Kenny Wayne Shepherd Interview: If I Couldn’t Do Music I’d Race Cars

By: Rick Landers
Photos: Robert M. Knight

Louisiana-born Kenny Wayne Shepherd grew up on the blues. From the age of seven he had a guitar in his hands and kept at it until five years later he was on stage with Jump Street Five blues group guitarist Bryan Lee. At 17, Kenny produced his first album, Ledbetter Heights, that sat at the Number 1 spot on Billboard’s chart for five months earning a Gold Certification. The album tracks were both hot and soulful, reflecting a love of rock ‘n’ roll and his deep appreciation for Chicago,Texas and Delta blues.

Blazing onto the charts during the 1990s, Kenny was considered a young prodigy with some talk of his filling the boots of the late great Stevie Ray Vaughan. Shepherd would soon enough earn four No. 1 blues album spots and a series of blues-rock hit singles. He gathered up a couple of Billboard Music Awards and later was recognized for his contributions to music in 1998 and 2001 by the Gibson Guitar Corporation when he was presented the prestigious Orville H. Gibson Guitar Award for Best Blues Guitarist.

Shepherd’s second album, Trouble Is (1997), showed more maturity with some solid tracks of punchy blues including “Blue on Black,” “Slow Ride” and “Somehow, Somwhere, Someway” that all tracked to #1 radio singles. “Blue on Black” was ranked as the top rock song of 1998 by Billboard, the Album Network and R&R, and the hit continues to be at the top of KWS downloads today. The album became Billboard’s Blues Album of the Year (1999) and the title track garnered a Grammy nomination for Best Rock Instrumental Performance.

Like a shooting star, Shepherd’s career seemed to lose traction for a while, but only long enough for him to gather more experience and strength as an artist. Over the years, he’s toured or shared the stage with Aerosmith, Bob Dylan, the Eagles, the Rolling Stones, Van Halen, B.B. King, Les Paul, Peter Frampton, Tommy Emmanuel, Steve Miller, Steve Lukather, Derek Trucks and Herbie Hancock.

During our Guitar International interview we shifted gears to ask Kenny about his love of cars, before heading back to music and six strings.

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Kenny Wayne Shepherd Photo: Robert M. Knight

Kenny Wayne Shepherd Photo: Robert M. Knight

Rick: At the moment, “Blue on Black” is the most popular Kenny Wayne Shepherd track at Rhapsody for downloads. When deciding on your set lists do you check out what people are downloading and add those songs to the list?

Kenny Wayne Shepherd: You know, that’s a good idea to be honest with you and I know we’ve done a little research in the past. But, sometimes I like to kind of let my mood dictate what happens in the show and kind of be spontaneous like that. Sometimes we have a set list that we go by and sometimes I kind of throw the song list out the window and just start picking out songs on the fly. I think that kind of keeps things interesting both for the band and for the fans.

Rick: Please, tell us about the making of your CD/DVD 10 Days Out: Blues from the Backroads and some of the things you learned in pulling it all together.

Kenny Wayne Shepherd: It was definitely a learning process. I’d never done a film like that. I learned a lot about how you approach a film and in some areas it’s really different and in others it’s similar like making a record, a visual record. It’s complex and it’s involved. Musically, I learned some stuff from watching these guys. And I think just the experience made me a better musician.

Rick: Were you heavily involved in the editing part and was it tough to decide what to use?

Kenny Wayne Shepherd: Absolutely! Some of it was more obvious. We had to edit this thing down for the sake of time constraints and we had to do a television edit down to 55 minutes. So, there were decisions that were made just for the sake of keeping it to a reasonable amount of time.

Rick: A lot of the older blues players went through some difficult and dangerous times. Did any of their stories blow you away?

Kenny Wayne Shepherd: There’s one story Cootie Stark was telling about before he went blind. He was a blues singer and he went to this church where they were singing gospel music and he thought that they were really good. He went to go congratulate them and shake their hands and tell them how good he thought they were, but they wouldn’t shake his hand because he was a blues singer. He was very insulted by that.

So, there are some interesting stories like that. And this guy named Neil Pattman who plays harmonica but only has one arm. I guess he lost his arm in a wagon wheel accident out on a cotton plantation when he was young.

There were just crazy stories about these peoples’ lives. Now that’s not necessarily in the film, but we found out about it. I met Etta Baker who told me that Bob Dylan came to her house and stayed three days with her to learn her style of fingerpicking.

Rick: Have you studied the lives of the early blues players to understand the music’s roots?

Kenny Wayne Shepherd: Yeah, Charlie Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Robert Johnson – all those guys. Back when I was 13, 14 or 15 years old, I’d do anything I could to read and learn about blues or blues players. I absorbed it all like a sponge.

Rick: The proceeds from the CD are going to the Music Maker Relief Fund. How did you get involved with that?

Kenny Wayne Shepherd: Well, just as a result of trying to find some of these artists to be involved in this project. You know they represent a number of artists involved. We got turned on to Tim Duffy who created the foundation so we decided to make a donation from the profits. Once the project becomes profitable, a certain portion of the profits are going to be donated to that foundation.

It’s a good foundation. It helps these guys record their music and put it out so they can make a living. It helps them get gigs. And then when their health starts giving them trouble, it helps them out with their medical bills because they don’t have insurance or anything.

Kenny Wayne Shepherd Photo: Robert M. Knight

Kenny Wayne Shepherd Photo: Robert M. Knight

Rick: Your father’s been in the entertainment business and helped guide your career. Can you tell us about how you two have worked together and if your relationship shifted at some point where he became more of a mentor than manager?

Kenny Wayne Shepherd: It’s kind of interesting. I think it doesn’t matter what industry it is, it could be a mom and pop country store or a musician with his father being his manager. And any time it’s a father-son relationship it’s colorful. [Laughs] Back when I was in my wilder days I think it was a little more difficult for both of us.

But, now I’ve calmed down significantly. I’ve matured as a person. [Laughs] Everything’s kind of come full circle. We work well together. But it is a challenge at the same time. You have to be conscious to leave the father-son thing at the door when it comes to business and to put your business hat on.

Rick: I saw you a year or so ago at the Birchmere and although your name was on the venue, I got the sense that you don’t particularly want to grab center stage as much as just be part of the group and work the song.

Kenny Wayne Shepherd: It is my band and I am very opinionated about what I want to hear and how things need to be. But, when I get on stage, especially right now, I have the best musical talent on stage. I mean excluding the musicians I have on stage on this tour. My core band is the most talented band I’ve had to-date.

It’s a collective effort and it’s like the whole group works like one well-oiled machine and it’s great because I’ve had situations in the past where I had band members and I felt I had to shoulder 90% of the responsibility as to keeping everything together musically. But this particular group frees me up to be able to do more musically and to branch out and to try to do things rather than concentrate so much on keeping things together.

Rick: You were at Les Paul’s 90th Birthday tribute concert. I recall you started out with a Strat and then later shifted to a Les Paul. Did you get any ribbing about that?

Kenny Wayne Shepherd: Carnegie Hall? I came out with a Strat but I don’t know if I switched. Did I switch? I may have been the only guy, but I think there was somebody else playing a non-Gibson guitar too. You know, a couple of kind of people looked at me funny. But you know man, I’m a Strat player. I’m paying tribute to the man. I’m not paying tribute to the brand.

You know I had asked my people to bring me a Les Paul. I have a couple Les Pauls and I’d actually asked them to bring them just in case, but for some reason it didn’t make it. So, all I had was my Strat, but you know, I’m there and it’s a tribute to the man, not a tribute to the guitar.

Rick: What’s your set up and what guitars are you using on this tour?

Kenny Wayne Shepherd: I’m using a variety of Custom Shop Strats that have been made for me. One of them is like a prototype for the relic series and then another one is a relic they built for me and gave me for my birthday several years back. For most of the show, I’m playing the prototype for my Signature series that’s in development right now at Fender that should be coming out in the next six to eight months.

And then as far as amps go, I’m playing two of the 1964 blackface Vibroverb re-issues. I’ve always loved the old ones. I think I have three of the originals but I use them in the studio and I never take them out on the road. The minute they reissued these I was like, “I gotta have them!” I’ve been using them because on the live tour it was like a rock record and I had Marshall stacks and a Fuchs and it’s like 100 watts. It’s similar to a Dumble, so two of those, two Marshalls and a Twin.

The volume was borderline getting to be ridiculous and my ears we’re beginning to suffer for it. Like I was getting fatigued. So I decided to bring the volume level down and these amps are 45 watts into one 15 inch speaker. So I figured it’s a great way to get really good tone and bring the volume down. But I tell you man, I think these amps are louder than that. They sound way louder than a 45 watt amp! They’re just great. And they’re working really well for what I’m trying to do right now.

My effects are pretty simple, I just have a TS-9 and a TS-808 Tube Screamer. I have one of each. I have a wah-wah pedal, I have a Roger Mayer Octavia, Line 6 delay pedal, a Univibe re-issue and an Analog Man chorus pedal. That’s it.

Kenny Wayne Shepherd Photo: Robert M. Knight

Kenny Wayne Shepherd Photo: Robert M. Knight

Rick: Are you using a guitar tech on the road or do you prefer to set up your own guitars when you’re on the road?

Kenny Wayne Shepherd: No, I got a tech, man, especially on this tour because there are so many guitarists out here right now. But, I always have a tech because during the day I usually have interviews and personal appearances and stuff I have to do through the afternoon and I can’t be in two places at once.

Rick: You’ve gathered up a few stunning classic cars. What do you own and how are they tricked out?

Kenny Wayne Shepherd: I’m down to three right now. I had four. I had a ’69 Dodge Charger in Louisiana that I sold. I’ve got another ’69 Dodge Charger that was built up and featured on the TLC TV show called Rides. We did a modern day version of the Dukes of Hazard car, the General Lee and it’s definitely suped up.

I mean this car has 585 horsepower, electronic fuel injection, touch screen navigation, 5.1 surround sound, DVD player, overdrive transmission, suede headliner, racing seats and all this stuff. It was a really popular car and it was featured in many different car publications. This car did its own tour around the country on the car show circuit.

And then I’ve got a 1950 Ford two-door business coupe that’s chopped and channeled. It’s like an old school hot rod. It’s got an all-aluminum-block 396 Chevy engine in it, air bags and disc brakes and power steering and all that stuff. And right now I’m working on a 1970 Plymouth Duster with a company out of Braselton, Georgia, called Year One. They’re one of the biggest car restoration parts manufacturers in the world. They’re reassembling this car and helping me design it with a custom hood treatment and doing the wheels for the car.

Mopar performance gave me this great 425 horsepower engine. This car should be making its public debut on the Hot Rod Power Tour. I’ll be driving it 1,500 miles in seven days. I did it last year in my ’69 Charger. And it’s just one of the most fun things. If you’re a car enthusiast, if you do it once, you’ll want to do it every year. And I’m always looking for the next project.

Rick: Are you satisfied just driving them around or, like Jeff Beck, are you a grease monkey?

Kenny Wayne Shepherd: Well, actually, I always wanted to do my own work. But I didn’t know how to do it all. I actually just started to really get in and get my hands dirty. I tore my first engine apart and I’m in the process of building it myself so that I can learn to rebuild an engine. And the next thing, who knows? Assembly I think I can pretty much do. I’m pretty mechanically inclined, but body work, welding and painting and things like that, I don’t have any idea about that stuff.

Rick: Any thoughts of racing in your future?

Kenny Wayne Shepherd: You know, I always thought that if I couldn’t do music that I’d love to be a race car driver. I’ve taken my cars out on quarter-mile tracks and learned how to do the quarter mile and I got to do the Road Atlanta track – that was one of the most fun things I’ve done in my entire life. So, I’m definitely interested I was going to check out one of those racing schools. Really fun, man!

Rick: When you’re 80 years old, what do you want to see when you look back on your life?

Kenny Wayne Shepherd: Well, when I’m 80 I would hope to have established myself and made my mark, a very positive mark, on the music industry and the music community. But, what I will be most proud of will be my family and my children, if it’s in God’s plan for me to have children. Hopefully, I will have some kids to be very proud of.

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