Kenny Wayne Shepherd Talks About Covering The Stooges And Being In A Band With Stephen Stills
If there’s a musical equivalent for fantasy football, one would think that surely Kenny Wayne Shepherd must be winning most of his games. Since emerging as a young hotshot guitarist in the early ‘90s, Shepherd has shared the stage with just about everybody, while quickly silencing many of his critics with his work on the fretboard.
His new adventure finds him engaged in a new band called The Rides and it’s definitely one hell of a ride, especially when your latest endeavor happens to feature guitar legend Stephen Stills in the lineup.
The inspirational roots for the project can be connected back to the work that Stills did with guitarist Mike Bloomfield on the highly influential Super Session album in 1968. But as Shepherd is quick to tell us in the following conversation, they didn’t set out to simply deliver a reboot of something that had already been done.
Instead, Shepherd, Stills and Barry Goldberg (who also played with Bloomfield during his time in Electric Flag) wanted to develop something that would embrace the spirit of the Super Session album, but most importantly, they wanted it to be a band. And there’s no question that with the release of Can’t Get Enough (which hit stores on August 27th), The Rides have accomplished that and then some.
Nearly evenly split between a selection of covers and newly written originals, Can’t Get Enough is an intriguing opening entry in what will hopefully be a series of albums to come from Shepherd and The Rides.
Hearing the riffs that Shepherd and Stills trade back and forth, one can imagine that the competitive spirit ran high in the studio while working on this album. We dig into that question and quite a few more with Kenny Wayne, who was generous with his time when we sat down to discuss the new album and forthcoming tour (which begins this week).
You’re in a band with Stephen Stills — that’s not a bad chapter to add to your ongoing story![Laughs] I would say so. He’s a pretty amazing guy and certainly probably one of the greatest American songwriters ever, I would say. He’s tremendously talented and it’s really been a joy. I’ve known him for about 10 years and we met going to football games together, [going] to see the Indianapolis Colts because we’re both friends with Jim Irsay who owns the team. So we actually had our first experience playing together years ago when the Colts won the Super Bowl against the Chicago Bears down in Miami.
Jim threw a private party the night before the Super Bowl and we had this big impromptu jam session. It was me and Stephen and Mike Mills, the bass player from R.E.M. [and] Kenny Aronoff on drums. John Mellencamp [also] got up [there] and it was completely unrehearsed and spontaneous. We played for like two hours and had a ball. We kind of made a habit out of doing that since then. We’ve done it several times, so Stephen and I have a history of jamming together. But we’d never written songs together and never actually been in a band together or anything like that up until this point. It’s been a great experience I think, for all of us.
I listened to the Crosby Stills and Nash stuff before I even got to the Manassas stuff and his solo stuff and all of that. Looking at everything that Stephen has done, I think that it’s inspiring that he still wants to create. Because he doesn’t need to add to his discography — his legacy is secure. But this new record fits in with all of that.
I agree. You know, it’s pretty interesting. Of course, I can understand that as an artist. I’ve been doing this now, putting records out, for just about 20 years now — I signed my record deal in 1993. Some people are happy with just having five years in the music business. But [as] an artist, you just want to continue to create new things — it’s just in your blood. You want to continue to be creative and you also want to show people that you’re relevant and I believe that Stephen is certainly [still relevant] and he’s still the same man today that he was at the beginning of his career.
He’s tremendously talented and he’s a great songwriter. We wrote some really great songs together for this record. We actually just scratched the surface. Because we only wrote like…..I think five of the songs are new material and the other half is cover songs, because we had a very tight window of opportunity to record this record because my wife and I were expecting our fourth child. We were literally in the studio and I was ready to run out the door if she went into labor. So we had to kind of hurry up and get it done and so we didn’t allow ourselves a lot of time.
We could have written a whole album without a doubt and we’re already actually starting to write songs for the next record. But he’s every bit as talented today as he was in his heyday. I think for him and certainly for myself and Barry included, this album and this group is just another indication to our fans that we haven’t used up all of our tricks yet. We’re all still relevant and we all still enjoy making new and refreshing music and we’re doing it together.
With some of the stuff that you put out, like the 10 Days Out blues project for example, I find myself going “wow, where did this come from — how did this come about?” This album is no exception — it came out of nowhere. Can you explain a bit as far as how it all came together?
Well for me, they had already been discussing it and I’m not exactly sure where it all began. I know that a good friend of mine, Bill Bentley, who used to work at Warner Brothers for many, many years when I was with the Warner label. I think that he and Elliot [Roberts], who is Stephen and Barry’s manager, were having dinner one night. I think they were just talking about the idea and bouncing ideas off of one another as they were talking about how great the Super Session album was that was done back in the day that featured Stephen and Mike Bloomfield, who is no longer with us and Al Kooper. Barry actually played piano on a lot of that record too. So they were thinking “wouldn’t it be cool to do a modern Super Session record and bring in another guitar player and have Stephen and Barry do the record?”
They were trying to figure out who that person could be and then my name came up and it was like this aha moment. They called me and Stephen and I were like “why didn’t we think of this sooner?” All of these times that we jammed together, we never thought “hey, let’s try and put a band together.” But I think that happens a lot with musicians. I’ve got a lot of friends that we’ve jammed and really amazing bands could have been formed but the idea just never came up. But I’m glad that it did in this case. So anyway, that was the initial idea, of doing a modern Super Session record. But it kind of morphed into something different than that in my opinion. Because the Super Session album was not a band. They were featured on individual tracks from one another pretty much through most of the record. I know that they didn’t actually play in the studio together for sure.
I don’t know what the songwriting credits are for that record, but this situation morphed into the three of us being the nucleus of a band called The Rides. We created music together and we wrote songs together and we went in the studio together as a band. It turned into us making an actual debut album for a band rather than a jam record.
What was the division of labor like on these songs? Vocally, it seems to bounce back and forth between you and Stephen. Collaboratively, how did it break down as far as putting these songs together? Did you bring song ideas to the studio individually or did that develop together with you, Stephen and Barry working in the studio?
Well actually, we met over at Stephen’s house. That’s when we first got together and we did that over the course of about a week. Originally, Barry and Stephen had already started writing a couple of songs and then once I came in, we all three got together then and collectively we finished writing those songs and we wrote additional songs as a unit. Then we also brought cover songs. I brought some cover song suggestions into the room because we knew that we didn’t have enough time to write an entire record and we knew that we wanted to do some cover material anyway.
All of the songs that I’m singing are cover songs, because I brought all of those to the table. And also when we wrote those songs together, as we were writing those songs, Stephen was the one coming up with the vocal melodies and things like that and singing the lyrics as we writing them. So naturally, all of those songs were written in Stephen’s registry so it just worked out. It all just kind of worked itself out and it was very organic.
Then when we were in the studio as we were making the record, there was a couple of songs that came up as we were in the recording process, like “Rockin’ In The Free World.” We went home one night and then the next morning Stephen texted me before we went to the studio and he goes “what do you think about doing ‘Rockin’ In The Free World’” and I said “great, that’s awesome” and we went in and we knocked it out in like one take.
One night I was driving home from the studio and I was listening to the satellite blues channel and this blues song came on called “That’s A Pretty Good Love” and I actually had never heard it before, but when I heard it on the way home, I was like “man, I feel like I could really sing that song well” and [I thought] it might [bring] another cool dimension to this record — like a different groove to add to this record. So the next day, we went in and we recorded that song. A lot of it was very organic and it was a very smooth process — there were a lot of moving parts and things happening spontaneously, which was very exciting.
I think a lot of people are particularly intrigued to hear your version of “Search and Destroy.” How did that song fall on your radar?
Well that was Jerry Harrison — Jerry helped produce this record and he and I have a long history together. Jerry’s got an extensive musical palette [covering] all genres. When I first started working with Jerry on my record, he would have these suggestions for these cover songs that I personally thought were way out of left field. I used to argue with him about it. But as I’ve gotten older and gotten some time and experience under my belt, I’ve learned to at the very least just hear the idea and see what happens, because you never know what might happen.
Everybody’s initial reaction except mine was “no way — what are you thinking?” There was a lot of resistance from Stephen and Barry to do that song. But because of my experience with Jerry, I was like “alright, I’m going to at least give it a shot and then we’ll just see what happens and the worst thing that can happen is that we’ll spend a couple of hours on a song and it won’t go on the record.” We were able to get everybody on board to at least play through the song and it came out great. I think the turning point for Barry and Stephen was that Stephen’s daughter was in the studio with us taking photographs and she was going “Dad, I love that song — it’s one of my favorite songs!” And then Barry called his son up and he said “yeah, we’re doing some song called ‘Search and Destroy’” and his son was like “that’s a great song!” So once their kids were into it, I think it helped to open them up to it. Now, I think both Barry and Stephen both really love the track.
It’s interesting, because with the version that you guys recorded, you did indeed make it your song.
Well yeah, that’s the goal. When I cover songs, I try to maintain some of the original integrity but also make it my own and I think we did that. I think that where the original was very primal and raw and all of that stuff. Ours is a little bit more refined — we brought some blues elements into it and Stephen plays this Keith Richards kind of Rolling Stones rhythm part too that gives it more of a roots rock approach rather than the primal punk thing. I think it’s appropriate for the sound of our band and our album. I think it came out really good. I’m really happy with it. I think that’s one that certainly fans are really surprised when they see the lineup for the record and they see that song, because a lot of people know that song. I think it’s shocking to them to think of me, Stephen and Barry doing that song, so they’re intrigued. I’m happy with the end result — I think it came out great.
I think you took it far enough away from the original that you won’t be required to be shirtless, rolling around in broken glass onstage.[Laughs] Yeah, because that’s not going to happen!
How did you and Stephen divide the guitar duties up on this record?
We didn’t have to sit down and map all of this out really. We just really went in there and played. It was like if we were jamming. When you’re jamming with somebody, you just kind of give them a nod for them to solo or they give you a nod to solo. It was just all kind of out of respect and reverence for the music and what we were doing. It wasn’t like a big discussion on “okay, you take this one and then I’ll take that one and you play it for 12 bars and I’ll play it for 24.” We just played to the music and the end result is what you hear. I mean, it’s pretty evenly divided. Stephen sings one more song than I do and I think that I might take one more solo than he does, but it’s pretty much 50/50 and Barry also has his opportunities to shine on the record as well. We just did it the way it went down.
I was going to ask about that, because the songs that you sing vocally are sprinkled into the tracklisting, alternating every other song for the first eight tracks. Is that indicative of the democratic process that perhaps was required when it came to making this project work as far as any egos that might have been in the room?
Well what was great about it and I mean this with the utmost sincerity and honesty — when we walked in the room together — if there were any egos, they were left at the door. I mean, from day one. Everybody had this very gracious and loving approach about this band and doing this project and egos never entered into the equation.
Originally before we ever got together I thought “yeah, I might sing one or two songs just to sing a couple songs.” I figured [that] Stephen, you know, he’s got that signature voice and that we’d probably just defer primarily to him. And then we got in there and I just felt so inspired and I felt so much a part of it [that] one song became two and two became three and three became four. The next thing you know, it’s like I’m singing on half the record and Stephen actually [encouraged that].
You know, I like to sing but I love playing guitar. But in this band, I actually love singing. A lot of guys I think [that are] in my position — because I’m not known as a vocalist, I’m known as a guitar player — I think that people in my shoes would have been very intimidated because Stephen is so well known for his voice. That might have pushed people further in the other direction away from singing. But to be honest, it was so comfortable and it was so inspirational that it actually motivated me even more to sing. It was interesting how the whole process worked out. But there were no egos involved. It was a very democratic process, but it wasn’t because it had to be, it was just because that was what it was. We just all respect each other that much and get along that well.
I could definitely see how that could be intimidating vocally. I know that you’ve been working in recent years on developing your vocals, singing lead vocals on selected tracks with the Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band, starting with The Place You’re In album. How comfortable are you with your voice at this point?
I’m actually feeling pretty good about it. It took me a while to accept the sound of my voice. Because really to be honest with you, I want to sound like Muddy Waters or B.B. King and that’s not the voice that I have. I don’t have that 50/60 year old black guy from Mississippi sound to my voice. But I’ve learned how to use the instrument that I do have and I’m actually pretty happy with it. That has motivated me to want to sing more.
But the thing is also that in my band, I have an extraordinary vocalist in Noah Hunt. So I kind of have the best of both worlds, because I can step up to the mic when I want to and when I feel like it, but I don’t have to do it all of the time. So it kind of relinquishes a certain amount of pressure as well. So I can sing when I want to and I don’t have to sing when I don’t want to. But I just feel like in this band, I think it was really appropriate and worked out the right way for Stephen and I to both be sharing the vocal responsibilities the way that we did.
What are some of the songs on this record that you’re really proud of?
Well, to be honest, man, I’m proud of all of them. That’s a very predictable answer, but I’ve listened to this record. Some musicians make records and then they don’t ever listen to them again. But I make records that I want to listen to! [Laughs] I have listened to this album hundreds of times since we finished recording it. Because it’s actually a record that I really enjoy listening to from top to bottom. I’m happy with every song and every song also evokes a certain emotion or memory for me of the process. So the whole thing from top to bottom, I’m really thrilled with it. There’s certain songs where I just love the way Stephen sang it or I love a certain solo that he played and then there are certain songs that I’m listening to where I’m really happy with my vocal performance and I enjoy listening to it because of the delivery there and then there’s other songs that I enjoy because of the groove. It’s a really good record that I am really happy with top to bottom.
But there were surprises — “Rockin’ In The Free World” turned out great and that was a spur of the moment thing that happened while we were in the studio, the same with “Search and Destroy.” And you know, “Honey Bee,” I thought was cool. Because out of all of the songs that I’ve ever sang in my career, I’ve never sang a slow blues song before. Actually, most of the songs that I sang on my records like The Place You’re In, have been rock-leaning songs and I’m really happy that almost all of these songs that I’m singing are blues songs. So I’m actually stepping up and singing blues songs, which is a bit out of my comfort range. Because my vocal, I thought for the longest time, really lent itself more to rock than it did to blues. But I’m finding my place vocally within the blues.
This record is very brisk as far as the pacing. It’s 48 minutes, but it doesn’t feel that long, which is a good thing.
Well yeah, you certainly don’t want anything [to feel long] if you’re making a movie or an album or whatever, the last thing you want is for people to feel like it’s being drug out too long. [Laughs] Usually when things go by faster than you realize, that’s a good sign.
Some of the source material for this album is really interesting, like “Word Game.” It’s crazy that that song dates back to the Buffalo Springfield era.
Yeah, you know, I guess there’s a version of that song on Stephen Stills 2. But when he was talking to me about it, he said that he never recorded it, but then he clarified later on that he meant that, I think, he had never recorded [that song] with a band. I think that version that went on that record was actually like his original demo or something. It was just him and an acoustic and it just wound up getting put on that record. I think he felt like he never actually had taken the opportunity to properly record it in the band setting so it was a new and fresh approach and end result for him with that song.
The tour for this album, what will you fill out the rest of the set with besides stuff from this album?
I think actually that people are going to expect to hear some of his hits and some of mine. Exactly what those songs will be has yet to be determined. Because a lot of his songs require additional vocals and stuff, so we’ll have to suss that out and see who within the band can handle which vocal responsibilities and then that will help dictate which songs of his that we’re able to incorporate. The same goes for mine, “Blue on Black” is probably my biggest song that everybody would anticipate hearing and Noah’s the one that sang that song, but it’s been interesting, I’ve actually been working on that and figuring out a way where actually if I change the key to a different key, I can sing it pretty well. So I think we’ll be able to do that one along with some others.
I think that the 10 Days Out documentary that you did several years ago is a really underrated film that not nearly enough people have seen. Musically, that’s an amazing soul searching journey to undertake and a valuable exploration of a genre that has been such a huge inspiration to you as a player.
Yeah, thanks. That’s probably one of the greatest experiences of my career and the timing of that, although we didn’t know it at the time, the timing couldn’t have been better for capturing the talent that we did. Because now, I think 15 of those people have passed away. Before the project even came out, I think seven of them had died. The blues is responsible musically for everything that I do. It’s responsible for my career and these people who came up before me and paved the way for guys like me, are responsible for me having this opportunity to do what I can do.
That was an opportunity for me to go and to give my respect to the genre and to the musicians who created it and to search out some of these people and get to play with them as well and hopefully expose some of the rest of the world to some of the people that we featured that they may not be familiar with yet.
Were there a number of those people that you met up with where it was a first time experience meeting them? Because it seems like some of those blues guys could be a little bit standoffish about welcoming in new folks like yourself.
There was a lot of them that I met for the first time, like Cootie Stark, Neal Pattman, Etta Baker. I mean, that was the first time that I met Hubert Sumlin and the guys from Howlin’ Wolf’s band. I’d met other people, like B.B. [King] and I go way back and I’d met Pinetop [Perkins] a long time ago, we’d done some shows together and stuff. I have some history with some of them and none with others. Yeah, sometimes people can be standoffish. I encountered that a lot early on in my career, especially being a young 12, 13, 14 year old young white kid trying to sit in with other bands and play blues.
I got a lot of that early on, so I’m pretty familiar with knowing how to deal with it. The bottom line is that as long as they can let me get up onstage and start playing, then the walls come down. Music brings those walls down and even if they don’t think they can relate to me on a personal level, because I’m younger than them or whatever or I come from a different background — once we start playing music, we can relate on that level and that usually diffuses any of it.
Jerry Harrison has been your guy throughout the years behind the boards. How did you first connect with Jerry and what is it about him that has made him such an important part of your process?
I met Jerry right before we did my second album. He was recommended by my A&R guy at the time, Jeff Aldrich. I was a bit skeptical at first, I was like “this guy was in the Talking Heads, what does he know about the blues?” But then I went and had dinner with Jerry and I met him and I found out that his first band was a blues band. I listened to some other records that he had produced and sonically I really liked the sound of them. So I kept an open mind and said “let’s give the guy a shot” and it’s been one of the most productive musical relationships of my career. After all of these years I’ve got a lot of respect for him and we have a very fluid working relationship. I just like having him involved and I value his opinion and his input.
Have you started looking towards the next Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band record yet?
Oh yeah, we’re already working on it and actually it’s almost finished. I think it’s going to be released in the first quarter of next year. I think it’s going to be an all-blues record — completely all-blues — we’re going back and re-exploring my influences and digging into their material. So it’s a covers album of sorts but when you listen to it, it doesn’t really sound like a covers album, because I always try to dig deep into people’s catalogs and pick songs that are not songs that have been covered a million times. It’s pretty cool.
We cut it in my hometown of Shreveport — it’s the first album I’ve ever done there. We did most of it live in the studio and we recorded it to two inch tape, the old-fashioned way and we have a bunch of guest artists that have played on it and several that are still slated to play on it. We had Ringo Starr play drums on a track, Joe Walsh just played guitar on a track, Warren Haynes…so we’ve got some great musicians contributing to it as well and I’m really excited about it.