ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, SEPT. 7, 2000
By Steve Newton
When Kenny Wayne Shepherd calls the Straight on a crapping-out cellphone from the wasteland of Duluth, Minnesota, it feels like a mixed blessing. On one hand, I’m happy to chat with anyone who’s helping to keep the Strat-ified blues-raunch spirit of Stevie Ray Vaughan alive; on the other, I’m not looking forward to transcribing our conversation from beneath a layer of long-distance static. So I decide to engage in a little small talk while testing the technical waters of our tenuous connection, asking Shepherd if the land of the Vikings is a good area for his band as far as audience response goes. “Oh yeah,” replies the 22-year-old guitar hero, “pretty much the whole country’s a good area for us.”
If the skinny blond kid from Louisiana comes off a tad presumptuous for his age, one might argue that he’s earned the right. Since swaggering onto the music scene at the age of 17, Shepherd has released a string of Top 10 radio hits, received a Grammy nomination for best-rock-instrumental performance, played with Joe Satriani and Steve Vai on the G3 Tour, and even starred in his own Gap ad.
But perhaps his greatest accomplishment so far is his latest CD, Live On, which sees the guitarist in the company of a plethora of music greats, including Gov’t Mule guitarist Warren Haynes, Primus bassist Les Claypool, veteran blues harpist James Cotton, and the surviving members of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s old band, Double Trouble. Shepherd didn’t make a concerted effort to squeeze as many recognizable names onto the CD as he could, though.
“That’s just kinda how it happened,” he relates. “I mean, the main conscious effort was to get Double Trouble on there, but they also played on my last record, and [Double Trouble drummer] Chris Layton’s been playin’ with me since my first album. You know, we recorded a lot in Austin, Texas, and a lot of great musicians came through that were friends of ours, like Warren Haynes, Doctor John, James Cotton. And then we ran into Les Claypool in San Francisco when we recorded out there. So [having all the guest artists] wasn’t really intentional.”
One listen to Shepherd’s aggressive style of guitar-playing makes it clear how indebted he is to Vaughan. The story has been repeatedly told of how a seven-year-old Shepherd was first inspired to play after witnessing a Vaughan concert from atop an on-stage amp case. Since coming to prominence with his Ledbetter Heights debut, Shepherd has managed to play with many of blues-rock’s top stars, but he never actually got to strap on a Strat alongside his biggest idol.
“The last time I saw him was about two months before he died,” says Shepherd with a sigh, “and he autographed the first Stratocaster that I got. I never got a chance to play with him, but I have played with most of my heroes. The main person that I’m kind of out to play with is Clapton. I met him when I was 13, but I haven’t had a chance to play with him yet.”
Until his opportunity comes to swap licks with Slowhand, Shepherd will have to content himself with steady touring—he’s at the Vogue Theatre on Monday (September 11)—and forays into the recording studio. Live On was produced by former Talking Head Jerry Harrison, as was 1997’s Trouble Is… “He works really well with the rhythm section,” notes Shepherd, “and he has a good idea of where I’m going with my music. He gives me the tools to get what I want out of the music, and that’s the way I do my thing.”
Although Shepherd hasn’t yet reached the point, vocally, where he’s confident enough to sing lead, he does contribute heavily to his band’s songwriting duties, cowriting all but two of Live On’s 14 tracks. The nonoriginal tunes are covers of Buddy Miles’s 1967 rave-up “Them Changes” and the ’69 Fleetwood Mac hit “Oh Well”, which was penned by British guitar legend Peter Green. “He was a great guitar player and everything,” states Shepherd, “but I just thought that that song was appropriate because it was really guitar-driven, and it had a kind of bluesy vibe to it.”
In recent years a triumvirate of young, blond, American guitar wizards has caught the attention of the rock-music world; Shepherd, Jonny Lang, and Derek Trucks were all fresh-faced teenagers playing like grizzled veterans in the ’90s. Lang could be seen as the MVP, as his formidable instrumental chops are coupled with strong vocals. Then again, the lesser-known Trucks—though not a singer—is a gifted slide-guitar specialist who can swing effortlessly from freeform jazz to Delta blues to heavy rock. But somehow the more imitative Shepherd—via such wily career moves as the widely seen Gap TV spot—has managed to carve the biggest name for himself. He has gotten some help from influential friends, though, like James Brown, who calls Shepherd—as is trumpeted in the latter’s current bio—“one of the wonders of the world”.
Shepherd’s flashy style on-stage and casual confidence during interviews may paint him as a cocky hotshot, but his professed career goals belie a more grounded outlook. “Basically I just want to continue playing music and touring,” he says, “and hopefully just keep makin’ a career out of music.”