In 1995, at the meager age of 17, Kenny Wayne Shepherd released his first record. Ledbetter Heights spent five full months atop Billboard's blues chart and boosted Shepherd from a young and talented wannabe to a young and talented definitely-is. Since then, the guitarist has been showered with success -- from Grammy nominations and mainstream rock chart-toppers, to multi-platinum albums and, sweetest of all, industry-wide respect.
For his latest offering, Live On, the Strat-blaster turned it up a few notches. Songs like "In 2 Deep" and a cover of Buddy Miles' "Them Changes" are rock 'n' roll juggernauts propelled by Shepherds monster-riffing and Noah Hunt's rugged lead vocals, while Never Mind pays tribute to the great southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd and Shotgun Blues commemorates the classic sound of hard Texas blues.
Live On eclipses Shepherds prior output in terms of skill, grit, and overall songwriting awareness. And while Shepherd surely deserves most of the credit for the album's maturity and enjoyability, the guitarist got by with a little help from his friends, bassist Tommy Shannon, drummer Chris Layton and keyboardist Reese Wynans of Stevie Ray Vaughan's longtime backing band Double Trouble. There were also studio visits by legendary harp player James Cotton, Primus bassist Les Claypool, Government Mule guitar slinger Warren Haynes, and New Orleans bluesman Bryan Lee. No, this isn't your ordinary blues outing. It's a veritable Texas Flood of electric blues-rock that should bring Shepherd even further into the mainstream.
Guitar.com: It sounds like you're really finding your sound with the songs on Live On.
Kenny Wayne Shepherd: I think we got a good one. That's always been the intention when you're making a record -- to establish a ground and then stay on it.
Guitar.com: The song concepts are pretty basic, pretty stripped down.
Shepherd: With songs like "Shotgun Blues" and "Losin' Kind" I was really trying to get back to the music I really love, and with songs like "Was" and "Every Time It Rains" I tried to take the basics and run with it. I was trying to get back to my roots.
Guitar.com: You're still pretty young at 22. What kind of roots could you have?
Shepherd: My whole career started when I was 13, almost ten years ago, so I have some history. Then again, that's just a drop in the bucket to the place I'll eventually get to. I still plan on having a career in like, 30 years, if all goes well.
Guitar.com: What would you like to be doing in 30 years?
Shepherd: If I had my way I'd still be playing, maybe more acoustic blues stuff. I'd eventually like to produce other people, help folks in the studio, maybe just reach a good enough status as a player so I could tour as I pleased. That would be ideal.
Guitar.com: Do you think the fact that you're still so young continues to affect the way people perceive you? Do you still have to prove yourself?
Shepherd: In the beginning, age had a lot to do with it and I had a lot of proving to do. But this is my third album now, and I think I've pretty much established myself as a blues and rock guitar player. It took me a while, but I think I busted down those walls.
Guitar.com: Tell us about your songwriting style.
Shepherd: I pretty much go with my instincts. I like to improvise and be as spontaneous as I can. Sometimes I write an outline of what's going on. That way I have a thread to work off of, but I can go where I please. For lyrics, I let the music set the mood. I write the music first and then the lyrics follow.
Guitar.com: Noah's voice adds a lot of power to the band.
Shepherd: I think Noah and I work well together. Onstage, we can inspire each other and take a song or a performance to new heights. It's kind of like Mick Jagger and Keith Richards or Jimmy Page and Robert Plant where together a singer and a guitar player make up one creative package. We even wrote together; we did "Shotgun Blues" and "Where Was I?" together.
Guitar.com: What do you look for in a good riff or a good hook?
Shepherd: We look for a lot. It's got to meet my and the band's standards and it's got to measure up to the standards of the rest of the album. We worked on this one for almost four months to make sure we had the right chemistry and mix of riffs and styles. I enjoy working under pressure, but if you give yourself too much time to work on something it can be pretty stressful. I like pressure but I dont like stress.
Guitar.com: How do you react to the criticism that you're just a Jimi or Stevie Ray clone?
Shepherd: Well, there's good criticism and bad criticism on that subject. First of all, I'm not going to and I don't want to sound the same as Jimi or Stevie Ray. They're definitely part of what I do. We like to tip our hat to them occasionally. But our goal is not to sound like them. Then again, if it wasn't for Stevie Ray, I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing. To me, it's a compliment whenever I hear my name with his. I still listen to stuff he did. I've heard it a million times and it still amazes me. I'd have to say it would be truly amazing to hear what he'd be doing if he were still alive.
Guitar.com: What's they key to a great guitar part?
Shepherd: That's hard to say. Sometimes you can come up with a riff that's too much or sometimes it's not enough. The main thing is to make that riff memorable, not in a sense that it makes people say, "Oh my god, how did he play that," but in a sense where they'll walk away from your music and never forget it.