Latest Release: The Traveler (Mascot / Concord) Website: www.kennywayneshepherd.net
Two years ago, guitarist, singer, and songwriter Kenny Wayne Shepherd aka KWS, released a well received and highly regarded album titled Lay It On Down. In 2018, he again visited our shores with his talented band as part of said album’s touring cycle. This year, he has released another blues rock album titled The Traveler which sees him covering a wider base of musical styles whilst still retaining his incendiary guitar playing. Even metalheads will likely be impressed with the guitar playing abilities on this album which also includes soul, Motown, Southern rock, alternative country and blues fuelled hard rock.
There are two covers on the second half of the album, Buffalo Springfield’s ‘Mr. Soul’ and Joe Walsh’s ‘Turn To Stone’, both great album tracks. Songs such as ‘Gravity’, ‘I Want You’ and ‘Trailwind’ offer various musical styles, impressive guitar playing and a rhythm section that bolsters that already strong music as Shepherd and his band perform a variety of captivating material. Loud Online took the rare opportunity to chat with Shepherd to discuss the latest album and to touch on some highlights from over the last twenty six or so years of his solid musical career.
Your most recent tour to Australia was a commanding performance. Your rendition of the Jimi Hendrix classic track ‘Voodoo Child’, at the end of the show, was powerful and expressive. Did the influence of Jimi flow through from Stevie Ray Vaughan?
Thanks, man. The influence was individual but I grew up hearing probably as much Jimi Hendrix around the house as I heard Stevie Ray Vaughan. Obviously I knew that Hendrix was an influence on Stevie but I don’t think that Hendrix became an influence on me because of SRV. I think that, you know, I was a fan of both artists and I took something from both of them.
SRV did perform some impressive covers of Jimi’s work and with Chris Layton in your band, it’s great.
When I grew up and before I had a band, I used to play along with all of those Stevie Ray songs and Chris Layton was the drummer that I practised to all the time, at home. So, when I did my first record [Ledbetter Heights] and he came out to play with me on that record, well, that was just absolutely natural playing with him. It has been so from that day forward. He has been on every record that I have done, except one and he has been the full time drummer for ten years, maybe even longer, I don’t even know since it has been a while. But it is always great having him back there. He plays drums the way I would play them if I was a drummer.
Your latest album crosses different styles. How did you approach song writing this time around?
I really didn’t have anything particular in mind when I did it. I just try to go and write songs. I have musical ideas that sound good to me and so I will simply say, ‘Let’s try this one’ and so we will start writing songs. I don’t sit down and say, ‘Okay, we need to write three songs that sound like this or do two songs that have this kind of sound,’ I just write songs and then we see what happens and what comes from it. Then when I feel like I have a collection of songs together that are strong enough to make an album, then we go into the studio and we start recording.
You’ve done that many albums that you’d be comfortable in your own skin, as it were, so I’d imagine you’re not really bothered with trying to impress anyone.
Yeah and I mean, really, it is that I go in to make the records that we make and I have the ability to do that because I have been doing it for so long. It is really because the fans are so supportive and I think that they respect that. I think that they will support you even more if they feel like you are following your muse or your inspiration rather than trying to conform yourself to whatever might be cool at the time. To me, there is more respect in that [doing the former] as an artist. So, I am just following my instincts and I have always made the records that I want to make and I have written the songs that I want to write. The fans have thankfully been there with me for the entire journey now. It has been almost thirty years so it is great to have that kind of freedom.
You’ve got a really nice, smooth guitar tone on the latest album. Is part of that to do with just rolling back the volume a bit on the guitar to let the amplifier do the work?
No, I don’t really roll the volume back unless dynamically we are bringing the song down. I pretty much have everything turned up to ten, you know, ha ha. It is usually full blast unless I am going for a cleaner sound, then I will dial the amp back to try to clean it up. On my guitars and on my signature guitars, I have a treble lead circuit so that when you do roll the volume back a bit, it doesn’t become more muffled sounding and it keeps the top end on the tone. When you’re working live, you have to manipulate the volume either through your pedals or through your instrument. You cannot just keep running back to the amplifiers. But in the studio, you can stop what you’re doing and go to change the settings on the amplifier at any point to fit in with what you’re doing. So it is not so much manipulating the volume on the guitar in the studio as it is on the amp.
To get that old school sound from a Stratocaster, there is the argument that you have to have the Marshall or the Fender amp cranked up a lot. But there is an attenuator option.
Yeah, I am using a Strat through a bunch of Fender bass amps. For the longest time I was using Fender Twins which are really super clean and they don’t break up until they you get them up to about eight or nine but even then, they are so clean that they may break up but only just a little bit. That is cool because then you can use your pedals to kind of send it over the top but these amps that I have been using now are all custom built by Alexander Dumble. He is the man, he is the best in the business. I didn’t realise how responsive amplifiers actually could be until he started building me amps and he could build the amps around my style of playing. I would go and play for him and he would listen to what I was trying to get the amp to do and how I was trying to get it to respond. He would then go and tailor build the circuit around that. So then, all of a sudden, the amplifiers are doing all these things that you kind of had to struggle to do before. Doing that frees up so much creativity in the process that it is amazing.
How long did it take you to get used to playing loud?
I don’t think it takes very long. I think the adjustment would be from if you’re playing loud to t hen having to play softly. It is a pretty easy adjustment to go from playing in your bedroom or living room and keeping it low to being in a room where you can actually crank it up. That is not a hard adjustment to make. As a matter of fact, guitar players tend to like it and jump in there a little too soon to crank it up when the room maybe isn’t big enough to accommodate it because everybody wants to play loud. The biggest adjustment is when you are used to playing loud and then when you go to play at a small club or sit in with someone, then you have to turn everything way back and then you are not getting the response that you have been used to when things are turned up.
I guess that is the kind of thing that you’ve learned from playing with both B.B. King and with your own band in different live situations.
Playing live is experience. There is no substitution for the experience gained from playing live. That is where you learn the most about anything – it is about getting out there, rolling up your sleeves and doing it. But watching guys like B.B. was great. He had the benefit of playing a semi-hollow body guitar and those things can feedback. Sometimes, they can feedback in a good way and then sometimes they can do it in a not so good way. He had everything dialled in just right to where he could just hit a note and just let it ring all day long, if he wanted. So, then being so blown away by that, I tried to do it myself with a totally different set up with a Strat and a different rig but I had to really work at that and then explore which keys you could accomplish that in and which notes are going to work versus which notes aren’t going to work. It is a whole different monster on a Stratocaster.
Your most recent album obviously has a lot of solos but there are also some tasty little outro solos. Do producers try to reel you in at all?
No, I mean, I am the co-producer of the album and Marshall [Altman] would never try to reel me in from playing guitar just because that is what my band is all about, you know. It is built around the fact that I am a guitar player. I am the one that is more likely to reel myself in just because as I have gotten older I just find that. I have never really approached music as where every song is an opportunity for me to just blaze on guitar. Every song is not just like some opportunity for me to play an extended solo. I have always been about the entire song, the entire album and the whole project from beginning to end with telling stories and conveying emotions and things like that. But as I have gotten older I have become more selective about that. So, on this album, there is a lot of restraint on certain songs. There is also a lot of great guitar soloing on other songs, you know, with extended soloing. It kind of, I think, is pretty balanced.
I suppose in that light you would look at say ‘Mr. Soul’ being more restrained whereas with ‘Turn To Stone’ is a song were you just sort of go off on guitar.
Well yeah but even ‘Mr. Soul’ sort of ramps up towards the end. There is some really frenetic guitar playing going on at the end. In fact, the whole band kind of explodes [musically]; it just doesn’t go on for another four and a half minutes after the last verse. Whereas for the song ‘I Want You’, that is six and a half minutes with very short verses. It really is just a lot of guitar playing and that is one of my favourite songs on the record because I think that song really defines what I believe contemporary modern blues is supposed to sound like.
Also, ‘Long Time Running’ has a tiny hint of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ‘Free Bird’ in there. Do you agree?
Well, there is definitely elements of rock and southern rock which is some of the stuff that I grew up listening to so on the song ‘Better with Time’ you’ll hear that song has a real kind of soul music vibe to it. That is another kind of music that I grew up listening to so all of that stuff finds its way or creeps its way into your subconsciousness and then finds its way out through your music. I cannot tell you that when we sat down to write that song that I was thinking about ‘Free Bird’ but for you to say that you can hear some elements of that, it doesn’t surprise me because I grew up listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd, Allman Brothers, ZZ Top and all of that stuff.
What sort of pedal were you using on the song ‘I Want You’?
That is just straight up guitar into the amplifier with the King of Tone [by Analogman] overdrive and distortion pedal. That’s it.
Do you find it in any way harder to play very slow songs in the blues realm?
Ah, not really, actually. I tend to find it harder to play faster songs and it is not that I can’t play fast but if you’re playing a fast song, I will tend to simplify what I am going to play in my solo because of the nature of the song already being fast. So, with slow songs, there seems to be so much more room that then that tends to open up the opportunity for me to kind of burn more, in my opinion. It is kind of backwards to maybe what you would think, I guess but that is kind of my approach to it.
You’ve participated in two of Joe Satriani’s G3 tours which is pretty impressive. You also toured with Van Halen twice. What insights did you gain from playing with those legends of rock guitar?
Well, I have known Steve Vai and Joe Satriani for years. I mean, I did those G3 tours when I was a teenager, back in the nineties. That was cool and I didn’t know how I was going to go over because I was still a new artist and my style is really different to their styles. It was an entire audience of all guitar players, you know, so I had no idea what they were going to think of me. But I actually went over really well. I did it twice and I enjoyed it even just in watching guys like that and seeing how they put on their show. I love watching people that are entertainers and seeing how they do what they do. For Van Halen, I have known Eddie since the nineties as well because we opened up for them in the nineties and that is how I got to be good friends. Then back in 2015 we did another tour with them and again, you know, there are some similarities there; guitar centric band, the namesake of the band is the lead guitar player but I started singing more now. Eddie still doesn’t sing but initially I had a lead singer and they have a lead singer. So, there are similarities but the styles of music are different. It worked really well and the audiences really dug it.
Eddie seems fairly approachable, happy to share about guitar and is quite pragmatic about fame.
He is one of the nicest guys that I know. He is a really nice dude and he is very approachable I guess if you know him, you know. I can only speak from my own experience but he has always been very warm and very welcoming with me. He is like the Michael Jordan of guitar, you know what I am saying, so it is pretty awesome when you meet somebody like that who has had the kind of influence and impact on music that he has had and to see the kind of guy that he is.
Can you elaborate further on the rhythm section for this album?
On my record this is the same set up as on Lay It On Down. So, Chris Layton is on drums and Kevin McCormack is on bass guitar. Kevin plays in my other band, The Rides, which I have with Stephen Stills [and keyboardist Barry Goldberg]. So, Kevin plays bass on the record and then there is Jim McGorman on keyboards and of course Noah Hunt on lead vocals plus myself on lead vocals and obviously me on guitar. For a while there, Kevin was in my [touring] band as well, playing bass but he went back out on tour with Stephen last year. Anyway, there are a couple of different guys for the bass player [Scott Nelson] and keyboard player [Joe Krown] in my live shows and they are currently not the guys that I use in the studio. Usually, I try to play with great musicians that I can play with on the road and they are also as equally as great in the studio. I have never been a fan of using a different band in the studio versus what I use on tour. A lot of people do that but it is not really my thing.
The blues scene has a tendency to celebrate living through suffering and hard times in life, having paid your dues and so on. As a parent and successful artist, you must have a very different view or attitude of that lifestyle path.
Well yeah, I mean, look, I think that everybody has issues in their life. Blues is about life experience. It is about life’s ups and much as it is about life’s downs. So there is pain and suffering to varying degrees for all of us and there are great times to be celebrated. Since I started having kids and as I am happily married, I have realised that music is a powerful thing because you have the power to influence people’s moods and their thoughts and sometimes their actions, just through music. My goal, especially since I have become a parent has been to try to be the best example that I can be and to put as much positivity out there in what is a pretty negative world. For the most part, nowadays, everything is so negative in the news. So I feel like that in my music, I should be doing everything that I can to uplift people through the music.