Kenny Wayne, Shepherd
Kenny Wayne Shepherd
In an era when rap and alternative music ruled the airwaves of America, a young guitarist from Louisiana stormed the stage with a blazing blusey style reminiscent of the masters of the Mississippi Delta and a technical virtuosity seldom witnessed before. Kenny Wayne Shepherd has been described as a blues prodigy, much like Stevie Ray Vaughn who was’ one of Shepherd’s mentors and earliest influences. Chris Lay-ton, the drummer for Vaughn’s band Double Trouble remarked to Guitar Player’s Rusty Russell that, “Kenny can nail the style of about any great blues artist you can name, but he’s very much his own guy. A young artist takes pieces from all his influences, puts them together, and develops his own thing. I saw Stevie go through it, and I can seethe same thing happening with Kenny.” On his record label website, Shepherd remarked that “I’m a purist myself. I’ve been listening to blues since I was very young. I’ve researched it. But what I bring to it is a young person’s approach to the blues. It’s free flowing and wide open.” He further commented to Russell that “if you’re a kid and you’re playing the blues, it’s hard to prove yourself to those guys [the blues masters and
Born c. 1977, in Shreveport, LA.
Signed to Giant Records, 1993; contributed to Jewel Spotlights the Blues, Volume I, 1994; contributed to Jewel Spotlights the Blues, Volume II, 1994; released Ledbetter Heights, 1995; contributed to Michael film soundtrack, 1996; released Trouble Is, 1997.
Awards: Gold certification for Ledbetter Heights, 1995.
legends]. They want to know you’re not just messing around with it before they take you seriously.”
Shepherd, the Shreveport, Louisiana native, was born in the late 1970s, and ata very young age, developed an avid interest in blues music which has influenced him ever since. He recalled being taken by his father, who was affiliated with the radio industry, to a music festival when he was only seven years old. The guitar virtuoso Vaughn was there performing with his band at the festival as well. Thanks to his father’s intervention, Shepherd was able to meet Vaughn. Vaughn allowed the young Shepherd to sit on the side of the stage and watch the show from there.
Around the same time, his father had noted that Shepherd was nosing through his father’s blues records and trying to teach himself the riffs from a Muddy Waters song. Shepherd was hooked on the blues from then on. He then begged his parents to buy him a guitar so that he could learn the playing styles and techniques of Vaughn, BB King, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Albert Collins, and Albert King. Shepherd then proceeded to teach himself how to play guitar by copying what he heard off the records. The younger Shepherd continued to practice the guitar in his bedroom until he was 13. By that time, he had become something of a local phenomenon.
Not long after this, Shepherd went with his family on a vacation to New Orleans. While there, he met the blind blues player Brian Lee. After much coaxing and persuading, Lee allowed Shepherd to play with him on stage one night. His debut public performance blew away not only Lee but much of the crowd as well. The impromptu gig with Lee not only cemented the relationship between him and Shepherd but it signaled the start of an inspired friendship between the two musicians. The show with Lee also proved to Shepherd that his plans for the future should include performing his beloved blues music.
Shepherd he next few years spent honing and refining his craft through performances with other musicians and gigs at various radio conventions. He eventually formed his own blues band. In 1993, Shepherd was signed by Irving Azoff to Giant Records, which became Revolution Records. The following year saw the release of Jewel Spotlights the Blues Volume I and its companion Jewel Spotlights the Blues Volume II. Both of the albums featured tracks by Willie Dixon featuring some guitar over-dub work performed by Shepherd.
With his backing band, Shepherd began to work on the sessions and songs that were to comprise his debut album, Ledbetter Heights. Ledbetter Heights was released in 1995 and almost immediately caused a quite a stir. Shortly after the sessions for the album were completed, Shepherd and his band were asked to open for the Eagles at their Austin, Texas concert. Requests for their services as an opening act also came from Bob Dylan as well. Azoff remarked on one of the Shepherd websites that, “he is truly a phenomenon. He plays like someone who’s lived a lot longer than he has. You don’t learn what he has, it’s given to you.” What was also given to Shepherd was additional accolades from the likes of blues legend BB King who was quoted on one of Shepherd’s websites as saying that, “if he continues to grow, he’ll be fantastic.”
Ledbetter Heights garnered Shepherd a number of prestigious honors. It spawned three top ten singles on the rock charts including the smash hit” Deja Voodoo.” Ledbetter Heights also received gold certification. The album had a lock on the number one spot on the BillboardTop Blues Albums chart for an amazing period of five months straight.
The following year, Shepherd contributed a track for the motion picture soundtrack for Michael. He also began work on his sophomore album, Trouble Is. Trouble Is was released in 1997 and according to Shepherd it highlighted a more mature and greatly improved style of playing and writing than was evident on its highly acclaimed predecessor. In commenting on Trouble Is, Shepherd told James Rotondi of Guitar Player that “the real challenge on the fast tempo stuff is to avoid the temptation to play fast myself. The goal is to make just a few notes sound right and fit in…. My chops have gotten so much better from playing nearly every night, not to mention from the maturity that comes from playing for two years on a professional level. If I were to do Ledbetter Heights today, it would sound a lot better. I know I’ve progressed, that I’ve stepped up a level or two. I don’t think I’m guilty of overplaying much any more, and I can hear that my rhythm work has gotten a lot tastier.”
After the release of Trouble Is, Shepherd took to the road to promote the new album. A support slot on Dylan’s 1998 tour further helped to bring Shepherd’s new bluesy revival to the masses and was yet another way Shepherd sought to educate, enlighten, and inform the newest members of the blues community. He related on one of his websites that, “I don’t want people to just listen to my music. I want them to hear it. Having people appreciate what I do is the ultimate satisfaction for me. I think there’s a big explosion in blues-based music and it’s very exciting. l’m glad to be a part of it. I want to turn my generation on to it. I want to help keep it alive for them.”
(Contributor) Jewel Spotlights the Blues, Volume I, Jewel, 1994.
(Contributor) Jewel Spotlights the Blues, Volume II, Jewel, 1994.
Ledbetter Heights (includes “Deja Voodoo”), Giant, 1995.
(Contributor) Michael (soundtrack), Revolution, 1996.
Trouble Is, Revolution, 1997.
Billboard, August 30, 1997.
Guitar Player, October, 1995; January, 1998.
Musician, October, 1997.
“Kenny Wayne Shepherd,” http://fly.hiwaay.net/jcarnell/kwsbio.htm (February 12, 1998).
“Kenny Wayne Shepherd,” http://ugalumni.uogleph.ca/bswitzer/kws/index.html (February 12, 1998).
“Kenny Wayne Shepherd,” http://www.kwsband.com/bios (February 12, 1998).
“Kenny Wayne Shepherd,” http://www.revolutiononline.com/shepherd/bio_frame.html (January 22, 1998).
—Mary Alice Adams
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