Interviews & Features

Kenny Wayne Lays It Down

Louisiana gunslinger gets back to original music on latest release

By Gary Graff
August 4, 2017

At the age of just 40, Kenny Wayne Shepherd is nearly an elder statesman in the music world. He’s had a guitar in his hands since he was a toddler and has been playing, publicly and professionally, since he was 13, jamming with heroes such as B.B. King, and recording since not long after that.

In fact his debut album, Ledbetter Heights, came out when he was 18, topped the Billboard blues albums chart and went platinum. Since then Shepherd has released seven more studio sets — including the thematically ambitious 10 Days Out: Blues From The Backroads in 2007 and 2014’s blues covers set Goin’ Home — has been a fixture on the Experience Hendrix tour (where he owns “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)”) and started the band The Rides with Stephen Stills and Barry Goldberg. This year finds Shepherd back to his own devices with the just-released Lay It Down, and with a lot to say about a lifetime spent with six strings…

FGPO: So what was the creative goal for Lay It Down?

Shepherd:
Well, the last record (Goin’ Home) was traditional blues, so on this one I needed to do some different things. I wanted to grab from several different genres. The goal was to make a contemporary sounding record, something that was new and fresh and obviously doesn’t sound like many of my other records, and to continually keep the fans interested in what we’re doing and not be predictable. So the result is a very fresh, diverse, contemporary-sounding record.

FGPO: What’s interesting is the way you’ve found to co-mingle different styles within the same song in some cases.

Shepherd: For sure. You hear us pulling from a lot of different genres, all intertwined. You’ve got blues, obviously, rock ‘n’ roll, a little bit of a country influence. There’s some R&B, just real American roots music…It’s just across the board, taking all of those different elements and trying to put something together and trying to make it sound fresh.

FGPO: And yet it’s cohesive; it doesn’t sound like a kind of musical smorgasbord. What’s the unifying thread that ties this all together?

Shepherd: Again, you’ll always hear that common thread on my records, which for me is blues music. That’s the foundation of all that. You hear that in all of my music, all of the tracks on this record.

FGPO: So how do you achieve that?

Shepherd: The beauty of the way I write songs and the kind of music I like to create and drawing from these different genres and various musical influences I’ve had over the years is it enables me to take the blues foundation and push it into different direction and try different things with it — step outside the box a little bit, I guess.

FGPO: This is also the second album you’ve recorded with Marshall Altman at Blade Studios back in Shreveport. That’s probably an important factor, too.

Shepherd: For sure. I’m from Louisiana. That’s my family there. That’s where I explored my love and passion for this music. The epicenter of my musical life is there. That’s where I explored my love and passion for this music. So everything comes full circle, and it seemed like a natural place to do it. For as long as that place exists, I want to record there.

FGPO: When you talk about different directions on the album, the title track comes to mind. How did that come about?

Shepherd: It’s, like, a mid-tempo ballad, which surprises some people, but I love ballads. I grew up in the era of the power ballad; that was the biggest thing on the radio when I was a teenager, those rock ‘n’ roll ballads. So I’m a sucker for a good ballad and wanted to have one on this record.

FGPO: Is there a reason it was the best choice for the title track?

Shepherd: This one is very complex. It’s got a very significant lyric to it. It’s personal. It’s about someone I know very well; it’s about a girl who has bought into the idea she’s not good enough, and that’s not the truth. Everyone else sees the beauty in her except her, so the guy in the song’s trying to say: ‘I wish you could see what I see.’ The message in the song is, like: “Believe in yourself. Don’t buy into the voices in your head that want to drag you down.” I think that speaks to a lot of people in the world, too, not just who I’m singing the song about.

FGPO: You started out when you were a teenager. It seems natural that the writing musically and lyrically has changed significantly since you’ve gotten older.

Shepherd:
Yeah, absolutely. Being a father, being a parent, it changes your perspective on so many things. Everybody says that to a point where it sounds cliche, but everybody says it for a reason — because it’s true. That’s not to fault people who have chosen not to have kids, but your perspective on life, what’s important, what really matters, all those things change. You look at your children and you want them to love themselves and to know how much you love them. The world we live in, there’s a lot of superficial things crammed down everybody’s throats. People think they have to look a certain way, dress a certain way or whatever to be loved and appreciated. You’ve just got to be yourself and love yourself, and that’s a great message to send to people.

FGPO: Which of the other songs on the album felt like new adventures to you?

Shepherd: We brought in a pedal steel guy for “Hard Lesson Learned;” that’s another significant, really powerful ballad. When we wrote that song, I walked out of the room and went: “What a great song,” which is a really good feeling to have. And then watching it come to life, it’s another one of those songs that just elevates the record. I like “Diamonds And Gold” as well; it’s just young-sounding and fresh, and out of all the family members I’ve shared my records with the kids like that song. I think any time you have somebody doing this kind of music and it’s resonating young people, you’ve got a winner there. And “Nothing But The Night,” I think, is in a category unto itself. I can’t think of another song to compare that to. I think it’s a true original and it’s got a killer vibe and serious groove to it.

FGPO: Goin’ Home did get a great reception when it was released. Could you see doing a sequel, with more blues covers like that?

Shepherd: I’ve thought about that, and there certainly could be. I was just kind of waiting to see, first of all, how the public reacted to it, and I wasn’t sure if the record company would want to put out a Vol. 2. But the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, so it’s certainly a possibility.

FGPO: You have worked with and become friendly with so many of your older peers over the years, up to and including playing with Stephen Stills in The Rides. Does it ever give you pause to think about the company you keep and have kept as a musician?

Shepherd: I try not to sit around and pinch myself and go: “Wow, I’m friends with all these amazing musicians!” I mean, they are amazing musicians, but most of us want to be treated like regular people. But it’s cool getting to meet them and to jam with somebody. Sometimes it’s a fleeting moment; it happens and it’s over. But the relationships and friendships that have developed out of those situations, long-term, that’s what’s really important to me. That’s what I’m grateful for.

FGPO: You’ve seen a lot of older musicians leave us in recent years. What kind of experiences did you have with Gregg Allman?

Shepherd:
We toured with those guys on and off a ton over the years, so I’ve been fortunate enough to get to know him, to a degree. Obviously an extremely talented man, and a big loss to the music industry. That band came up with some timeless music; some of those songs you’ll hear forever, and as a musician that’s the goal, really. He was obviously tremendously talented as a songwriter, a singer, a musician — all those things. On a personal level, when I hung around him he seemed like a really nice guy. Other people have had different experiences, but many times in my life I’ll hear somebody say: “this guy’s an asshole,” and he’s really nice to me. My own personal experience is all I have to go with, and in my experience Gregg Allman was a really nice dude.

Lay It Down album trailer:

“Baby Got Gone” video: