While still a toddler, guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd had a formative experience that would inspire him to pursue the electric guitar.
Now considered a blues phenom, Shepherd started simple. He initially learned to play on plastic acoustic guitars his grandmother used to buy with stamps.
“I had several of those things, and I would wear them out,” says Shepherd in a recent TransAtlantic phone call from a UK tour stop. “The strings would break. [The plastic guitars] had six nylon strings on it. They didn’t sound that great, but you could play notes on them. I remember playing silly things like ‘Smoke on the Water’ on that thing. You can get the general mechanics of pressing down on the strings between the frets and strumming the guitar. You can get the concept of playing the guitar on anything like that.”
He learned to play well enough on those plastic guitars that he began practicing on the real thing. In another formative moment, blues musician Bryan Lee invited him on stage when he was 13.
“For me, it was a moment of truth,” he says of playing with Lee. “I had never done that before. I was always kind of shy. I was embarrassed to play around my mom around the house. I would play in my bedroom. I thought I would sink or swim, and it would go one way or the other. Thankfully, it went over well. I got standing ovations. I was only supposed to play two songs, but Brian wouldn’t let me get off the stage. He had me up there until 3 or 4 in the morning. It gave me the confidence that I could do it.”
About a year after that, he was in the studio working on his first demos and putting a band together. He would have a hit right out of the gate with his debut, 1995’s Ledbetter Heights.
“I wasn’t counting record sales, although I was getting reports and realized sales were just crazy,” he says when asked about what it was like to have success so early in his career. “What was fascinating to me was that I was starting to travel all over the country and other parts of the world and people were showing up to see me play and we were packing places. I was just a teenager, and I just wanted to play music. It wasn’t about the money. I would show up, and there would be a whole room full of people there to see me play. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Through the ’90s and ’00s, Shepherd continued to religiously tour and record. He says the songs for Lay It on Down started to come together a couple of years ago.
“I had a busy schedule but between tours and albums with [the side project] the Rides, I would set aside songs for my next record,” he explains. “I accumulated a bunch of songs I liked, and we went into the studio and picked the best 10 songs and made a record. Our last record was all traditional blues. I did the soundtrack of my childhood. We recorded cover songs by some of my favorite blues artists. I wanted this one to be all original and sound contemporary.”
Shepherd and co-producer Marshall Altman (Matt Nathanson, Natasha Bedingfield, Kate Voegele), recorded at Echophone Studios in Shepherd’s hometown of Shreveport. Shepherd largely recorded the album live in the studio to analog tape with his band, which features long-time singer Noah Hunt, drummer Chris Layton, bassist Kevin McCormick and keyboardist Jimmy McGorman.
The album's opening track, “Baby Got Gone,” has a great hook. A meaty guitar riff kicks off the song and Shepherd delivers a piercing solo early in the track too.
“The music itself was an idea I had come up with and jotted down into my phone,” says Shepherd when asked about the track. “I have hundreds of song ideas that I have saved. I sift through them until I find one that speaks to me. I decided to work on that one. We just wrote a song about a free-spirited woman. It wasn’t about anyone in particular. We wrote some songs that are stories. Like [the tune] ‘Ride of Your Life’ isn’t based on any true experience. It’s not about any one person. This is another one like that. It’s not based on anyone in particular in any of our lives.”
Bursts of horns and organ combine to give the rollicking “Diamonds & Gold” a retro feel.
“Originally, we had a synthesizer part there,” says Shepherd when asked about the tune. “It was kind of cool, but I thought it was a little too outside the box. I thought horns would be a great organic instrument for the tune and maybe more appropriate for my sound. It has funk and R&B and an urban vibe with the vocal delivery.”
Shepherd attributes some of his musical evolution to playing with the Rides, a band that includes singer Stephen Stills and keyboardist Barry Goldberg.
“Stephen Stills is one of the greatest songwriters and musicians of our time, and Barry Goldberg is a legendary guy in blues,” Shepherd says. “It’s been a great experience. Stephen has pushed me to sing more. I think it’s helped me as a vocalist. Musically, I get to play rhythm guitar underneath Stephen and lead guitar as well. Writing and recording with them has enhanced my career for sure.”
While Shepherd says he’s heard that the age of the guitar hero has come to an end, he thinks interest in the instrument will persist.
“Anything like that will fluctuate in popularity,” he says. “iPhones don’t sell the same amount or more every time. Things fluctuate but the guitar will still be around. I’ve found plenty of sounds that I like. There are people constantly looking for a different sound. I’m always interested in trying new things. I think I found the bulk of my sound and everything else is just a little bit of inspiration in one direction or another. There are guys who can pull their hair out in this never-ending search for something. I’m not sure that something exists. Or maybe it does exist and they’ve found it but they don’t realize it.”
Shepherd says his love for the stage has kept him engaged for the past two decades.
“I love recording, but we make records so we can go out and play for the people,” he says. “It’s the interaction you get between the audience and the band on stage. It’s about the vibe and excitement you feel on stage. That’s what it’s all about for me.”