One of modern blues' most iconic names, Grammy nominated guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd has sold millions of albums worldwide, and has supported icons such as The Rolling Stones, The Eagles, Bob Dylan, Aerosmith, BB King and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Back with new album ‘The Traveller’, gone is the young Louisiana gunslinger who erupted onto the early-’90s scene with his burn-it-down guitar solos and gut-punch song craft, replaced by a world-wisened, more pensive figure. We caught up with Kenny to chat the new set, guitars, and his return to Ramblin’ Man Fair festival. Takin’ it on home; Eamon O’Neill.
Hi Kenny, how are you today?
I’m good, thanks. I’m on the streets of Los Angeles. We have a house here and we have a house back in Louisiana too, so we kind of split it up between the two.
So you’re a bit of a ‘traveller’ then?
[*Laughing*] How ironic! That’s good.
You’re gearing up for the release of new album ‘The Traveller’; are you excited to get it out?
Yeah, I am. Obviously, we’re really proud of it, and I think there’s a lot of great music on there. I’m always anxious for it to get into people’s hands and see what they think about it. So far it seems that the reaction has been universally good. I’m excited to be able to add some of these new songs into the set list of the live shows too. We just finished up a few days’ worth of rehearsal working these songs out, and a lot of them are sounding really good for the live shows. So that’s another thing that comes along with putting out a new record; is being able to play the new music live.
You’re coming over to Europe shortly for a run of summer dates.
Yes, absolutely, and I think we’re already planning - they’ll be announcing if they haven’t already - there’s another European tour that they’re booking that’ll be coming through, I think, in the autumn. But yeah, we’ve been coming over there, pretty consistently for the last six years or so, and we’ve been watching a steady build in the attendance of the shows, and the venues that we’ve been playing have been progressively getting better, and just kind of working up that ladder. It’s kind of cool for me because you know, we have been for a long time really well established here in the US, but to be almost thirty years into my career and to be able to watch this growth still happening, is actually pretty exciting.
Have you found it a challenge coming back and starting almost from ground level again?
Well, you know, not really. The only problem was at first, was my band. I mean, we have like top shelf musicians. Like, these are guys that are legendary musicians; my drummer’s a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame! So, most of the time when you’re starting at the ground floor, you don’t have that kind of people in the band, and that level of overhead; that kind of travel that we’re accustomed to, so the challenge at first was not coming in and playing smaller venues – because we’ve all done it before, so that’s not a problem, and our egos’ are not so big – it’s just the overhead and the expense. So we just had to like, really suck it up for a while until the momentum built enough to where it started also making financial sense as well. So it’s been good, the investment and the hard work is paying off, so that’s great.
Moving on to ‘The Traveller’, and although you’re primarily known as a blues player, there’s a range of influences apparent on the new album.
Well, yeah, and on the last record as well. My music has always been known for mixing blues and rock, and sometimes we’ll go a little more in the traditional vein of blues, and then sometimes we go a little more contemporary, but this one has got a nice kind of mix of everything. I mean, look, I love blues music and that’s my favourite genre, but I grew up listening to all kinds of music; everything from jazz to country to funk and gospel, blues and rock, and everything in between. So, all of that stuff contributes to who you become as an artist, and the songs that you write and record. So, you can hear some of those other influences creeping out in some of the more recent music that we’re writing and recording.
Album opener ‘Woman Like You’ has a definite country kick to it.
Well, if you listen to the song, it’s pretty much straight up rock, or blues rock in my opinion; it’s just the phrasing of the chords is what I think people are honing in on. And I will say that that’s one thing about modern country that they do very well; that they have a way in their phrasing that’s very catchy. There’s a lot of little things in the way they write their songs that really sticks in your mind. So we are certainly incorporating some of that into what we’re doing. Modern day country doesn’t sound like country that I grew up with. It’s completely different than what country music of today is. You know, country music of today sounds a lot like 90s’ rock and roll music. It’s interesting everybody says they hear this heavy country influence - and there certainly is some of that, because I write with people from Nashville - but at the same time, there’s a lot of rock elements in modern day country music as well.
There’s a lot soul, and more than a little melancholy in the acoustic ‘Tailwind’.
Yeah, that one, that’s a really lyrically complex song, but with a very positive message. I don’t get into politics in my music, but this one does have a universal message of love and acceptance. It’s like; we’re all human beings; we have different backgrounds and come from different places, but we’re all living live day to day, and that’s the journey. We’re all travellers navigating this experience of life, and that’s really the whole point behind the song.
That one track was the starting point for the whole album.
Well, I think it’s certainly an important track. I mean, the message, again, is a really great one, and the lyrical depth is there, in a great way. So I think it’s a great song to have inspired the title of the album.
You’ve covered Buffalo Springfield’s ‘Mister Soul’, which sprang from a live appearance you made alongside Stephen Stills and Neil Young.
Oh, that was awesome. I mean, to play that song on stage with those two guys was like, a really fun moment for me. It was really exciting, and the reason why we recorded this song was because I was so moved by that experience. It was such a cool moment, so I thought let’s go in the studio and do it, and this is my way of paying tribute to that experience.
You of course play alongside Stephen Stills in The Rides; is there any future activity planned from the band?
Yeah, Barry Goldberg [keyboards] and I have already written some songs for the next record together. Stephen and I both, were very, very busy last year, and so it’s just been a matter of us trying to get together and have the right opening in our schedule to do some more writing and recording. So, we’ve all talked about it, and we all want to do a third album; it’s just a matter of finding the right time in the schedule. So, I think if it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen December / January; at the end of this year / the beginning of next year.
Regarding guitars, and is there a go-to set of instruments you like to use, or does it change from album to album?
I think it kind of changes from album to album, but I certainly have a lot of go-to instruments. I mean, my ’61 Strat is certainly one of my go-to instruments. All my vintage Strats; a ’58, a ’59, are used, but then I brought in a bunch of my custom shop Strats; my previous signature series that I had with Fender, and we have a new one that’s coming out, I think, next year, and I brought one of the prototypes in and used that on a couple of songs. And then I used a couple of Les Paul’s, and then a Gibson ES-335. So in the studio, it’s certainly about what is going to get you the right sound for the right song.
In terms of amp set up, what do you use in the studio?
Well, all the amps that I have been using have been built by this guy Alexander Dumble, and he’s like one of the greatest amp builders on the planet. He takes various Fender amplifiers and he basically uses the cabinet and the chassis but he builds his own entire custom circuit inside of it. I lined up about five or six of those amps in the studio and was running them all at the same time, and then we would just take a blend of the two or three best sounding amps for that song. So, that’s pretty much consistently what I’ve been doing in the studio for the past several years.
Are you someone who places a lot of value the instrument, or do you see them as as tools of your trade?
Ah, well, the value is what it is, but to me, first and foremost, it’s a tool of the trade. It’s a vehicle for the right sound, and it either fits the bill or it doesn’t. To me, that’s more important than a dollar amount.
The last time we spoke was at your first ever UK festival appearance; how did you enjoy playing at Ramblin’ Man Fair in 2017?
I thought it was fantastic. We had a really great time. I mean of course, you walk into it wondering if the people are going to be there, if they’re going to care that you’re there, and then if they show up, what the reaction’s going to be. But the stage and the area was packed, and I think that we had a good performance, and left quite a good impression on the people there.
You’re returning again this year, to play the Outlaw Country stage.
Obviously as a result of our last appearance, we’ve been asked to come back, and so I’m very excited about that. It means that we did our job. They liked what we did, and they want us back again. I’m not sure what our schedule is, but if we have an opportunity to go check out some of the bands, we certainly will.
Finally, what’s happening next for you?
Right now, it’s primarily about ‘The Traveller’, and then we’re also talking, in the planning stages of doing another documentary film that we did before – the ‘10 Days Out: Blues form the Backroads’ project. That came out a little over ten years ago, so we’re working really hard to get that going again. Hopefully that’ll get going before the end of the year. And then obviously The Rides project, so there’s a lot of stuff going on, and we’re just happy to have it all going on!
Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s ‘The Traveller' is out now via Mascot.
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