INTERVIEW: Kenny Wayne Shepherd

There was a time when Kenny Wayne Shepherd was thought of as a blues wunderkind. His deft Stratwork and powerful delivery brought obvious comparisons to Stevie Ray Vaughan, as did his use of SRV’s rhythm section of Chris Layton and Tommy Shannon. But KWS was never an SRV clone. His work has tended to lean more towards the rock aspect of blues-rock than SRV’s did – although that never stopped him from exploring more traditional blues fare as well. New album How I Go, his first studio recording for Roadrunner Records and first since 2004’s The Place You’re In, finds Shepherd exploring both extremes.

There’s a strong rock feel to the album as well as the blues stuff.

I feel like it’s a good balance between blues and rock. We put several blues songs on there – “Backwater Blues,” the Albert King cover “Oh! Pretty Woman,” even the Beatles song “Yer Blues” and several others. I tried to strike a balance between that and the blues-based rock I like to do. I just felt that the last record, The Place You’re In, was a real straight-ahead rock record, and then we did the 10 Days Out project, which was completely traditional blues, and then the Live In Chicago record had a lot of blues on it. So I felt it was time to get back to the middle of the road between the two.

There are some tracks like “The Wire” and “Come On Over” where if you played them a certain way they could almost be 70s-style heavy metal.

Well certainly, but I like to show some dexterity and try some different things, have some different sounds on each record. But the thing is, when you listen to the whole album it still sounds cohesive. Every song sounds like they belong together.

I really dig the cover of “Backwater Blues.” The change from traditional blues to heavy blues-rock is so unexpected.

Yeah, thanks! I think it works pretty good. We tried to do the intro with the piano and pay tribute to the original version of it, then after the intro when the band comes in we try to go to a more Elmore James, Texas blues kind of version of that song. It seems pretty cool!

There are so many songs you could possibly choose to cover, and of course your original songs too How do you decide what to include on an album?

Every record that I’ve done, I usually write about 30 songs before I go in and start recording. This one was no different: I had about 30, 40 songs. And we just started recording, and then the better songs rise to the surface, and the album begins to take shape. But we had a lot of great material and a lot of tough decisions to make. That’s why on the special edition we wound up with 17 songs and there were still a few that were really great songs that didn’t make the record just because we couldn’t do any more than that.

You’ve worked with producer Jerry Harrison (Talking Heads) quite a bit over the years.

Jerry’s great. We’ve been working together for so long now, we have a really great relationship. It’s a really productive relationship and he has a really in-depth understanding of where I’m coming from as an artist, what my music should sound like, what we’re capable of. He’s got a great musical approach and knowledge that I think is very valuable when you look at someone being a producer.

People don’t necessarily think of the blues when they think of him but I understand the blues is really his background. 

Yeah! The first band he was in was a blues band, and he knows a lot about the blues. He’s the one who suggested we do “Backwater Blues” and “Oh! Pretty Woman.” He brought those to the table. He’s pretty well-versed in the music and the genre.

I really dig the song “Any Way The Wind Blows.” It has a bit of that “Blue On Black” vibe, which was a big song for you.

I think it’s cooler than “Blue On Black.” It’s got an epic side to it, and the lyrics I think have a lot of substance and development. There are some good guitar sounds. I mean, I think it’s definitely one of my favourite songs on the record, and it has a really good message to it. It’s one of Jerry’s favourites too.

Your lead guitar tone is huge as always. What did you use?

I used a lot of different things. Just about every guitar on the record was a Fender Stratocaster. I played my ’61 Strat a lot on the record. I had a ’59 Stratocaster, a hardtail guitar I also used on a lot of songs. Then I used my signature series Stratocaster as well. For amps I switched a little bit. I used one of the new 1957 Tweed Fender Twin reissues the Custom Shop makes. I used that and an original 1964 Fender Vibroverb that has the black face and a single 15″ speaker. And I used a Dumble Overdrive Special and another amp that Mr Dumble made for me. I used an original Ibanez TS808 Tube Screamer and one of the new handmade reissue Tube Screamers, an original Fuzz Face, a UniVibe, an Analog Man BiChorus and an Analog Man King Of Tone pedal. I have an original Vox Clyde McCoy wah wah pedal, and I also used one of the new Custom Audio Electronics wah wahs. That’s the jist of most of the songs on the record.

Last time we talked you told me you had a replica made of your ’61 so the original guitar wouldn’t get bashed up on the road. Did you use that at all for the sessions?

Yeah! I had just gotten it right before we started recording this record. It was awesome to hear it in the studio and in some ways I prefer it to the original. So that made it onto some tracks too.

How I Go is out now through Roadrunner Records.

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