Interviews & Features
Kenny Wayne Shepherd: “Voodoo Chile”
Hendrix, The Rides and life as a young guitar veteran
By Gary Graff
May 13, 2016
There aren’t many guitarists—and musicians, period—who can claim veteran status at the age of 33.
But when you’re Kenny Wayne Shepherd, and you’ve been playing since you were seven years old and playing on stage since you were 13, you become something of a young elder statesman.
The son of a radio personality and part-time concert promoter in his native Shreveport, La., Shepherd (nee Brobst) taught himself to play on a Yamaha Stratocaster knock-off, rewinding cassette tapes to learn songs one note at a time. He was signed to Irving Azoff’s Giant Records at the age of 17, and since then he’s released seven studio albums, had a hit single with 1998’s “Blue On Black,” has been nominated for five Grammy Awards and has won two Billboard Music Awards, a pair of Blues Music Awards and a couple of Orville H. Gibson Awards.
He’s a fixture on the Experience Hendrix tours, and three years ago he joined forces with Stephen Stills and keyboardist Barry Goldberg to form The Rides, whose second album, Pierced Arrow, was released May 6—and that gave us an opportunity to get a little down and dirty with Shepherd…
FGPO: So you’ve been at this a long time. What do you know now that you didn’t, or could not have, known back when the guitars were as big as you?
Shepherd: Well, as I’ve grown up, I’ve learned how to be more present in the current moment. When you’re a child, that’s something that’s acquired knowledge. You have to learn how to do that. I also really know and appreciate the power of music and the responsibility that comes with it. I think that my intentions are to bring something positive to people’s lives through music and to try and affect people in a good way, because music is a very powerful thing. I feel like that has always been my intention, but as you grow up, and you’re able to see beyond the trees and see the entire forest, the magnitude of things comes into focus more. So I have a greater appreciation for a lot of things now that I don’t think comes with youth.
FGPO: The second Rides album is just out. Did you always figure this would be a going concern when you launched it in 2013?
Shepherd: We had a really great time making the first record, and then we went out and did a tour and that was when we knew for sure that we were gonna make a second album, ’cause we just had so much fun. We weren’t, like, a week or two into the tour before we were already talking about plans for the next album. I just think it’s something that because we all really enjoy doing this… For me it’s a different dynamic than my own band, so that’s exciting. And playing with these great musicians is really exciting.
FGPO: Talk a little more about what’s different being in The Rides.
Shepherd: Oh, the whole dynamic is different. In my band, I basically make all the decisions. The responsibility rests on my shoulders. In this situation, it’s a band and the three of us are the principal members of the group, and the three of us have to agree on everything. And also, the guitar responsibilities are shared between Stephen and I, and the vocal responsibility is shared.
FGPO: What’s different about The Rides this time around?
Shepherd: The whole idea of this band was to get together and jam and see what happened and try to make a record during that. And so it started off kind of loosey-goosey, but when we started writing songs the chemistry was there between the three of us to write and record and play together. So then things started getting a little more serious, and we decided to form a band. The first (album) we were just exploring each other and the process and had never made a record together before, but it came very naturally and easy for us. This one was a little different, ’cause we had one album under our belts. So in that regard it was more comfortable and a little bit easier, but we took more time ’cause we had more material. And we produced it ourselves, so we really spent some time in the trenches.
FGPO: How have you and Stephen evolved as a guitar tandem?
Shepherd: I guess it was 10 years ago, maybe more, the first time we met. We jammed together, and that was pretty cool. As we recorded and started performing, mine and Stephen’s musical relationship evolved. Because at first you’re kind of feeling each other out and “Where does this guy come from musically, and what are his instincts?” and things like that. Now we get on really great, and so the intuitive nature of the way we approach things works really well. There’s never any real debate; we usually are on the same page about who should play this part, who should play that part, who should be soloing, even who should be doing lead vocals. It just all seems to fall into place.
FGPO: How much time do you spend really picking apart the songs and analyzing what’s being played and what needs to be played and arranging and strategizing?
Shepherd: What’s cool is the way we do songs in this band. I might bring an idea to the table, a musical idea, and we’ll write it into a song. And what’s fascinating is I know I can hear all these parts and influences of having Stephen as a songwriter and Barry as a songwriter in this band, and I can hear the end result and know there’s no way the song would have turned out that way if I’d written it for my own band. That’s fascinating, and it’s pretty cool, because I’ve written a lot of songs that have ended up being songs that I’m really proud of, and I just know the music wouldn’t have been the same had it not been for these guys being part of this. They’ve both written some pretty incredible songs over the years. I’ve been writing songs for a long time, too, but I don’t figure I’m ever too old to learn anything from anybody, so I’m trying to soak it up.
FGPO: Has there been a moment over the past three years or so when you’ve allowed yourself to step back and appreciate the company you’re keeping in this band?
Shepherd: Well, y’know, Stephen is like my big brother, so when you have a relationship with somebody like that you don’t kind of go there. But it happened to me in the studio when we recorded the song “Virtual World,” and Stephen had done his vocal, and I thought the song was done. But I could see he was thinking about something and had the wheels turning, and he said, “Go out there into the vocal booth and do what I tell you to do. Trust me,” and he led me through this harmony part through the entire song to sing with him. And when I walked back in and listened back to it I was completely in awe of the whole thing. In this band, we had never harmonized together. I never anticipated us doing that, because I didn’t think it was that kind of band. But it worked so great.
FGPO: The Rides does give you more room as a singer as well as being a guitar player.
Shepherd: I sing more in this band than I sing in my own band, which is kind of baffling but really cool. Whereas I have Noah (Hunt) in my band, and he’s been with me for 10 years and sang a lot of my hit songs, Stephen has really encouraged me and pushed me. And as a result I feel much more confident singing now than I have before, so that just opens up different opportunities and a different dynamic. And to hear my voice blending with (Stills’) is just magical to me, and I thought wow, this is pretty incredible, ’cause the kind of people that do that with this guy are Neil Young, Graham Nash, David Crosby, and now you can add my name to that list, which I thought was pretty cool.
FGPO: Did you and Barry send Crosby a fruit basket or something to thank him for pissing everyone else off so that Stephen had more time to do The Rides this year?
Shepherd: (laughs) No, we didn’t. But you know, the timing of it, those kinds of things, you never can anticipate something like that happening. Bands are like family and family members end up having conflicts at some point, and those guys are no stranger to conflict. But that’s one thing that doesn’t exist in our band, at least between the three of us. Everyone leaves the drama at home, and I think that’s one of the reasons we have such a good time. We try not to take it too seriously; we do take it seriously in the sense that we want to make great music, but we don’t want to make it a challenge. It’s all about having fun. As long as it’s fun, I think we’ll want to continue doing it.
FGPO: So we can anticipate a third Rides album?
Shepherd: Well, we’re doing this tour, and I think we’re going to book another leg of the tour later in the summer, some time between August and October, and then we’ll see what happens. I can’t imagine that they wouldn’t want to do another record, but we haven’t talked about it yet. All our efforts have been towards getting this album out and getting this tour booked. Up until this point, Stephen’s schedule has been very busy with Crosby, Stills & Nash, and mine with my career. But now, I think there’s a little bit less interference from outside schedules, so this band might be even more prolific at making records and touring than we have already been. We’ll see what happens.
FGPO: What’s going on with your own career now?
Shepherd: I’ve got a live DVD concert that we’re editing together and hoping to release maybe some time next year. I’ve been writing songs over the past three months for my next studio record, and I’ll probably go into the studio at the end of this year to record. And just keep on keeping on, man, being grateful to have the opportunity to play music every night.
FGPO: You’re a veteran of the Experience Hendrix Tour, when it goes out. Who do you bribe each time to let you play “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return),” which is always a standout?
Shepherd: I don’t bribe anybody. In the very beginning, “Voodoo Chile” was an encore. It was like 16 guitar players out there and it just got to be ridiculous, to be honest with you. It’s not a jam song. It’s not the kind of song you jam on. So that became obvious, and I’m the one who’s known for doing it my entire career. I’ve closed every show I’ve ever done since I put my band together when I was 15 with that song. People just identify that song with my show, and I think that’s great. It’s just been a staple for me. So I got the green light to put it in my set.