Kenny Wayne Shepherd
Charts & AWARDS
1995 Déjà Voodoo
From the first compelling minutes of TEN DAYS OUT: Blues From The Backroads, it�s immediately evident that bluesman Kenny Wayne Shepherd is up to something different. Shepherd embarked on a ten-day trek into the heart of America. Traveling highways and byways with a roving documentary film crew, a portable recording studio, portable house band�the esteemed Double Trouble, and producer Jerry Harrison, Shepherd visited blues veterans in their homes, backyards and local clubs, creating as intimate and intense a blues film as has been seen in many a year. The resulting film allows music lovers to join in the exploration and witness the artistic creation of both the film and the accompanying live CD.
Kenny Wayne Shepherd, who ably walks the line between bandleader and accompanist, is joined by a stellar lineup of collaborators. His guests include some of the most renowned blues artists-B. B. King, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, and Hubert Sumlin among them; some artists whose careers reach back to the earliest days of blues- Pinetop Perkins, Henry Townsend, Honeyboy Edwards; and some of the least known though most astonishing players-Cootie Stark, Neal Pattman, and Etta Baker. Other guests include Jerry "Boogie" McCain, Buddy Flett, Bryan Lee, John Dee Holeman, the Howlin' Wolf Band, and the Muddy Waters Band. Partial proceeds of this project are being donated to Music Maker Relief Foundation, a non-profit organization committed to helping impoverished blues artists.
"We could have stopped in every city in the US," says Shepherd, the platinumselling guitarist and vocalist, "and we'd find somebody, whether an old cat who is an original product of this music or else a kid my age or younger-but we'd have found someone who is a fan of the blues and trying to do it justice. We could lay out a world map, throw a dart, and go there to play blues-and people are gonna love it."
With a career that began at age 16, Kenny Wayne Shepherd has a storied decade in music's big-leagues. His first three albums mixed blues and blues-rock; his 1995 debut Ledbetter Heights has sold over a million copies, making it a platinum record. Trouble Is.was released in 1998 selling over a million copies and Grammy-nominated. Live On followed a year later, and also got the Grammy nod. (The latter two were produced by Jerry Harrison, who returned to produce TEN DAYS OUT.) On his most recent record, 2004's The Place You're In, Shepherd took most of the album's lead vocals for the first time. "I cut my teeth as a blues artist," says Kenny Wayne Shepherd. "My first three records mixed my styles, and the last one, The Place You're In, was a pretty heavy dose of rock and roll. So this became a perfect time to present a solid dose of the blues."
With TEN DAYS OUT, Kenny Wayne Shepherd continues his love affair with America's homegrown music, introducing his fans to a varied lot of his blues predecessors. The goal was to get intimate recordings in intimate places, and maintain authenticity: the album has no overdubs, no high-tech fixing. "Live as it went down," says Shepherd. "What happened is what you hear. We kept it as real as possible."
The DVD lays bare that truth, taking us into the small rooms, the kitchens, the dense woods where this music was made. "I was trying to convey the place that produced this kind of music," says the film's director Noble Jones, a self-confessed culture junkie, "the elements that came together to produce the blues. The environment these people came from and how it weighed on them."
Shepherd set out with a home court advantage, by hiring the team who'd helped make Live On such an outstanding effort: Producer Jerry Harrison, himself a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, (his production credits include the Violent Femmes, Live, Big Head Todd & The Monsters; he was a member of the Talking Heads and the Modern Lovers), bassist Tommy Shannon and drummer Chris Layton, the rhythm section known as Double Trouble that came to fame behind Stevie Ray Vaughan. (For some of the acoustic artists, Shepherd's accompaniment was all that the artists needed.) "I can rely on Jerry to listen from an outside perspective," Shepherd says. "We worked together before, so I'm very comfortable with his musical advice. He can be sure the groove is there." Traveling in a bus like a family band, the group blazed a blues trail-from the mouth of the Mississippi River in New Orleans, over to Shreveport, up into Alabama, across to the Carolinas, then west to Salina, Kansas with a few other stops along the way. The whole trip has been captured in a documentary film that takes the same name as the album and is packaged with the release.
Shepherd's work creates an emotional connection between the listener and the performer. The combined effect of the record and the documentary makes Shepherd a conduit, a window through which we can see and hear how these other great artists live and play. The documentary is a series of magic moments-Gatemouth Brown instructing the band on the finer points of listening to others play; Etta Baker talking about the overhaul she intends to give her kitchen; a pre-show BBQ meal with legendary members of Muddy Waters' and Howlin' Wolf's bands sharing stories. The music on the CD creates a vast imaginary vista onto which the documentary burns images, images that are then evoked when the CD is played.
"Etta Baker was a real highlight," film director Jones adds. "She was very expressive, and had this great speaking style and body language. She was so impressive, this elderly skinny woman with the dexterity of a young person. We were completely floored by her spirit."
The slippery and ephemeral nature of a project like TEN DAYS OUT was brought home with the unexpected death of harmonica player and vocalist Wild Child Butler. Healthy and strong at the concert recording with Howlin' Wolf's band, Wild Child was expected to join Shepherd on a tour in support of the album. "He was laughing constantly when we were with him in Salina," Shepherd remembers. "It was a real shock that he passed away. But that further magnifies the importance of this project. Henry Townsend at 96, Honeyboy Edwards at 90, Etta Baker at 93 and B.B. King at 80. we captured them while they're vibrant and vital, and they'll be able to inspire others like they've inspired me."
While the record and DVD were being prepared for release, death has taken five more of the featured artists: Neal Pattman, Cootie Stark, Etta Baker, Henry Townsend and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown. "I wanted to get people in contact with the eternal 3 spirit of the blues," says Jones about Kenny and the film. "As long as there's a struggle, there will always be a voice-the blues--that comes out of human beings. I wanted people to see that spirit still alive, and let them understand that it's a dwindling spirit." The DVD includes bonus material, including amazing footage of gospel singer Essie Mae Brooks performing "Rain In Your Life" a cappella, footage of early Shepherd mentor Buddy Flett, and a funky rural jam with Cool John Ferguson and Neal Pattman.
Most musicians are either bandleaders or band members, and few have proven capable of being both the stars and the accompanists. Kenny Wayne Shepherd, however, has proven himself a true devotee to the music as both a star soloist and a star accompanist. "In my career, I'm out every night playing in front of big crowds," he says. "It's my show, everything is the way I want it to be. And I love that. But a project like this picks me up, takes me out of my so-called reality and puts me right back where I was when I was 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 years old, listening to the people who were my mentors and who inspired me to play music, looking up to them, being humbled."
The years of intense study honed his musical instincts. "That's basically what separates the men from the boys in music," Shepherd continues. "Everyone of these guys has a different style. That's where doing your homework is important. I studied as a young man every style of blues that exists: Mississippi Delta, Texas, Chicago, acoustic, dobro, electric-all of it. And without that kind of knowledge and experience, I don't think I would have been capable of accompanying this diverse group of players."
More than simply knowing when to play electric or acoustic, the accompanist has to know how to let others shine, which means understanding what's being played. And the variety of styles on the album would have daunted many musicians. "Basically, it's knowing how to sit back in the groove," he explains. "Find your musical niche and don't steal the spotlight. With these guys, I'm a 7 year old kid again; I can't help but show respect. I make sure not to overdo it-but I also have to bring something to the table. You got Tommy and Chris backing you, they're going to be doing their job, it's up to me to do mine."
"Kenny was really a high point," says Jones, about watching him interact with so many different kinds of people. "By the end of the ten days, when he played with these legendary bands, it was immensely rewarding to see him both hold his own and share the glory. Kenny was going to shine-he's a star, the light just goes to him, so I had to be sensitive to the other players, but Kenny made sure their presence was strong."
"A project like this, with all these great people, it's not about me-it's about the music," says Shepherd, "and about the people who inspired me to pick up an instrument and make music. You've got to listen to what they sing or write about, and you'll hear the people behind the music, the players behind the blues. And that's what the blues is about-the lives these people led, and that we are living today."