When he first began his professional career almost three decades ago, Kenny Wayne Shepherd was at an age when most young people are looking ahead to their high school years.
At the tender age of 13, the Louisiana native was already a blues legend in the making. His guitar prowess was beyond his years, and he quickly developed a loyal following of fans who loved his unique yet traditional love of the blues in a very contemporary presentation.
Shepherd released his first album at the age of 16, a collection called Ledbetter Heights, in 1995. Now, almost a quarter century later, his new release, The Traveler, is fresh in stores and online outlets.
Although the music business has changed a lot in the course of his career, Shepherd’s own approach to recording has not.
“A lot of the things we do are the same,” he said in an interview with Whatzup. “We always play together as a band. A lot of people take a very different approach to recording these days and might be emailing things back and forth to each other. But we still record in both analog and digital and with all of us together in the studio. I may have a more refined approach to it now that I’ve been doing it for 25 years, but for the most part I still like the old techniques, the techniques all of my heroes used when they were recording.”
Shepherd remains busy as both a recording artist and as a touring act, juggling both his own band and his project, The Rides, with Stephen Stills of Crosby, Stills, and Nash fame.
But playing in front of an audience is still his passion.
“My favorite thing to do is play live, and we make records because it gives us the opportunity to tour,” he said. “When we record we try to capture our live performance. One of the great things about going into the recording studio is watching the songs come to life. It’s fun to write songs and then really explore it through the arrangements and watching those songs come to life. I do very basic demos, just an acoustic guitar and vocals. The fun is being creative in the studio because I have an idea in my mind, and it’s fun to then try to accomplish that.
“We’ve been very lucky in establishing ourselves as a great live touring band,” he continued. “We try to pretty consistently get a new album out every two years and touring in support of those, but I’m also alternating that with the Rides project with Stephen Stills so I’ve really ramped it up so that I’m putting out something new every year. Obviously the internet has changed everything, and people are always looking for something new so I try to keep putting out new material, but I still do albums rather than doing an EP or just putting out three or five songs at a time.”
Loving the blues
The effect of the blues on Shepherd from an early age may seem out of step with his generation. When peers like Hanson were singing “MMMBop” and Backstreet Boys were releasing “Quit Playing Games (with My Heart),” Shepherd was tapping into long-established, revered traditional blues.
“I grew up around music, a lot of different kinds of music, but the blues really connected with me,” he said. “The one primary requirement of the blues is that you play from the heart, and anybody who loves the blues connects to that even if you’re too young to really understand what the songs are about. And the guitar is a big part of the blues, and I was all about playing the guitar.”
Among the many things that have changed since Shepherd launched his career in the 1990s is that he now has a family, and it’s a large one at that. He and his wife welcomed their sixth child last year. His oldest in now 11, which makes for a very busy household.
Making certain he is present in both his career and family has added a new dimension for the busy musician.
“I’ve made a commitment to the fans and to my band so I have one commitment there. But I also have a wife and a family and made a commitment there. I can’t neglect either one. I go out for four or five weeks with the band, and then I come home and reconnect with my family for a week or maybe two. Sometimes I take my wife and kids on the road with me, sometimes I’ll just take a couple of the kids out. I just do whatever I need to do because I can’t be a father and not be present. I need to make contact.”
Juggling family, homes, and career
Shepherd also juggles two homes, one in Louisiana where his family lives and one in Los Angeles where his wife’s family resides, moving fairly seamlessly from one LA to another.
One interesting tidbit from his personal life is that his father-in-law is Mel Gibson, which begs the question: What is Thanksgiving like for the Shepherd-Gibson clan?
“It’s not really that different,” Shepherd said. “People are people. Some people happen to be more well-known than others. We just relate on a family level. I admire his talent, and I think he admires mine. But when we’re together it’s really just about the family, and he’s great with our kids. But if you really want to know about Thanksgiving, we all go to his house, and he makes the turkey and all the food for the day.”
With the release of The Traveler and his current tour, Shepherd still has a few more things up his sleeve which will likely keep him busy as he continues his happy routine of recording and playing live.
“Stephen and I are looking for an opening to record our next album because we’re both busy, but we’ve been writing songs and just looking for an opening in our schedules,” he said. “I’m going to be touring with this album for awhile, and we’re planning a documentary in the near future. Our previous one, 10 Days Out, was a big hit, so we’ll be putting out the sequel to that pretty soon.”
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