Kenny Wayne Shepherd said he knew that when he first arrived on the music scene, attention would be focused primarily on one factor -- his age. Just 17 when his debut CD, Ledbetter Heights, was released in 1995, Shepherd led the charge of several teen-age blues-rock prodigies (Jonny Lang, Mike Welch and Jake Andrews) onto the record charts.
"I started my band at 15 years old, and a lot of the attention I got was because of my age," the now 22-year-old Shreveport, La. native said. "I knew they were skeptical." His debut album featured the hit single "Deja Voodoo" and topped the blues charts for five months. But Shepherd's skeptics figured he'd stumble by the time he reached voting age and be yesterday's news by the time he could legally buy a drink.
Instead, Shepherd followed up the considerable success of his first CD by going one better with Trouble Is..., a CD that stayed high on the blues charts for more than two years, earned Shepherd a Grammy nomination for best rock instrumental performance and spawned several hit singles, including "Blue On Black," "Slow Ride" and "Somehow, Somewhere, Someway." With his latest CD, Live On, Shepherd proves once and for all that he'll be a part of the blues-rock fabric for years to come.
"People are primarily starting to concentrate on the music instead of my age now," Shepherd said. "The music kind of speaks for itself. The music is performed well and it's risen to every occasion so far. I think we've broken down a lot of walls and a lot of barriers and a lot of things that we had against us.
"I was looking for this album to pretty much set everything in stone to the general public that the Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band is going to be around for a long time," Shepherd said of Live On. "We're looking at a career, not just a short few years of music. I also wanted to expose the people to this kind of music and show them how exciting it is and how many different age groups it can appeal to."
To achieve that latter goal, Shepherd tinkered slightly with the rockier edge he brought to Trouble Is... . To be sure, Shepherd still delivers his share of the hard-charging blues-rock that has been his signature -- and prompted many comparisons to the late Texas guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan. Prime examples of such material are the CD's chart-topping lead single "In 2 Deep," the punchy "Wild Love" and a feverish take on "Them Changes," a song made famous by Jimi Hendrix.
But he also includes several songs that mine the kind of blues roots you'd expect from a young artist who counts legends like Muddy Waters, B. B. King, Albert King, Howlin' Wolf and Vaughan among his major influences. "Shotgun Blues" and "Losing Kind" are songs that put a high-energy accent on the blues shuffle form. On "Was" (a popular recent single) and "Every Time It Rains," Shepherd blends old and new, mixing traditional blues song structures with drum loops and other modern production touches.
"I wanted to kind of show a little more of our roots," Shepherd said. "The Trouble Is... album was very successful. But if there was any kind of criticism about the album from the hard-core blues fans [it was that] they loved it, but they wanted a little more traditional blues. They wanted to hear Kenny Wayne get back to basics a little bit. I figured I'd give that to the people. I wanted to do some shuffles and I also wanted to do some experimental tracks, like 'Was' and 'Every Time It Rains,' which, if you take away all the drum loops and the production that's there, they're pretty much just Mississippi Delta blues songs.
"I think 'Was' and 'Every Time It Rains' actually are a great representation of how adaptable blues music is with the times," Shepherd said. "The music has been around forever. I don't think it's going anywhere. It seems to stand the test of time and it adapts to the trends and the different tastes of the audience." To further vary the musical mix on Live On, Shepherd also includes a tender ballad in "Last Goodbye," a taste of funk in the rocker "Never Mind" and a strong element of gospel in the title song.
The respect Shepherd has gained in the music world -- B. B. King has called him his heir apparent -- is evidenced by the guests who appear on Live On. James Cotton, the veteran harmonica player who came to fame playing with Muddy Waters, and Dr. John, the legendary Louisiana-based keyboard player, both make appearances on the new CD. Warren Haynes, the former Allman Brothers Band guitarist who now fronts the power rock trio Gov't Mule, trades licks with Shepherd on two songs, "Wild Love" and "You Should Have Known Better." Perhaps the most unlikely guest is bassist Les Claypool of the quirky alternative rock band Primus, who plays on a cover of the early Fleetwood Mac classic "Oh Well."
"Live On" also reunites Shepherd with drummer Chris Layton, bassist Tommy Shannon and keyboard player Reese Wynans, the members of Stevie Ray Vaughan's band Double Trouble, who previously guested on the Trouble Is... CD. "I'd met Stevie (Ray Vaughan) several times and I played with Chris Layton the first time when I was 15 years old," Shepherd said, explaining how he came to know Layton, Shannon and Wynans. "It's just a matter of a phone call. The guys checked me out and I guess they appreciated what I did and the truth of it. We all enjoy playing with each other. Pretty much, I wouldn't go in the studio without them now."
Shepherd also continues to develop one other part of his game that he has yet to feature -- his singing. While Noah Hunt, who joined his band before the recording of Trouble Is ..., still handles lead vocals with plenty of fire and confidence, Shepherd pitches in on harmony vocals on Live On and continues to work with a vocal coach to develop his singing. Although the music business tends to encourage artists who front bands to also sing, Shepherd noted his current guitar-only role is far from unprecedented, and he's not rushing his vocal talents to the front just yet.
"Look at Carlos Santana, (Eddie) Van Halen, look at Frank Zappa. There's a whole slew of really talented, really successful bands and guitar players who fronted bands who don't sing," Shepherd said. "I'm working my way into feeling more and more comfortable with my vocals and maybe some day I will take over the vocals and that will take my music to a whole new area."