ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, DEC. 28, 1995
By Steve Newton
If a longhaired, bearded, beer-bellied guy in a teal Precidia pulls up next to you on a rain-soaked Vancouver street, there’s a good chance it’ll be me. And if the unmistakable strains of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s guitar are escaping the vehicle’s minute confines, you’ll know it’s me, because his new Greatest Hits tape has taken up an indefinite residency in my tape deck of late.
Five years after Vaughan’s death I’m still enthralled by the Texas blues-rocker, and so is wunderkind guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd. When he was seven years old Shepherd met the then–up-and-coming Vaughan backstage at a Louisiana gig his father was promoting, and his life hasn’t been the same since.
“He picked me up and set me on the side of the stage on his amp case,” recalls Shepherd, on the phone from his Shreveport, Louisiana, hometown. “I watched him play from there, and for the next six months I begged for a guitar, till I finally got my first one.”
Shepherd’s love of the SRV style can be heard in the first chords of “Born with a Broken Heart”, the opening track from the 18-year-old picker’s debut CD, Ledbetter Heights. He’s currently touring to promote that disc, and will visit Vancouver to open for B.B. King at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Thursday (January 4).
While not exactly a road-wearied veteran, Shepherd has been performing live since the age of 13, when, during a family trip to New Orleans, he encountered local guitar hero Bryan Lee.
“He asked me to sit in for a few songs,” says Shepherd, “so I just got up and jammed. Then he asked me to play for the rest of the night, so we played till about three in the morning, and we’ve been good friends ever since.”
As well as getting his own recording and touring career off to a promising start, the teenage prodigy has managed to repay his debt to the old blues greats that influenced him—via Vaughan—by adding guitar tracks to as-yet-unreleased recordings by Willie Dixon and Albert King. He also gives a grateful nod of the Strat to the likes of John Lee Hooker, Lonnie Mack, Buddy Guy, Freddie King, Albert Collins, and Huddie Ledbetter. (The title of Shepherd’s CD refers to an area of Shreveport that was named after 12-string–guitar legend Ledbetter.)
One rather surprising name that crops up in the Ledbetter Heights liner notes is that of the godfather of soul, James Brown, a longtime family friend who wrote a blurb for the CD saying that he picks Shepherd “to become one of the best entertainers in the business”.
“I’ve been jammin’ out to a lot of James Brown lately,” says Shepherd, eager to return the compliment. “I was listening to him today, actually, and he’s just got some killer grooves.”
Who says kids these days are ignorant?