Every album constitutes a different and personal journey, in the life and career of every musician. For Louisiana's Blues/Rock Maestro Kenny Wayne Shepherd, the triumph of his latest album released in 2017, Lay It On Down, surely represents one of the most rewarding and successful artistic achievements of a highly successful career span that stretches to more than two decades of music, a career during which Shepherd has won numerous Awards, together with the unanimous appreciation of the music press from all around the world.
Chosen by a panel of music expert from five different countries as the worthy winner of the 2017 Bluebird Reviews Award as Artist Of The Year, Shepherd's new album sees the guitarist reaching a remarkable level of artistic maturity in many ways, not just as a songwriter but also as a singer.
When Bluebird Reviews meets Kenny Wayne Shepherd to talk in details about the incredible reception received by his latest album, the most obvious thing that comes to mind is to ask to one the most forward thinker artists of the last two decades of blues/rock whether, back in 2015, when Shepherd started working on Lay It On Down, the guitarist had already the feeling that the songs were going to sound as fabulous as they ended up being when the record got released or they rather went, through the 24 month's gestation period of Lay It On Down, to many different transformations. "The sound of the songs were extensively developed in the recording studio but, when we wrote the songs, I knew pretty much what the end result was going to be. My intention with this album, right from the start of the writing process, was to make Lay It On Down a contemporary sounding album that drew from many different musical genres and different influences that I had over the years, in order to try and enable me to bring something new to the table, like, new sounds, new songs, new grooves and also to create something that, I think, is new, refreshing and not predictable. My last studio album, as you know, was traditional blues, so I thought that it was appropriate, for my next studio album, to move forward to more contemporary and different sounds".
Between touring the world with the Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band and working with Shepherd's side project The Rides, a super-group made by Shepherd himself plus other world class artists like Stephen Stills and Barry Goldberg, the Louisiana Guitar Prodigy took every possible opportunity to get to Nashville and work on the new songs that then ended up being in Lay It On Down with the guitarist's long time co-writers and friends Tia Sillers or Mark Selby (the latter, sadly, then passed away in September 2017) plus some new songwriters like Danny Myrick, Dylan Altman and Keith Stegall. Bluebird Reviews also understands that, according to some Social Networks, some of the Lay It On Down's songs were born during few trips that the artist took to the lake, perhaps in search of a deep and more spiritual inspiration and our website is keen to know which of the songs included in Lay It On Down were "born", during those trips. "It's hard for me to give a precise answer to your question. I have ideas and, because of the modern technology that is so great, I can record ideas in any moments that they come to me at any time and everywhere I am. Through times, I accumulated hundreds of musical ideas on my phone over the course of travelling, whether it's on tour, at a sound-check, on the tour bus or on road trips with my friends, down home in Louisiana, sitting in front of the lake. So, when the moment comes of sitting down and to write songs, I listen to all those ideas I recorded on my phone, I pick one and I go "Let's finish that". As I said before, it is really hard for me to pinpoint where all those songs were born, due to the fact that I can't remember exactly where I was, at the time when all those hundreds of musical sketches I have got on my phone were recorded. Something that I can certainly tell you, though, is that, on a lot of these songs, when I write them, I imagine many different goals that I want to achieve with them. More accurately, for example, on a couple of songs of the new album, like Nothing But The Night and Diamonds And Gold, as the songs were written, my vision for those songs was for the people to listen to them and dance, to get up and to have a good time. There are other songs, though, carrying different vibes, where I imagine people listening instead to those songs in places like their cars, driving down the road and listen to music that make you want to go fast".
One of the statements that Shepherd released, at the time Lay It On Down was released last year, was that such album is a window to the guitarist's soul, something that, for some artists, it may be a tough thing to do during a songwriting process. "Well, it wasn't hard, really. The hardest thing about the songwriting stage, for me, it was stepping outside of my comfort zone, because I have written songs with a lot of the same people for my whole life and I still do (Tia Sillers and the late great Mark Selby) but I wanted, through this record, to push myself to do something different and maybe something that it isn't just easy for me to do. That meant that I tried to write with a lot of new people and, with some of them, it worked but with some other, it didn't work so well. That's what happens with music. There needs to be chemistry between people, because that is something that you can't fake or manufacture. So it took a little bit to find the right people that would work really well for me and ultimately, trying to avoid to put myself in situations that might be rather uncomfortable. In the beginning stage, when you write a song with somebody, you get together and you can spend hours working side by side on something, without reaching the end result that you expect. Working with new songwriters was a great learning curve for me and a big challenge too. In any situation where you put yourself in an uncomfortable position, usually, there is a benefit that comes from that and to me, the benefit was getting to write with the new writers Danny Myrick, Dylan Altman and Keith Stegall these amazing new songs of the new album and now, I have new people that I really love to work with".
One of the most noticeable aspects of Lay It On Down is the incredible quality of Shepherd‘s vocals, something that seems to get better and better on each passing record. Bluebird Reviews is wondering whether, perhaps, working on separate projects like The Rides, it helped the guitarist and singer/songwriter to discover even further how powerful also as a singer he is. "I think that a lot of credit should go to Stephen Stills (from The Rides) for this, because he really pushed me hard on that. In the early days of The Rides project, I only found out that I was going to sing like, maybe one or two songs, on the first record. Stephen was adamant that I needed to sing more and we essentially shared the vocal responsibilities, in the end. He has continued to push me to do that through the years. We have done three tours as a band and I am singing more in those shows than in my own shows! He has certainly pushed me to become a better vocalist and that has also enabled me to improve on my instrument. All of that has helped to contribute to, what I think, is an overall better vocal performance from me on this album".
The Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band shows incredible energy and musical cohesion throughout the whole album, reaching the absolute peak in songs like She Is Money, Down For Love and Diamonds & Gold. The latter is, undoubtedly, one of the most memorable moments of the record, thanks to the inspired addition of a horn section added to the already highly robust sound of the KWS Band and a monumental Kenny Wayne Shepherd's killer guitar solo to finish off in style the tune, as the perfect cherry on the cake. "I wrote that song with the record's co-producer Marshall Altman. I just remember going in his studio one evening and we weren't even supposed to write a song that day, I was just gone by to say hi and we were going to hang out for a little bit to catch up. Then I picked up one of his guitars and started playing the rhythm part of what then became Diamonds & Gold. Marshall hit the Record button and he started singing a vocal melody, then we wrote a little part of the song on the spot but we didn't finish it. The song sat there for something like six months, unfinished. The week we were going into the studio to make the record, I texted him, just saying: "Diamonds & Gold, we need to finish this!". By the time we got into the studio, the song was ready to be recorded. You know, that song has got a young, fresh feeling but it carries, at the same time, that old school R&B feeling, with the horn section and the groove. To me, that song assembles young and contemporary vocal phrasing, with words and lyrics that sound young and hip with a great retro vibe to it as well".
Shepherd's new record displays in full the artistic growth of a musician and his band. The maturity reached by the guitarist's songwriting is often highly moving, like in some of the best ballads that Shepherd has ever written in his career, such as the album's title-track, Hard Lesson Learned and Louisiana Rain, the latter being one of the most personal, intense and evocative songs ever penned by Kenny Wayne Shepherd. Our website is curious to know how much of an impact brings to be born and raised in Louisiana in the guitarist's everyday's life and his musicianship. "Well, obviously my roots have had a huge influence on who I am as a person and as a musician. Louisiana is where I discovered my love for music and where I cultivated my craft. That is also the place where I grew up and where my family taught me what it means to be a good person, how to do the right thing and not the wrong one. On that particular song, I was going to try and sing it by myself but I just couldn't, because it was a bit too low of a key for my voice and if we changed the key, the song could have lost some of that mystique and that vibe to it. So it ended up being more appropriate for Noah to sing that song, in spite of the fact that it is a pretty personal song for me but I do think that the end result was the right choice, because he (Noah Hunt) sounds really great on it".
The new record's cover is very well designed, with a beautiful black and white paint featuring Shepherd in a reflective pose. "On the last studio album prior to this, (Goin' Home), the cover artwork was an oil on canvas painting that a friend of mine did for me. He came to my house and he took a picture of me without me knowing, then he painted this big portrait and he gave it to me for my birthday, that year. It didn't take long for me to decide that said portrait was going to be my album cover for the Goin' Home album. He is a very talented artist and well known in the States. For the Lay It On Down cover, I thought it would be good to have him again to do the artwork, because, a long time ago, all album's artwork used to be proper ones, like, there was an artist that came up with a concept for a cover and would paint it or draw it, whatever. That is why I really liked the idea of having an album cover with a true analog feeling to it. The cover of my new album is a charcoal rendering that he did and I wanted it to be like that, because I like the stark contrast of the black and white. I think that it really looks cool and carries nice vibes. Plus, the design of the Kenny Wayne Shepherd logo on the album's cover goes back to the very first logo that we had on Ledbetter Heights, so it felt like coming full circle with that too".
(Photo by Greg Logan)
It's rather unusual to see in any of Kenny Wayne Shepherd's records two version of the same tune. Bluebird Reviews asks the guitarist whether the acoustic version of the album's title-track that closes the album was the original version/demo that he initially recorded or was that a version that the artist cut on a later stage but wanted to be part of the album still. "The initial intention for that song was for it to be a bonus track, because I thought that it was a great, alternative version of that particular song. The original album version has the whole band playing on it but this is one of those songs where I thought that the harmony and the vocals were so good, even in the more stripped down version. The focus of that song is really the story that it has been told, more than it is the guitar playing, for example or anything else. Adding that alternate version of Lay It On Down as closing track of the record, it meant to me to be able to present that song in the right way and really put the emphasis on the lyrics and the vocals. A version that it is, in my opinion, equally as compelling as the original".
The guitarist and singer/songwriter is a rare exception in the blues/rock industry, when it comes to releasing live albums. Rather than falling into the temptation of publishing many live albums, Shepherd is rather driven by the idea of channeling his creative energy instead in the development of blues/rock and the constant making of new material. We ask the Louisiana born-and-bred artist what is his secret on being able to deliver so many great records through all these years and what is the key factor that helps him to stay focused and maintain a constant, healthy approach to music. "When it comes to write new material, I don't like to be hurried into forcing to release new records, if I don't feel that there is enough good material for that. That, to me, ensures a certain, constant level of quality in all the records that I choose to release. Essentially, just making music when I feel inspired to do so and not just for the sake of having something to give to the people, not just trying to throw a record out just because I should. True, we have just one live album (the 2010 Live! In Chicago) that we put out but, to be honest with you, we have been recording our live shows for many years, now. All the shows that we did with The Rides, they have been recorded too. We do have a lot of live shows recorded; perhaps one day there might be another live album released but there are no plans for that, for the time being".
There have been some exceptional landmarks in Kenny Wayne Shepherd's career, in the last couple of decades. 1997 saw the album Trouble Is.. marking the record as being the longest running album on the Billboard Blues Charts. 2007 then saw the guitarist releasing that splendid two-times Grammy nominated album/documentary called 10 Days Out: Blues From The Backroads, which is, to these days, one of the best documentaries about blues of the last 20 years. Given the extraordinary worldwide success of Lay It On Down in 2017, before parting company with this incredibly talented artist, Bluebird Reviews asks Shepherd where does he feel that 2018 will take Kenny Wayne Shepherd and his band of brothers to. "Well, I don't know, to be honest with you. I am excited for my new record and grateful at the same time to the fans and all the people for all the love that they showed in 2017 for the album. Something I can definitely tell you is that we are looking at doing a follow-up to the 10 Days Out project, because, as you said, 2017 marked the 10-years anniversary of that album. The intention is to do another version of that album/DVD, but 10 years later. For what concerns the Lay It On Down album, well, I hope that the interest, not just for my record but for the genre in general, will grow even further with the new year. The hope is that some people and new generations of fans, still unfamiliar to the blues, will hear these songs and fall in love with the genre because, at the end of the day, this remains the ultimate goal".