Kenny Wayne Shepherd headlines the Outlaw Country Stage at the 2019 Ramblin’ Man Fair. Rushonrock editor Simon Rushworth quizzed the singer songwriter ahead of his Mote Park set.
Rushonrock: You’ve talked about keeping blues ‘alive and relevant’ – how do you do that?
Kenny Wayne Shepherd: For me it’s a matter of trying to take the different genres that I grew up listening to and finding various ways of incorporating that music into the blues. That opens up new opportunities and directions – recently my goal has been to turn as many people as possible onto blues and that’s the best way to keep it alive. But on reflection I do take issue with that phrase ‘keeping blues alive’. It suggests that the genre is on life support when, in fact, the opposite is true. Like every kind of music it goes through cycles of popularity but blues has been around for more than a century and so I don’t think it’s going anywhere fast. It has a tremendous fan base but it’s just not in the mainstream. I want to use my voice to help to change that.
ROR: Were you always drawn to the blues?
KWS: I grew up listening to all kinds of music because my dad was a disc jockey. He was programme manager, general manager and always on air. He worked on country shows, rock shows and Top 40 shows and around my house music was everywhere – blues, rock, country, jazz, RnB and gospel. But according to my dad my first gig was as a three-year-old and it was Muddy Waters. I guess that made a lasting impression!
ROR: Does new album The Traveler chart your own blues journey?
KWS: You’re certainly going to hear elements of what I’d done in the past but The Traveler is far from a reinterpretation of my previous work. I don’t revisit things that I’ve already written about or expressed in the past. I want every album that I do to stand on its own two feet and I think The Traveler does that. Each of my records represents how I’m feeling at the time and if you listen to two Kenny Wayne Shepherd records back to back then it’s quite clear that they have separate identities. With The Traveler I moved closer towards blues rock. The previous record wasn’t as firmly rooted in blues rock but from the first two songs on The Traveler you realise this is different.
ROR: How do you approach the recording of a new album?
KWS: I go into the studio with a collection of songs that I feel are very strong and try to take them to the next level. Inevitably the best material – the cream – rises to the top. But I never go into the studio with a preconceived idea that an album should sound like this or that. The creative process happens once you step inside the studio and I go with the flow.
ROR: Has your sense of responsibility to blues as a genre changed as you’ve got older?
KWS: Joe Bonamassa and I were just talking about this the other week. If we continue to live long enough then we’ll eventually become the elder statesmen of blues and that’s quite strange for us. Throughout our careers we’ve been referred to as child prodigies and whizzkids but we’re getting older! The emphasis has always been on how young we are but I think people forget how old I actually am. And as I’ve got older it’s all kind of come into focus that at a certain point sometime soon I’ll be part of that older generation. You look at Buddy Guy and he’s the last of those Chicago Blues guys. The genre moves on and as an artist you can embrace that sense of responsibility or not. But from the first moment that I found my voice I made my mind up that I would try to convince as many people as possible to listen to the blues. Call it a sense of responsibility of you like. But that’s my mission.
ROR: What continues to draw a younger generation of musicians towards the blues?
KWS: The music is real and it’s music that you can get your teeth into. If you really knuckled down and did your homework as far as music is concerned then you’re inevitably going to end up going back to the blues. It’s the heart and soul of every popular genre of music. For me it’s about the emotion and the feeling that goes into a blues song. I can play from my heart and I think anyone can connect with that. For me that was the big draw as far as the blues is concerned – and of course I love the guitar! And there’s no shortage of young people prepared to make their mark on the blues. The genre’s not on life support: there’s so much new and exciting, fresh talent coming through and the goal for all of us is to keep it interesting.
ROR: You’ve stretched yourself vocally on The Traveler – what gave you the confidence to do more vocally this time?
KWS: I sang one song on my first album and on the fourth record I sang all of the lead vocals. But I never forced myself to be in that position and Noah [Hunt, lead vocal, Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band] is such a good singer that it’s been easy to just play the guitar. But in my other band The Rides – with Stephen Stills and Barry Goldberg – Stephen was really adamant that I shared the vocal duties. That gave me greater confidence and I found that I was more comfortable singing. But it’s like any instrument – you need to do it regularly and practice hard.
ROR: What do you love most about your craft?
KWS: For me it’s the live performances that are the biggest thrill. I feel like one of those guys who jumps out of a plane just for the thrill of it – I get a huge adrenaline rush every time I step onto the stage. I love the human interaction and the fans continue to motivate me to deliver the best shows and albums that I possibly can. I look around and there’s no shortage of things I can write songs about. I see plenty of inspiration on a daily basis and I continue to draw on that inspiration.
ROR: What are you looking forward to most about playing Ramblin’ Man Fair?
KWS: We played the same stage a couple of years ago and I thought the festival had such a great vibe. I felt good about our set and loved the atmosphere. I actually ran into the guys who stage Ramblin’ Man again and they said they wanted me back – so I guess we must have been ok first time around! There are so many great bands again this year. My goal is to get back there and do an even better job this time around.
ROR: What’s the best advice you can give to festival goers heading to Ramblin’ Man this summer?
KWS: Firstly show up early so you don’t miss anything! As I say there are so many great bands so make sure you know the schedule inside out and plan your day – or days – accordingly. And get the lay of the land – know your way around the site so you can make the most of your time there.
ROR: If you could curate Kenny Wayne Shepherd Festival who would be the three headline acts?
KWS: I guess The Rolling Stones would be the best band to wrap it all up. But I’d also love to see Bob Dylan live again. And then I suppose we’d have to make an appearance as it’s our festival! So I’d add the Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band too.
*The Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band kicks off its latest run of UK dates in Edinburgh tonight and visits Ramblin’ Man Fair on Saturday May 20.