Kenny Wayne Shepherd Continues to Blaze His Blues Rock Trail
Some people know from a very early age what their life’s work will be. Kenny Wayne Shepherd is one such person. Growing up, one of his first loves was a guitar. He worked at his skills so voraciously that he became a young prodigy. An early musical influence was his dad, a radio personality and concert promoter. Another influence would be Stevie Ray Vaughn, and other blues rock legends.
Shepherd’s first album, Ledbetter Heights, would reach no. 1 on the Billboard Blues chart. His follow-up album, which was released in 1997 when he was only 18 years old, was even more successful. Trouble Is… reached the no.1 spot as well and spawned a mega mainstream rock hit, “Blue on Black.” This early success bolstered his credibility in the musical industry. Shepherd went on to open for, and perform with, many rock and blues legends including The Rolling Stones, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Van Halen, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Pinetop Perkins, Etta Baker, and the Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters Bands. Shepherd has been nominated for five Grammy Awards. He is touring in support of his latest, and 11th, studio album, Dirt on My Diamonds, Volume I, and will be in concert March 10 at the Palace Theatre in Greensburg.
Shepherd spoke to Entertainment Central from Nashville where he was promoting the album. I mentioned to Shepherd, a Shreveport, Louisiana native, that another person from there had achieved great success while working in Pittsburgh. He laughed and quickly shot back, “Terry Bradshaw!”
Creation of Dirt on My Diamonds, Volume I
Shepherd (with his band) wrote all the songs for Dirt on My Diamonds, Volume I at the legendary FAME Recording Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. He said of the experience, “We went down and were in the studio for about five days writing the songs there. We actually had talked about recording the album there, but by the time we finally got around from touring and going into the studio to record all of the songs, I found myself out in Los Angeles. Absolutely going down there and being in that place, soaking up the vibes of that building, absolutely influenced the music that we wrote and the vibe of the record.”
Unlike many other albums of recent vintage, Dirt on My Diamonds was not a product of the Covid-19 lockdown. Shepherd noted that the songs were written before things ground to a halt. During Covid he spent time with his family, enjoying life off of the road. When the pandemic lifted they recorded the album, which was released in November of 2023. The album is on the Provogue/Mascot Label Group and was produced by Marshall Altman. Most of the tracks were recorded at Band House Studios in Los Angeles.
Shepherd described the vibe of the record, ”It’s all about the music, everything’s about the music, the songs, telling great stories, great performances. It’s American music, one hundred percent all the way. That’s the fabric of American music, the kind of stuff that came out of that [FAME] studio back in the day. We had so much fun that hopefully, we’ll do it again and record a whole record there.”
I was curious to learn more about the inspiration for Dirt on My Diamonds and if it was a positive message. “Starting back in 2004 I just really had the realization about the power of music. That music is a powerful thing. It can affect your mood, it can affect your day, it can affect your actions. It truly is a powerful thing so I take that responsibility very seriously. There’s so much negativity out in the world as it is. I want to be part of putting positive things out there, making people feel good. That’s been my approach now for a while. To try and write music that’s going to lift people up and make them feel good,” Shepherd said.
“We try to run the gamut here and touch on a lot of different sounds. You have a lot of different influences in each song. It’s all genres that I grew up listening to as a kid that find their way into the music that I write and record. The album still sounds cohesive, it doesn’t sound like it’s all over the place. Every song sounds connected to the previous one. It sounds like a full, whole body of work. A musical journey,“ according to Shepherd.
The title track, “Dirt on My Diamonds” is a straightforward rock and roll song replete with melodic vocals, powerful drums and bass, horn parts, and some amazing guitar riffs from Shepherd. I asked Shepherd about the song and he said, “The whole message behind that song is for us to embrace our flaws, that’s what makes us all unique. We all have those little flaws and shortcomings and experiences that have left this mark on us and that’s what makes us unique. There’s nothing wrong with that.” “Dirt on My Diamonds” has a line that sums up Kenny’s inspiration very well; “All we are are love and scars / Play the blues / The dark don’t end until the light gets into you.” It’s a very strong title track. The guitar party keeps going with the next track, “Sweet and Low.” The song starts out as sweet as saccharin with some pleasant horn notes, but very quickly it turns into a hard-driving guitar romp with very skillful use of the wah-wah pedal effect.
“Best of Times” continues with a nice rhythmic interplay of horn notes and wah-wah pedal effects and speaks to making the best of the worst of times. On it Shepherd sings, “My hammer is a Stratocaster.” Shepherd and the band give the listener a much needed chance to catch their breath with the very pleasant ballad, “You Can’t Love Me.” It speaks to loving yourself before you can love someone else. It’s a great pop rock song with some melodic guitar riffs and whirling organ. “Man on a Mission,” “Bad Intentions,” and “Ease My Mind” further demonstrate Shepherd’s talents as a blues rock guitarist. There’s also a fun cover of Elton John’s “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting.”
In regards to covering Elton John’s “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” Shepherd said, “I have a running list of cover songs that I keep in my back pocket that I just whip out when we’re doing records. You just reach a point where you need a break. When you’re in between songs and just want to do something fun and easy with no pressure. That was one of the songs on the list and I said ‘let’s try this Elton John song. I think we can rock it out pretty good.’ We did it, it made the record, and a lot of people have commented on it.
When I asked Shepherd what’s up next for him and the band he said, “Dirt on My Diamonds, Volume II is ready to go and will keep us out on the road and keep us having new material, and keeping the ball rolling. I probably have about four different albums worth of material that I’m working on right now. So we have a lot more music in the pipeline.”
Shepherd likes playing Pittsburgh. “We have a pretty consistent history of doing shows in Pittsburgh with great turnouts and a very loyal fan base. It’s one of the places we always look forward to coming to. Especially my singer Noah Hunt, who’s from Cincinnati and feels there’s just something about Pittsburgh.” Both Shepherd and Hunt share lead vocal duties and he says that expands the number of different songs that they can do. Hunt has been with the band going on 27 years. Shepherd calls him a great singer.
A Very Talented Band
The band is a very tight unit, a molten hot fusion of musicians who are extremely talented at their craft. Lead vocals are sung with clarity and power by Shepherd and Hunt, combining with the burning hot riffs generated by Shepherd on his Signature Series Fender Stratocaster like sparks dancing on a just-poured slab of steel. Drummer Chris Layton was part of Stevie Ray Vaughn’s band, Double Trouble, and played drums on Shepherd’s first studio album. Layton started touring with the band in 2006. Keeping a steady bottom is bass guitarist Kevin McCormick who has played with many notables including Melissa Etheridge, Stephen Stills, Nils Lofgren, and Jackson Browne. And on keyboards is Joe Krown, a New Orleans resident, whose playing is influenced by the city he calls home. Marcia Ball, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Mavis Staples, and Allen Toussaint are some of the stars he has performed with.
Rick Handler is the executive producer of Entertainment Central.