Big boy blue: Once known as a teenage guitar phenom, Kenny Wayne Shepherd has matured into a respected member of the blues family.
The Bluesman Cometh
In advance of his Santa Cruz Blues Fest appearance, Kenny Wayne Shepherd talks guitars, tradition and B.B. King
By Curtis Cartier
IT WOULD BE easy to say Kenny Wayne Shepherd was always meant to play the blues. A Louisiana native born to music-industry-connected parents, he went to his first concert, a Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker double bill, at age 3, got his first guitar at 7 and signed his first record deal at 16. While he was still in high school he palled around with seasoned bluesmen like Bryan Lee and B.B. King, and he got his first glimpse of the spotlight at one of his home state's most renowned music festivals. By all accounts Shepherd has lived a charmed life in music.
Yet to write off his ascent into the elite realm of guitar virtuosos as simply a fulfillment of advantage and destiny would be to ignore the countless hours he spent practicing Stevie Ray Vaughan licks or the endless nights he spent sweating under the lights of smoky bars and backwoods amphitheaters. Shepherd's accomplishments aren't diminished for having had the gears of his career greased at birth; after all, there is nothing more plentiful in the world than squandered talent.
As Shepherd, now 31, puts it, "My career was no accident." And when he shows up to rock the Santa Cruz Blues Festival on May 23, he'll be bringing the same God-given gift that got him labeled a genius and a prodigy as a teenager--only now the kid is all grown up and that gift has evolved into a well-honed craft.
Listen to any Kenny Wayne Shepherd track and it becomes immediately clear that this is guitar music. It starts with the volume. Shepherd mixes his music, both onstage and in-studio, with his guitar channel turned up to Jimi Hendrix levels. "Lyrics are still really important," he assures, but for him, his music will always be won and lost by the ax.
"My music is and will always be about the guitar," he says from his home in Southern California. "I think for a while there, popular music got away from showcasing guitarists. But I think music is cyclical, and I think you're now seeing some of the new bands start to bring back the guitar to the forefront. For me, though, my guitar has always been what its all about."
But while Shepherd doesn't flinch at hearing his music described as "guitar-oriented," that's about the only label he allows. As a teen, he says, too much significance was placed on his age and his looks. A kid in an old man's world, he heard terms like "wonderchild" and "babyface" thrown around regularly, and it wasn't until he'd been touring for several years and had a pair of successful records under his belt that a majority of critics and colleagues began to judge his music objectively.
"Early on, a lot of the attention was on my age. At this point, though, it's not about my age or my looks. My musical ability speaks for itself," he says. "My career has been going for 16 years and I'm still making records, still touring. I think I've gotten to the point where my music is what's important."
Shepherd's latest LP, 2007's Grammy-nominated 10 Days Out, is not a typical album. As much a filmed documentary as a live audio release, the disc chronicles an impromptu 10-day blues road trip involving Shepherd, a tour bus, a handful of Southern towns and a star-studded assembly of more than a dozen blues standard-bearers. Cootie Stark, Etta Baker, Pinetop Perkins, B.B. King and Buddy Flett join 13 other music legends who, aside from laying down blistering performances in backyards, churches and clubs big and small, take a shot at explaining how they "got the blues." Shepherd says the 10 days he spent trucking around the South with these musicians changed his career and life. Yet not everyone who got on the bus that summer is still alive today, and a hint of sadness creeps into Shepherd's voice when he talks about people like Stark, Neal Pattman and George "Wildchild" Butler, who have since passed on.
"I'm just glad I got a chance to do something like [10 Days Out] with people like that," he says. "These were the guys who were there since the beginning. I can only hope I make it that long."
Tutelage of the King
The headliner of this year's Santa Cruz Blues Festival is none other than the king of blues himself, B.B. King. For Shepherd, seeing King strum his 60-year-old Gibson "Lucille" is a familiar pleasure. The iconic guitar maestro, ranked by Rolling Stone as No. 3 on its list of the "100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time," took an interest in Shepherd's career early on.
"B.B. King is like a father to me," says Shepherd. "I've been playing with him since I was 15 years old. Over the years we've established a significant friendship, and he just treats me like I'm part of his family. He's really taken me under his wing, so to speak. I just have a tremendous respect for him both as a musician and as a person. He's the kind of guy that if you wanted to give your kids a role model, he'd fit the bill."
Blues music is filled with stories like Shepherd's. Salty old hands like King, Perkins and Otis Rush have helped to usher in the next generation of blues musicians. With older and deeper roots and traditions than more contemporary styles of music like hip-hop and rock, blues music clings to values like respecting elders and passing down oral histories, and has thus remained less tainted by corporate greed and marketing influences. But the blues isn't just stubborn old black men, gravelly voices and harmonicas. A recent influx of young indie bands like the Black Keys, Kings of Leon and the White Stripes are bringing droves of fresh fans to the genre. And even old-school blues shows like the Santa Cruz Blues Festival are still known for drawing a diverse crowd of people of all ages and walks of life.
And when King wraps up his headlining set in Aptos next week, Shepherd says there might be a special treat for those who stick around.
"Usually whenever B.B. and I share a bill together there's a jam session that goes on sometime at the end," he says. "I love playing with him and the fans usually love it. Definitely worth checking out."
At 83 years old, however, King may not be headlining many more blues festivals. Shepherd knows this perhaps better than anyone, having lost several friends and musicians in the last few years, and he warns B.B. fans to "see him now." But what King and his like have helped to plant in Shepherd and the next wave of bluesmen is not only a sense of pride and protectiveness but also an insatiable curiosity to try something new and to push the genre beyond where the last generation left it. Shepherd calls it a "natural progression."
"Blues music is timeless," says Shepherd. "I mean rock music came from the blues. And countless other styles from that. I think there will always be something about the blues that speaks to me and speaks to the fans. There's something real, something honest, something good."
KENNY WAYNE SHEPHERD performs Saturday, May 23, at 4pm at the Santa Cruz Blues Festival, Aptos Village Park, Aptos (parking at Cabrillo College, 6500 Soquel Ave., Aptos). Tickets are $60 general/$25 kids Saturday or Sunday; or $100 general/$40 kids for both days, available at www.santacruzbluesfestival.com.
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