20-year-old Kenny Wayne Shepherd has the guitar world by the balls



By Steve Newton

Some guys have all the luck—and a fair whack of talent, too. Take Kenny Wayne Shepherd, for instance. He just turned 20, yet he’s one of the biggest names on the blues-rock scene, with a debut CD that has moved more than 750,000 copies. The last time he played Vancouver he was in the regal company of B.B. King; next month he’ll be here on the prestigious G3 Tour with Joe Satriani and Steve Vai. So how does a kid like him get so far so fast? Could it be that he has the world’s greatest manager?

“Well, my dad is my manager,” explains Shepherd, on the phone from Sausalito, California, “so he does a really good job. But it’s because these people appreciate my music, too, you know. Satriani and Vai both, I mean we get up and jam at the end of the show, and they totally dig what I’m playing—which to me is the total payoff, I feel great about that. And the same with Lynyrd Skynyrd.”

Lest we forget, Shepherd is also coming here—along with former Bad Company and Free vocalist Paul Rodgers—to back up Lynyrd Skynyrd at the Pacific Coliseum on August 28. The legendary southern-rock outfit was recently bolstered by the addition of former Outlaws guitarist-vocalist Hughie Thomasson and ex-Blackfoot guitarist-vocalist Rickey Medlocke—who was actually a founding member of Skynyrd, but left before its first album was released.

Wherever Shepherd strolls, he seems to wind up in the company of some mighty fine pickers. “I actually met all of ’em,” says Shepherd of the current Skynyrd clan, “and they all were very complimentary of me and my playing. Like, they all wanted to jam and stuff.”

Alrighty! So does that mean there could be one of those four-guitar, bring-down-the-house, boogie-till-ya-puke jams in store for us long-suffering Skynyrd fans? It certainly would be wild to see young Shepherd up there, adding his blues-inflected licks to a rollicking version of “Free Bird”. There’s no guarantee that’ll happen, though.

“Well, I haven’t stepped on the stage with them yet,” Shepherd points out. “They were all just sayin’ they wanted to get together like on a personal level, backstage, and just sit around and play some blues.”

It always comes back to the blues for Shepherd, a Louisiana native who received an intense shot of blues-rock inspiration when, as a lucky seven-year-old, he watched Stevie Ray Vaughan perform from atop one of the guitar legend’s amp cases. Of course, Vaughan’s influence runs deep with many of today’s youthful guitar wizards, everyone from Nanaimo’s David Gogo to current Yankee rage Jonny Lang.

But while someone like Gogo—who was closer to SRV on a personal level than most—has been plying his Texas-blues trade for many years, newcomer Lang could be seen by cynical sorts as riding on the coattails of Shepherd’s blond-blues-kid image. Shepherd doesn’t really see it that way, though.

“I know Jonny,” he says, “and we’ve done some interviews together. We’ve played together a couple of times, and I think he’s a really talented singer—I mean, he’s a talented guitar player as well. He’s having a lot of success, so I think it’s great.”

Whether or not the latest fresh-faced blues-bender to grace MTV will gain the same recognition among his peers as Shepherd remains to be seen; Shepherd’s own mettle will be tested on his next CD, which he’s recording with ex–Talking Head Jerry Harrison at the controls. “He’s great to work with,” enthuses Shepherd of the popular producer, whose name continually shows up in CD credits everywhere. “He really is good with arrangements and ideas, and he keeps everybody on track in a general direction.”

Satriani and Vai put the G3 Tour on hold at the end of June so that Shepherd could work on his album, which is slated to include a cover of “I Don’t Live Today”, from Hendrix’s Are You Experienced LP. “I feel like we’re taking a step further in the direction [of the first album],” he notes. “It’s just blues-based rock ’n’ roll, you know.”

Local rock-guitar freaks who started itching at word of a Vancouver G3 date (September 26 at the Plaza of Nations) may have mixed opinions about the show, however. With Robert Fripp as opener, they have little to beef about, but there are bound to be a few who’ll wish that original G3 element Eric Johnson were still in the lineup. Shepherd—who opened for the tour three times last year—was called in to replace the Texas tone-master when he pulled out unexpectedly.

“I think he’s doin’ the Steve Miller tour right now,” says Shepherd of Johnson, “but he also left because he was havin’ some problem with his ears. It was getting a little loud for him on the stage.”

You’d think that, with feedback fiends like Satriani and Vai plugged in, Johnson would have expected it to get a tad noisy at times. Shepherd himself isn’t concerned about extreme volume levels on the G3 stage.

“No way,” he claims, like a true 20-year-old. “I mean, I’m one of the loudest guys I know!”

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