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Kenny Wayne Shepherd


It's 2017, and Kenny Wayne Shepherd is reaching unstoppable momentum – the proof is all over his eighth solo album, Lay It On Down. As a renowned hot-rodder, it's apt that Shepherd's musical career has no reverse gear. Awards, acclaim and platinum album sales flash by in a blur, vanishing in the rear-view mirror. For this questing musician, the focus is always the horizon, the next challenge, the new songs, the crowd out front stamping their feet. "We're still breaking new ground, not just repeating ourselves," notes the standard-bearer for modern blues. "Every album is representative of the things that are going on with me right now. Every album is another page in the book."

Thumb through that backstory and you'll find a narrative as compelling as anything the mythologised blues genre has to offer. No doubt, his latest work, Lay It On Down, is an of-the-moment album that invites the listener into Shepherd's headspace at this time in his life. Yet on songs like Louisiana Rain – saluting the home-state where Shepherd came up as the music-obsessed son of a radio personality – this fascinating album also joins the dots to the formative events that led him here. "That song is personal," he nods. "It's written from my experience. Because no matter where I go in the world, there's always something that brings me back to Louisiana. That place will always be my home."

The opening chapters of Shepherd's journey have a distinct sense of destiny. There was the family vinyl collection ("Blues, country, rock, R&B, funk, gospel, you name it"). The epiphany of meeting Stevie Ray Vaughan ("It changed my life"). The dubious first electric guitar ("A Strat-shaped Yamaha SE-150, made of crappy plywood"). The stage debut at 13 ("The minute I started playing, the walls came down"). The record deal at 16, with 1995's million-selling debut album Ledbetter Heights laying down his calling-cards of soul-fingered fretwork and searingly honest songwriting. "Over the course of my life," he reflects, "I've always written from experience. So on that first album, there were a lot of blues songs inspired by the dysfunctional relationships I had as a teenager."

Rather than follow the typical young-gun trajectory of breakthrough and burnout, Shepherd pursued the music – and it led him into some thrilling foreign waters. "I never walked around going, ‘I'm famous'," he adds of the circus that saw him splashed across media outlets from Rolling Stone to Letterman. "I mean, I've had my own struggles in the past. But I'm one of the lucky ones who was able to get away from the things that were pulling me down. I just don't feel the need to live a self-destructive life. There's nothing that enhances my day-to-day experience like love and music."

"I've been pretty busy over the past several years, between my band and The Rides," he adds. "But when I got gaps in my schedule here and there, over the last year-and-a-half, I'd make trips to Nashville to write songs for this new record. Some people I've written with my entire career, like Mark Selby and Tia Sillers. Then there were some new people, like Danny Myrick, Dylan Altman and Keith Stegall. My co-producer, Marshall Altman, is a new collaboration as well. We met each other about three years ago in Nashville, when I was going through town looking for potential songwriters, hit it off and wrote a couple of songs – like Diamonds & Gold. The more time I spent with Marshall, the more interested I became in what the record might sound like if he was producing it."

In January 2017, when Shepherd and his band entered the Echophone Studios in Shreveport, Louisiana, the mission statement was nothing if not ambitious: the greatest songs of Shepherd's career. No more. No less. "The point of this album," he says, "was that I wanted to put a heavy emphasis on the songs themselves and the writing behind them. I wanted each song to really stand on its own with the songwriting, the music, the words."

No question, this is where Kenny Wayne Shepherd finds himself in 2017. On top of his game. Firing on all cylinders. And armed with the dazzling new studio album that announces his greatest creative leap forward to date. "I think my playing, writing and producing are all getting better. And the kind of music I do, it's one of the only genres that embraces you and feels like you get better as you get older.

"I feel like the band's best days are still ahead of us. And the next album could be completely different…"

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