Whisper On A Scream
On the official music video for Blue on Black Kenny Wayne Shepherd is shown driving his large red car across an open desert with his girlfriend by his side, but then the scene cuts to show him entering a bar on his own, as Noah Hunt sings you “slipped right from my hand” - and you know the opening scene is just a memory. “Whisper on a scream, don’t change a thing, don’t bring you back” Hunt continues, as Shepherd is shown returning to places that hold deep significance for him, but where he now stands alone…
Shepherd wrote Blue on Black with Mark Selby and Tia Sillers, when all three of them found themselves together one day in New Orleans. “I had the music, and Mark and I were just rolling with the music and trying to develop things,” Shepherd explains. “Tia came up with this idea based on a shirt that I was wearing that was blue and black. She noticed the two colours that were dominant on my shirt, and if you mix those two colours together, black consumes the blue. It doesn't amount to anything if you put the two together: You still have one colour."
While there may only be ‘one colour’, one of the wonderful things about this song is that it can be interpreted in a myriad of ways. Many have considered it to be about a relationship that has fallen apart, with one partner’s power and dominance making the other person practically disappear. But, as Shepherd explains: "So many people have applied it to a death in the family, an abusive relationship… or whatever. That's what's beautiful about music and lyrics is trying to write a song that the listener can apply to their own experience in whatever way seems fit. And that's one of those songs."
The development of the song, which was produced by Talking Heads’ Jerry Harrison, also throws light on Shepherd’s creative process in general: “When I'm working with [Selby and Sillers], I'll throw out the music, and Mark and I will start hammering out the chord changes or maybe a bridge or the chorus - if I hadn't already figured that out - and a vocal melody. And while we're doing this, Tia is going nuts on the computer, writing all these lyrics. And then 10 minutes will go by, and she'll go, "Hey guys, what do you think about this?" And then when she throws down the meat of the story, then we start fine-tuning it together.”
With this track, Shepherd became one of the few blues artists to make a mark on the US Hot 100 chart. Since then he has gone on to open for Aerosmith, Bob Dylan, BB King, the Eagles and Van Halen, and released nine successful studio albums under his own name, plus two in his ‘side-project’ in The Ride, but he still looks back to the time when he was just a teenager writing that song: “At that moment,” he says, “I knew that Blue on Black was unlike anything I’d ever written before.”
Shepherd, whose birth surname is Brobst, was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, on 12 June 1977, into a family that gave him an incredible start in music. His father, Ken, who was a DJ and concert promoter, took him to see Muddy Walters and John Lee Hooker playing live when he was just three years old. As he said later in an interview: “In my opinion that experience would convert anybody into being a lifelong blues fan.”
Famously, Shepherd received his first guitar at around the same age when his gran bought plastic guitars for him with her S&H Green Stamps, which he says “was like a toy acoustic guitar with nylon strings. You could play it but it wasn’t like a real, real guitar. My very first electric guitar was a Yamaha guitar that my parents bought me for Christmas. I still have it.”
Ken Shepherd had a huge and diverse record collection so his son was exposed to country music, southern rock, jazz, and gospel, but as he says himself, “it was really the blues that I connected with.” He couldn’t relate to the melancholic lyrics at that tender age, but he realized that the only real requirement with the blues is to play it from the heart. When he met Stevie Ray Vaughan at the ripe old age of seven, the deal was done: “he changed my life,” says Shepherd, “his playing was mesmerising and I wanted to have that intensity.”
Within months of that fortuitous meeting Shepherd was learning the guitar one note at a time using "a cheap Yamaha wanna-be Stratocaster ... made out of plywood, basically", and trying to follow songs and work out chords from his father's record collection. “Learning to play guitar was a real tedious process,” he says of that period, “but eventually I would figure it out.”
Shepherd first climbed on stage to perform at 13 when bluesman Bryan Lee invited him to play. Demos and a filmed concert at the Red River Revel Arts Festival in Shreveport led to Giant Records’ boss Irving Azoff signing Shepherd up for a multiple album record deal.
“When I was a kid I was met with a lot of resistance trying to play the blues,” Shepherd recalls. “Cause a lot people are skeptical about kids playing the blues, [because they think] ‘what do they know?” His parents shared that initial skepticism because they were concerned that so few people ‘make it’ in the music industry, and as a result Shepherd was not allowed to skip school - as he otherwise might have done.
Another concern that Shepherd has highlighted at that time is that audiences might have been impressed by his prodigious guitars skills, but when he opened his mouth to sing, he sounded like the boy he was. While he would later sing on a number of records, he recalls thinking at the time that it would not matter to him if someone else sang while he played, because the most important thing was to achieve the highest standard possible.
That high standard came pretty quickly with the release of his debut album, Ledbetter Heights, in September 1995, on which the 18 year old Shepherd wrote, or co-wrote, all but four songs. The album’s title referred to a neighbourhood near his hometown that was full of marginalised and disadvantaged working class communities. It contained a whole series of great tracks like Shame Shame Shame (which he wrote with Joe Nadeau at age 15), While We Cry, Aberdeen, and the incredible Déjà Voodoo. Amusingly it also contained a song credited to Howlin Wolf called I'm Leaving You (Commit a Crime), which reportedly was neither written by Wolf nor ever had that title. It is likely that part of the confusion was caused because the opening lyric is "I'm leaving you, woman, before I commit a crime," but it is known that the song was written by James Oden.
Whatever the case, it did not stop Ledbetter Heights selling over half-a-million within a short period and spending five months at the top of the US Billboard Blues chart. As a result Shepherd found his name being mentioned alongside legends like Eric Clapton and BB King.
Shepherd followed this up with both a run of hit singles and another strong album, Trouble Is…, released in October 1997, on which he first successfully collaborates with vocalist Noah Hunt. Blue on Black, mentioned above, is the standout cut, but the record also contains classics of the calibre of True Lies, a cover of Bob Dylan’s Everything Is Broken and the heart-wrenching Somehow, Somewhere, Someway. This led to a fistful of Grammy nominations and a run of other prestigious awards. As a result, “The first five years of my career,” he says, “I was on tour non-stop. I’d probably go home for two weeks a year.”
In September 2008, Fender released the Kenny Wayne Shepherd Signature Series Stratocaster, designed by Shepherd, which is based on his favourite 1961 Strat. He has said that nearly every guitar has his its strengths and weaknesses but that the first time he played that Strat he felt that “everything about it was perfect.”
Other albums that are highlights in his career include 2011’s acclaimed How I Go, the 2014 covers album, Goin’ Home, and 2017’s Lay It On Down, on which Shepherd teamed up with producer Marshall Altman to make a record that also hit number one on the Billboard Blues Chart. In May 2019, he released The Traveler, of which he says that “as a grown man and a father [he has six children with his wife Hannah Gibson, the oldest daughter of actor Mel Gibson], there are different thoughts and feelings that have come into focus for me.” For those who love great guitar solos, I would highlight the more rock n roll-oriented tracks: I Want You and Turn To Stone.
“I’ve always loved ballads, tender songs, emotional moments,” he says. “But I also like to rock. I like to play fiery blues. This album has all those elements. It’s the fans who give me that freedom, they’ve supported me throughout.”
Shepherd has also found time to develop a ‘side-project’ – The Rides - with Stephen Stills (Crosby, Stills & Nash) and keyboardist Barry Goldberg (Electric Flag). In 2013 they released Can't Get Enough, and then followed it up in 2015 with Pierced Arrow, which peaked at number one in the Billboard Top Blues Albums Chart and contains the wonderful song, By My Side. Stills refers to the band as "the blues band of my dreams" and Shepherd has hinted that there is a third album on the way. “When you feel inspired, the best thing is to keep tapping into that,” he says. “If you step away, it’s hard to get it going again. I’ve been prolific lately, and I want to keep that going.”
Without mentioning any names, it is well-known that some musicians seem surrounded by scandal and controversy, but the only standout issue in Shepherd’s career seems to be the time he had a car that had the confederate flag on it. However, as he himself explained: "years ago I put that car in permanent storage and some time ago, I made the decision to permanently cover the flag on my car because it was completely against my values and offensive to the African American community which created the music I love so much. I apologize to anyone that I have unintentionally hurt because of it."
In recent interviews Shepherd comes across as a contented man who puts his family first when planning his work schedule and regularly drops his children off at school. While he has been well-known for several decades, he is still only just approaching his mid-forties and now sees one of his main roles as keeping the blues alive as the legends move on. “If I live long enough, I’m gonna wind up in the category of the older statesmen of the blues. For anyone in that position, I think it’s our duty to pass it on. It’s not all about me and my music, the goal is a broader one of keeping the genre alive and relevant.”
“People still think I’m really, really young, and I think that’s great,” he concludes with a laugh. “I can be young forever!”