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Guitar virtuoso curates inaugural ‘Backroads Blues Festival’ tour with his band, Buddy Guy, Christone ‘Kingfish’ Ingram
Preview by Joshua Maloni
Forging something out of nothing is, well, nothing new for blues rocker and five-time Grammy Award nominee Kenny Wayne Shepherd.
At the age of 7, he picked up a guitar and trained himself to perform songs originally crafted by masters with myriad years of musical experience under their belts. By 13, he was signed to a record deal. At 21, he released “Trouble Is …” and the chart-topping single “Blue on Black.”
Though he didn't have a template for success, Shepherd knew he loved music – and making memorable songs was his only goal. What followed has been a string of Gold and Platinum albums.
On the popular site AllMusic.com, Steve Huey wrote, “His aggressive, clean, and meaty, rocking country-blues style has sent all but one of his albums to the top of the blues charts and seven of his singles into the Top Ten.”
Shepherd recently announced the debut of his “Backroads Blues Festival” – a tour in which he serves as both curator and featured performer. The show visits Artpark in Lewiston at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 16.
Alongside the Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band on this inaugural trek is blues legend Buddy Guy and recent Grammy winner Christone “Kingfish” Ingram.
A press release noted, “The overall concept for ‘Backroads Blues Festival’ is an extension of his award-winning ‘10 Days Out: Blues from the Backroads’ film and album project that saw (Shepherd) bring his band and a portable studio on the road to join forces with both notable and unheralded blues artists, documenting those collaborations along the way (including Etta Baker, Pinetop Perkins, Honeyboy Edwards, Lazy Lester, Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith, Hubert Sumlin and B.B. King, among others.”
Guy said, “I’m excited to be part of the first annual ‘Backroads Blues Festival’ and back out with Kenny Wayne and looking forward to jamming with Kenny and Kingfish.”
Ingram added, “To be back touring again is really great, and the opportunity to join Mr. Guy and Mr. Shepherd on stage will be electric. These tour dates will be lots of fun.”
Shepherd offered more details in a recent phone interview. An edited Q&A follows.
Q: We have had quite an eclectic summer of music at Artpark, and this is going to be another cherry on top of a great season. We're excited about this festival that you've curated, and we're looking forward to having you out this way.
Kenny Wayne Shepherd: Yeah, man, I'm looking forward to it, too. You know, this is the first year. It’s the inaugural run. And, frankly, I don't think we really could have launched this thing with a better lineup. I mean, Buddy Guy, who's the great, current, reigning king of the blues; and then you have me and my band, Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band; and then “Kingfish,” Christone “Kingfish” Ingram. So, you got like three different generations representing some of the hottest talent in the genre today.
I think it's a killer lineup. And it's a great way to establish the brand and set it up for future tours, because this is supposed to be an annual touring event.
Q: Like you said, it's a killer lineup – and I want to ask you about each of the acts in just a minute.
But first, when you announced this, you only announced six stops. We're fortunate to be among the six stops. How did you determine what places and what venues you wanted to take this to?
Kenny Wayne Shepherd: Well, it was a group effort between management and booking agents, really. But, I mean, if you look historically at my touring schedule, we spend a noticeable amount of time up in the Northeast and stuff, and kind of the Midwest. We have a really strong, dependable fanbase up there. And so, when we're trying to launch something brand-new like this, I think the goal is to try and go to the place that you think it's going to be well-received. And that certainly includes your area, for sure.
Q: Alright, let's start with Buddy Guy. I mean, just a pillar of the music industry and of this particular genre. Was he in? Did you have to convince him? What was the conversation to get him on board?
Kenny Wayne Shepherd: No, he was in, man. I think, at this point, it's a matter of, “Is this gonna be fun?” I think everybody kind of weighs that element, and then, “Does it look like a good business decision?” And I think that the answer was “Yes,” all the way around, for everybody. It didn't take a lot of coercion.
Buddy and I have been doing stuff together for years and years. And I mean, just as recently as this year, and last year, and before COVID happened, we were out on tour together, as it was. So, it didn't really take a whole lot of convincing, really; and I don't think it took a whole lot of convincing for “Kingfish,” either.
It's not about that. And plus, we also really made a conscious effort to go into cool venues to make it a great experience for both the bands and the fans.
Q: For the three people who don't know Buddy Guy at this point, what kind of special performance can they look forward to?
Kenny Wayne Shepherd: Well, Buddy is like – he always has been – an electrifying performer – both his instrument and his persona, and what he brings to the table.
I guess one of the most notable things, to me, as a fan, is Jimi Hendrix was a fan – and was inspired by Buddy Guy. Jimi Hendrix used to go to Buddy Guy concerts and sit like on the front row, and take notes. And I think watching Buddy Guy, and the way he performed on stage and the way he played – with such freedom on the guitar – I think Hendrix took a lot from that. And Hendrix is arguably the greatest guitar player of all time. And Buddy Guy was one of his heroes.
So, that right there, if you're not familiar with Buddy, that should be enough to get you in the door, right there. But you know, this guy's one of the last real direct links, lineage-wise, to an era of Chicago blues music with the likes of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and all those guys from that era – most of which are no longer with us. So, I mean, this is American history, American music, and a great American entertainer.
Q: “Kingfish,” of course, has been tearing it up of late. What do you like about what he brings to the table?
Kenny Wayne Shepherd: Well, I like that, first of all, he’s young; his career started really young. Watching him and his experience in that way reminds me a lot of myself and some of our other peers who also came up as young people doing this music. But he's bringing his own personality to it. He's a great performer. He's got killer chops. And, you know, he's from Mississippi, and I'm from Louisiana. And Buddy Guy is from Louisiana. So, it's like we’re all kind of gathering from down south, the same area, and so there's that connection, as well.
Q: If it was just the two of them playing, it'd be a great show; but I can't tell you how many people have told me how excited they are to see you live up on stage.
You've been doing this for a few years now. And you've got many albums; you've got hit songs – there's so many different things you could bring to the stage. I know music has sort of changed a little bit in the past couple of years with everything that's going on. Tell me about your live show in 2022 – and what excites you about getting up on stage right now?
Kenny Wayne Shepherd: I’ve been performing live for going on 30 years, and so one of the things that we did from the very beginning is establish my band as a band that is a live act; you know, that's what we do best. It's like, if you’ve got our records – if you think a record sounds good – you come see the live concert; and it's an even better experience live than listening to it on the record.
That’s one of the core things that's enabled us to continue selling out venues, is that people know, when they come, they're going to get a top-notch show, and it's going to be exciting from the downbeat – from the very first note – to the very last note.
I'm really excited about it, obviously. I mean, this has kind of been my idea, you know, my pet project, that we've kind of been building and working towards for several years now. And this is the first run, and I'm excited about it.
But I thought that it was only appropriate the lineup should happen with Buddy Guy closing the show, because of who he is, his stature and seniority and everything.
So, you know, people are going to get a great show. I mean, these are the three bands that really know how to bring the energy, really know how to entertain the crowd. And like I said before, it's three different generations from the same genre, and everybody's at the top of their game.
Q: This is, of course, a side project for you. You're touring the 25th anniversary of “Trouble Is … .” How has that been going for you?
Kenny Wayne Shepherd: It's going great. I mean, most of the shows have been sold-out. It's the first time we've ever played the entire “Trouble Is …” album live in a concert. Even when it first came out, we didn't play the whole record live. And so, getting reacquainted with some of the songs that we haven't played for a long time has been a really cool experience – a real trip down memory lane.
And then, watching the fans come out who are, you know, for some of these people, that was the first album that turned them on to me and my band. And here we are, 25 years later, and they're showing up and they're buying the tickets, because they want to hear the music.
The cool thing about it is that, frankly, the general reaction from people I've done interviews with, and the fans who have come to the shows and spoken about it, is that that album could be released today. And it would sound just as current, today, as it did 25 years ago when it came out. It would sound just as legitimate and just as relevant.
And so, for me, that's mission accomplished; because I always set out to write timeless music that can be performed and enjoyed for decades and decades to come. And I think that (album) kind of speaks for itself.
Q: I know you've probably answered this a million times, but I’ve got to ask you about your beginnings. I can't believe you started playing at 7 – and that you never had any sort of formal lessons. What gets a 7-year-old into blues, first of all, and why did you decide to become a performer?
Kenny Wayne Shepherd: Well, for me, blues music, I mean, my dad worked at a radio station. So, I grew up around music 24/7. And it wasn’t just one kind. He worked at different formats, country, rock, pop, top 40 – whatever. I mean, he was always at the hottest station in town. And he was program director, GM and on-air personality, so he basically ran the whole thing. And we went to every concert that came through town.
So, I was turned on to every kind of music you could think of. But there was just something about the passion and the feeling that goes into legitimate blues music, you know? And even if I, at the time, I was too young to really kind of relate to the lyrics; but man, I could really feel those guitar solos, you know? And the notes that those guys were playing. It spoke to me.
I'm from Louisiana. I mean, this stuff was birthed out of the area that I grew up in. So, it's a part of the culture. It's a part of the history down there. It spoke to me.
But I mean, I just picked up the guitar, and I just started (listening) – and I learned the hard way – like one note at a time, playing by ear.
I can't say that I've had zero guitar lessons. What happened was, when I was in middle school, we actually had a guitar class that you can take. It was like an elective, which was pretty amazing, because nowadays I don't even know if that's an option at any school. But I had already been playing guitar for several years up to that point. The teacher was this very nice lady, and she was trying to teach people how to read music, and teaching things about theory.
But all that stuff really just was so foreign to me. So, I would sit in the class, and she'd be like, “OK, this week, we're going to play this song,” and she would play the song, right? I'm like, “Oh, OK, I know that song.” So, I would go home and learn it and memorize it. And then for the tests, I would sit in the class, and put the sheet music in front of me, and pretend like I was looking at the paper; but I'm just playing the song by memory.
The way that I learned was not from being instructed. It was just a very tedious experience of learning – sounding songs out one note and one chord at a time.
Q: As I said, you’re incredibly talented musically; so, this was, of course, always an option for you. But has it always been the thing you knew you wanted to do?
Kenny Wayne Shepherd: Well, I knew that I wanted to play music. I just didn't know that I was going to make a career out of it. I just started playing guitar because I loved it, and I just wanted to make those sounds come out of that instrument. I never sat down with a guitar with this master plan of making money and being famous. That's just kind of where it took me.
But you know, once I signed the record deal, I still at that moment didn't think, “Oh, this is a sure thing.” Because nobody has any control over how the people are going to receive a record.
But, obviously, I'm very happy with the way things worked out. And I consider myself to be very fortunate.