Catching Up with Kenny Wayne Shepherd at Louisville’s Bourbon and Beyond

Kenny Wayne Shepherd

I was hiding in the shade as much as I could. It felt unusually hot for a September day, but it was Louisville, and Midwest weather is always a force to be reckoned with. And the crowd was out, tank tops and all, shorts and skirts and concert t-shirts. At eleven in the morning, full sun shining down on the wide green grounds of Champions Park, with what felt like 100% humidity.

“It’s like warm soup,” my friend offered up.

The Bourbon & Beyond roster was too incredible to pass up, no matter what the forecast, really. Two days of blues and rock legends – guitars that sang, voices that twanged, lyrics made you want to hold someone close or wish ’em good riddance. Afternoon tunes with Buddy Guy, Amos Lee, Gary Clark Jr., Jonny Lang. Evening chords with Eddie Vedder and Joe Bonamassa. Headliners Stevie Nicks and the Steve Miller Band.

Along with the award-winning Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band, whose “Blue on Black” was atop Billboard charts nearly twenty years ago this year. Ever blazing a blues trail, with vocalist Noah Hunt still at the forefront, the band made a stop at the Bourbon & Beyond festival just after a performance in Missouri. On tour supporting the summer 2017 release of “Lay It On Down”, it was in the shaded respite of the media tent where I sat down with Kenny Wayne Shepherd to talk about the latest album.

Q: You were quoted as saying that you were hoping this album was going to be the best record of your twenty-five-year career. Do you feel like you’ve accomplished that?
A: Well, for me, I feel like if you don’t aim high, how can you ever expect to achieve greatness? I wanted the expectation to be high so that I would strive to achieve something great. I certainly think it’s one of the best records we’ve done. I mean, it’s hard to gauge that in today’s world. You used to be able to gauge that on record sales, spins on the radio, chart position, but today it’s such a different world.

People in my genre – I don’t know if anybody will have platinum records hanging on their wall like I do. It’s just a different world today. The biggest artists in the music business today are lucky to sell four million records, where back when we were selling millions of records, the albums of the year were selling fourteen million records. Know what I mean? “Blue on Black” was number one on rock radio for seventeen consecutive weeks – I think all in all, twenty one weeks at number one. That whole format has disappeared. There’s no mainstream rock anymore. It’s just classic rock or alternative. So basically for me, I have to go back and look at the record objectively – am I proud of this? Did I do the best job I possibly could? Did I write a few songs that show my progression as an artist? I think that we certainly accomplished that.

Q: How long did it take for you to record? How did the album come together?
A: The writing process was really spread out over the course of a year and a half because we were on the road, touring, so when I got an opening, I’d go write. But the recording only took a few weeks, three, four weeks. We try not to spend too much time. We spend enough time to make it right, but I find that if we’re really recording a song ten times over and we’re still not happy with it, it’s time to move on. If you can’t get it right in three to five takes, either come back to it later or move on. Maybe it’s just not the right song.

Q: Where’s the tour headed next?
A: We have a few more dates here in the States and then we’re heading to Europe. We’re starting to slow down as we head into November, December. Get back into the studio. We have more material that we’re going to work on for another record. We did a documentary film back in 2007 called “Ten Days Out: Blues from the Backroads,” where we went and played with all of these awesome blues musicians, in their houses and little juke joints. So we’re going to do a follow up to that, probably next year. I have another band with Stephen Stills called The Rides. We’ve got two albums together and we’ll probably do another one this winter. A lot of things going on. But we’ll be touring and supporting this record all the way through next year.

Q: You have quite the brood – five kids! As they grow up, will you encourage them to pursue music or work within the music industry?
A: For me, no one ever encouraged me to do it. If anything, my dad tried to discourage me because the odds are against you. It’s like winning the lottery, if you compare the amount of people who want to do it versus the people who can actually support themselves doing it. For my kids, I’ll support them in anything they show interest in. I had the interest, I put in the time and effort to learn the instrument, and then I said, I think this is what I want to do. So, whatever they come to me with, whatever they’re passionate about, I’ll support them in that. There are plenty of instruments laying about the house. My kids find them, and they love music. And I will totally embrace that if I feel like they’re legitimately passionate about it. We’ll see.

Q: What are you listening to when you’re not making music?
A: I don’t listen to much music in my off hours because it’s all about family time. There’s a new guy named Marcus King. He’s got a band called The Marcus King Band. He’s really good. He’s a really great guitar player, making a name for himself.


~Jennifer Matthewson

*Photo credit: Kenny Wayne Shepherd

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