ORIGINALLY POSTED ON STRAIGHT.COM, MAY 30, 2007
By Steve Newton
The last few times I’ve pitched Straight music editor Mike Usinger stories on white blues artists, he’s flippantly responded with the bewildering phrase “Blues Hammer!” I had no clue what the guy was on about until he forwarded me a clip from Terry Zwigoff’s quirky 2001 film Ghost World, in which Steve Buscemi plays an obsessive collector of rare vinyl records.
In one scene Buscemi’s character shows up at a rowdy sports bar to see an obscure Mississippi Delta great, then flees in shocked disgust when his idol is ignored and the crowd goes nuts for a group of suburban kids who subsequently hit the stage with an overblown boogie-metal noise and hokey lyrics about picking cotton. Turns out our wily High Sheriff uses the band’s name, Blues Hammer, as a secret code—known only to himself and conniving associate editor John Lucas—that he uses to flippantly rebuff stories on acts he deems unworthy.
The last time Usinger issued his scornful two-word rejection was when I first offered to interview Kenny Wayne Shepherd, but I wasn’t taking “Blues Hammer!” for an answer this time around. Sure, Shepherd garnered overnight fame as a teenaged interpreter of the sound that made Robert Johnson famous, but he reaches new levels of legitimacy with his current release, Ten Days Out: Blues From the Backroads. The album finds Shepherd trading licks with some of the world’s finest blues practitioners, from big names like B.B. King and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown to relative unknowns such as Neal “Big Daddy” Pattman and John Dee Holeman.
As a kid, Shepherd would listen to Muddy Waters’s Hard Again album every day on his way to school and imagine himself—instead of Johnny Winter—as the guitarist on those 1976 sessions.
“That was one of those things I used to fantasize about,” recalls Shepherd from his home in L.A., “and on this project I was up there playing with that entire [Muddy Waters] band, and the only one that was really missing was Muddy, man.”
On Ten Days Out, Shepherd is heard alongside former Waters band pianist Pinetop Perkins, drummer Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, and guitarist Bob Margolin. The accompanying DVD chronicles a 10-day trek Shepherd made to the stomping grounds of various blues icons, with stops at juke joints and front porches from Louisiana to Kansas.
With his 30th birthday fast approaching, Shepherd has come a long way since recording his debut CD, 1995’s Ledbetter Heights, while still in high school. “I definitely feel like I’ve matured over the years,” he relates, “and have a bit more knowledge of when to lay back and when to play more.”
If only the guy from Blues Hammer could say the same thing.