on the artists that are involved and their schedules. Sometimes certain artists can commit for a certain amount of shows or a certain period of time, but maybe not for multiple weeks, or a month-long tour. So being open to the idea of not being locked into one specific lineup, it opens up a lot more possibilities of who we can involve.

You’ve spoken about how these types of Blues Festivals were something that you loved growing up. This seems like an extension of your work on the album and also the corresponding documentary 10 Days Out. In the same way that you were influenced by all those musicians, many of whom have since passed on, do you now see yourself and some of your contemporaries as ambassadors of this next generation of blues and rock and roll artists?

Well, by default just because of the fact that we’re still alive, and we’re getting older…nobody escapes time, right? So eventually it’s inevitable that we will become the older generation of artists. And the idea is that you embrace and encourage the new, young up-and-coming artists that will be the future of the genre and the next generation. That’s what all the people who set an example for me did. B.B. King, Pinetop, and Hubert Sumlin…all these blues greats that I became so close with, went out and played with, and performed with, that was the example that they gave me. They were always so encouraging and they embraced me from the very beginning. It was all about continuing the lineage of the music.

So this is an extension of the 10 Days Out project that we first started back in 2007. That’s why we call it the Backroads Blues Fest. It’s kind of a spawn from the 10 Days Out blues from the backroads project. This is the kind of thing I’ve always wanted to do. I think it’s a necessity for this genre. And it gives the fans something really cool to look forward to. The goal is that this happens every year, and that each year will get bigger. I hope it will become a festival that people know is going to bring quality musicians and entertainment, and no matter where we go, and hopefully they’re looking forward to it before we even get there.

One of the guys that is with you on some of these dates, a blues ambassador himself, Joe Bonamassa, how did you meet him?

Well, to be honest with you, Joe and I have known each other so long, I don’t know that either one of us could tell you the first time we met. It’s been a long time. We came up together around the same time. He’s part of my generation of players to play this kind of stuff. We’ve gotten closer and closer in recent years, you know, spending more time together, hanging out, and doing musical things together, which I think is really, really great. It’s a lot of fun. We have a lot of mutual respect for one another, and I think it’s great for the fans. I think it’s great for the genre. The first extensive tour that we did together was the B.B. King Blues Fest Tour. I think it was in 2004. He was opening, we were the middle act, and B.B. was closing. You know, that’s when we spent several weeks out on the road together, hanging out and playing. We’ve just kind of gotten closer as the years have gone by.

Looking at this new crop of artists coming up together, who do you think are some of the brightest players, musicians, artists, whatever you’d like to call them? Do you also find that they have that same type of camaraderie that you and Joe, Eric Gales, and Jonny Lang did?

I think that this generation maybe has even a little more camaraderie. You know, when we were doing it some fans were kind of into this whole rivalry thing. Maybe I don’t know if it was the fans, or if it was the media, or both. But there was a sense that they would kind of pit one against another. It was like, “Kenny versus Jonny,” or “Kenny versus Joe.” Even not too long ago, they were still doing stuff like that. In reality, we always got along just fine—the actual artists themselves. But you don’t see a lot of that nowadays. It’s interesting. It seems like everybody really gets along and has a good time. But there’s a lot of young up and comers. It kind of depends on…it’s not all traditional, B.B. type artists. Solomon Hicks is really good and he has a little bit more of a traditional approach, but also a modern sound. So with what he does we’re happy having him be part of the tour this year, obviously. Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, who was part of the tour last year is blazing a trail for himself. There’s a lot of really great female artists happening right now like Ally Venable and Samantha Fish, both who we had out on the road recently…also Danielle Nicole, and then you have people like Marcus King. I don’t know if Marcus King considers himself to be in the blues category.

But, you know, I don’t necessarily try to put any of us exclusively in the blues category. I think of all of us as artists. Whether it’s myself, Samantha Fish, Ally Venable…anybody that I’ve named…Eric Gales. I mean, we all kind of blur the lines between blues and rock and other genres. So, I think Marcus King is an amazing young guy with killer chops and a great voice, and there’s a lot of them that are coming up, which is good. It’s good. Oh, Joanne Shaw Taylor is another young great female coming up and doing it. Shemekia Copeland is the modern day Queen of The Blues, but she’s more or less part of my generation. There’s a lot of great talent out there. The types of music that we all choose to do might not make the purists happy all the time. But we have a deep appreciation and love for blues music. For me, it’s always been the foundation of all music.

Blues, rock, country blues, that family of genres, at one point in recent American history it was the top genre, the biggest audience. It’s not that way now. Do you think that it has a chance to ever regain that mantle, and does it even matter? What do you see for the genre in its future? How do you see it continuing to exist and perhaps grow?

Well, the music itself is continuing to grow. Growth is inevitable, as long as there’s new people coming into the genre. And the more young people come into it, the more they’re going to want to try and blur the lines themselves and take it into new and different directions. The forefathers of the blues got it, right. They did an amazing job of establishing this genre, but it evolved long before we got here. I mean, blues music started with people singing songs in the fields about suffering, and the things that they were going through back then. Then they got to instruments, and then it was acoustic, and then it evolved to electric. The difference in the sound of Robert Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson versus Albert King and B.B. King is like night and day.

The same will continue to happen as long as new talent continues to show an interest in creating new blues based music. So, you know, I think that it’s going to continue to evolve. I don’t think it’s going anywhere as far as being a premier, mainstream form of music. I think that Bonnie Raitt winning song of the year was certainly a step in the right direction, as far as quality music being recognized, in places like the Grammys. At one time blues was at the top of the heap for popular music, but I don’t think that matters, because this is a genre that’s proven itself. It’s been around for over 100 years. It’s proven that it’s not going anywhere. It can still be very relevant depending upon what the song is, who the artist is, and things like that? So, I don’t think it needs to be number one to still have an impact.

You mentioned a bunch of different artists from different generations whether it’s Bonnie Raitt, Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, you mentioned field songs…it’s a pretty wide range. When you get into an artistic rut is there a specific era or a time period or a sub genre of the blues that you listen to try to rekindle that inspiration?

I just go back to the people that inspired me to play in the first place. So, I’ll go back and listen to some of my old favorites, you know, Albert King and B.B. King records, and Buddy Guy and Hendrix and all the early guys that really just impressed me, and that get me fired up. Listening to that music still affects me in a very similar way today as it did when I was a kid, and was first getting turned on to this genre and this music, and got inspired to learn how to play it. So that’s kind of my home base.

The Backroads Blues Festival kicks off in Bend, Oregon in late May. Kenny what comes after the tour? Do you already have some new songs that you’re gonna bring out on this tour? Are you writing on the road? Do you plan on heading back into the studio to record something anytime soon?

Yeah, I got a new record already finished and is ready to come out. So we’re just trying to figure out the timing for that. We’re going to continue to grow the Backroads Blues Festival while simultaneously continuing to grow our own audience with my band and what we’re doing on our own individual tours. We’re going over to Europe, in April and May of this year for the first time since the pandemic happened. Who knows, maybe one day we can do a Backroads Blues Festival tour in Europe. But there’s no shortage of things on the horizon for us. We got almost two albums worth of brand new material that’s ready to go in addition to a couple of different cover albums that we’ve already recorded. We had so much fun doing them. I’m pretty sure those albums will see the light of the day for sure, because they came out pretty good. So we got multiple albums on the horizon. We did the 25th anniversary of my second album Trouble is…, and by the time we’re finished with all this we’ll be knocking on the front door of the 30th anniversary of the Ledbetter Heights album. We’re talking about maybe doing a similar tour to celebrate the 30th anniversary of my first album as well.

Kenny, any final thoughts?

We appreciate all the fans and their support over the years. Fans of mine and the people who love this kind of music. They’re the reason why I’m able to do the things that I’m doing like Backroads Blues Festival and to use my platform to help some of these younger artists get more exposure. You know, it sounds very cliche, but without any of the fans none of it would be possible. And I’m full, very well aware of that and very grateful.

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