For the onetime guitar prodigy, home is where the heart—and the blues—are

By Jeff Tamarkin

Watching icon Stevie Ray Vaughan at just 7 years old impacted Kenny Wayne Shepherd in ways he could never have imagined at the time. “I had a very early introduction to blues music,” says Shepherd, “and watching Stevie Ray altered the course of my life. He played with such raw emotion and passion and fire. From that day forward I knew I wanted to play guitar like that.”

Now it’s Shepherd who’s inspiring youngsters. At 37, the former prodigy is a dynamic live performer and prolific recording artist. The five-time Grammy-nominated master guitarist has racked up more than a dozen mainstream rock hits, four platinum albums and a shelf-full of industry awards.

Since the release of his debut album Ledbetter Heights in 1995, Shepherd’s music has veered from traditional blues and more into the rock and pop realm. But for his seventh studio album, the aptly titled Goin’ Home, the L.A. resident literally went back to where it all started, recording in his native Shreveport, La. “This is me getting back to my roots,” explains Shepherd, “and to the music that inspired me as a kid to play guitar and become the artist that I am.”

The track list of Goin’ Home is populated entirely with vintage—and sometimes obscure—tunes by such blues legends as Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Magic Sam and Willie Dixon. Shepherd also tapped an impressive list of guest stars for the record, including Joe Walsh, Keb’ Mo’, Warren Haynes, Robert Randolph, the Rebirth Brass Band, and Ringo Starr, who proves he can nicely keep it in the pocket on the Buddy Guy favorite “Cut You Loose.”

“The point behind this album is to show my genuine love for the blues, the artists who inspired me, and the fans who support this music,” he says. “I want to affect people the way these guys affected me.” Shepherd talked with us about his musical education, his love of the blues, and the album that took him back to his roots.

What attracted you to the blues?

If you play blues the way it’s meant to be played, you’re playing music that comes straight from your heart and soul. You’re not supposed to do a whole lot of thinking—it’s all about feeling. That’s something anyone at any age can identify with. That’s why I identified with it at a very young age. I could feel the emotion that was put into the songs. Also, I’ve always gravitated toward guitar, and a lot of the biggest names in the blues happened to be guitar players. When I listened to them, it made me think, I want to be able to do that. And I wondered if I could.

Is this a return to the blues?

I’ve never run away from the blues, but we pushed the blues into different directions. We do that by incorporating rock and other influential elements that have affected me. So the majority of my records are not traditional blues—you can call it contemporary blues or blues-rock or whatever. But this new one is a traditional blues record. As an artist, I want to do something different with every record, to maintain my creative integrity.

Why so many obscure songs?

If I was going to do a covers album, I knew it needed to be more than that. For most acts, a covers album is their final commitment to their record company, a throwaway before they move on. This is not that—this was done out of genuine love and appreciation. I looked for songs that were a bit more obscure with lyrics that were still relevant and current and didn’t sound dated. I looked for songs that had great grooves. Subject matter was important, too—I tried to put the emphasis on the positive side of the blues, though a couple explore the dark side. The most mainstream song is [Albert King’s] “Born Under a Bad Sign.” I wasn’t going to select that song, but Keb’ Mo’ did an incredible job with it so I put it on.

What was different this time?

This is the first album I really produced on my own. I had a bit of help from Brady Blade and my friend Bill Pfordresher, but this record is my baby from beginning to end. I’ve been moving in that direction, so I’m starting to look into producing other artists. I also learned we have a killer facility in Shreveport [Blade Studios] for making albums, which we never had before. I plan on making many albums there in the future.

Among the guest artists, Ringo Starr isn’t one most think of as a blues player.

Ringo told me a story about when he was really young, before he tried out for the Beatles. Like many of the other English musicians of his era, he was completely immersed in the blues. He at one point wanted to be in a blues band. So he has a deep understanding and appreciation for blues music.

You’re also playing with Stephen Stills.

Stephen wanted to put together a blues band, the Rides. He and [keyboardist] Barry Goldberg started writing and decided they wanted another member, and my name came up. I’d had it in my mind to do a side project and was just waiting for the right opportunity. It’s a completely different experience from what I’m used to. Everyone has their own say; there’s compromise. Stephen’s a great blues player, and he can play some real lowdown stuff that not a lot of white guys can. And his voice has gotten a bit raspy, and in the blues, that’s an asset.

What did you listen to as a kid?

I listened to popular music of the time. But when I would tell my friends I was checking out the new Stevie Ray Vaughan album, or I was just listening to Muddy Waters, they would look at me like I was crazy. That was a little weird, but that’s what I liked.

Your dad was a radio DJ.

I was surrounded by music my whole life—around the house, going to the radio station, and at every concert that came through town. I was attached to my dad’s hip when I was a kid, so I spent a lot of time around music industry people. That became a comfort zone for me—and being around people older than me.

Did you take guitar lessons?

I took a guitar class in middle school, but I was already playing. I got A’s, but I would pretend because they were teaching theory and how to read music, and I would just learn the song by ear, memorize it at home and come back and stare at the paper and act like I was reading the music. I also took a couple of private lessons from this guy at a local music store. He would say, “What song do you want to know how to play?” I would say, “No, I want to know how to play guitar.” I wanted somebody who could take me to the next level.

You opened for Bob Dylan, the Stones and the Eagles—did they offer advice?

Not necessarily advice. They were all very encouraging and always had lots of compliments. With Dylan, you’d hear all these stories about him: Don’t look at him, don’t touch him. But he was the exact opposite. He was so nice to me—he found me every single day, came over and shook my hand. And at the end of the tour he said, “Hey, man, you can come out with me anytime.”

What do industry awards mean to you?

All of that is nice. It’s great to win awards and be acknowledged by your peers. It’s great to have platinum records. But what’s most important is my family and the fans. They keep buying the tickets and coming to the shows and getting the music.

Any career regrets?

I never made a record I didn’t like, and I never let anybody talk me into anything I didn’t want to do. I’m really proud—I’m going on 20 years now, I’ve sold millions of records, and I still have a relevant career. So I can’t say I regret anything.

What’s next?

Stephen and Barry and I are going into the studio to make another Rides record. That’ll come out next year, and we’ll probably do some touring. The next step is to make a studio record of new material with my band.

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