[Katy Trail Weekly] Spotlight On Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s Guitar

For as long as he can remember, Kenny Wayne Shepherd loved to play the guitar. Before reaching the spotlight, his firsthand musical education came with some lucky strings attached.

“It's a long story, but the short of it is that my dad was in radio for most of my life growing up,” said blues-rock guitar icon Shepherd, a Shreveport native. “With every concert that came through town, I got to go backstage and meet the bands. I was surrounded by music 24/7 and I was soaking it all up. I went and met Stevie Ray Vaughn for the first time when I was seven years old. I got to go backstage, meet Stevie and that changed my life.”

On Friday, Feb. 16, the five-time Grammy-nominated Shepherd and his band will perform their hits and new songs from his recently released studio album, “Dirt On My Diamonds, Vol. 1,” at the Majestic Theater at 1925 Elm St. His special guest for the 7:30 p.m. performance is Samantha Fish.

When he first got to meet the late, legendary Oak Cliff born Vaughn, “I was already playing guitar on these little toy acoustic guitars with the nylon strings,” Shepherd said. “But after I saw him [Vaughn], met him and witnessed what he was capable of, all I wanted to do was to learn how to play with that fire and intensity.”

Throughout his childhood, Shepherd eschewed normal kid’s stuff for practicing guitar and playing riffs from Jimi Hendrix, ZZ Top and Blues artists. “I was never one of those people that took lessons for years and years and years,” Shepherd said. “I spent all my time after school just pounding on the guitar until it started to actually sound like I knew what I was doing. I would sit in the living room, on the floor, in my bedroom or on the front porch with my headphones on and play.”

He started playing seriously at age 7. “We had a family friend who showed me how to work on my vibrato and he showed me how to string my guitars, tune them and do little licks here and there. By the time I was 13, I got on stage for the first time,” Shepherd said. “I did my first demos at 14, put my band together, started doing shows at 15 and signed a record deal at 16.”

Shepherd has had nine No. 1 albums on Billboard’s U.S. Blues charts. His 1995 debut album, “Ledbetter Heights,” is a certified Platinum bestseller. In 1998, Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band’s "Blue on Black," from the 1997 album “Trouble Is…,” reached No. 1 on the Billboard’s Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks chart.

While still noted for playing Blues, Shepherd’s new “Dirt On My Diamonds, Vol. 1” should appeal to a mainstream audience.

“It's a very contemporary sounding record,” Shepherd said. “We always swing into the Blues category and some of that is rightfully so. I love Blues music and Blues is the foundation of everything that we do. But my approach in my whole career has been to take the Blues as the foundation of the music and then try and push it into different directions and make it sound fresh. We did that. 

“It's an eight-song record, so there's no filler. Every song on this record serves its purpose. There's a lot of different sounds and textures and vibes. Great guitar playing, great performances by everyone in the band, vocals, you know, the whole band. I think people will enjoy it. This is a snapshot. Every album is a snapshot in time of where an artist is at that moment in their career. And this really represents where we are at, right at this moment.” 

Once known as a child prodigy, at 46, Shepherd is committed to introducing a new audience to his music. “Part of that was a little easier back then because I was so young,” Shepherd said. “Young people saw somebody their age doing it, which immediately made it a little more relatable. I looked like them. I was one of them. But my approach to the music that I make now is to make it sound current and interesting. 

“If you're just playing traditional Blues — all day, every day and true to its original form — there is nothing wrong with that. I love traditional Blues. But at a certain point, you are preaching only to the choir and playing to people who already love that particular sound. For me, the goal has always been to bring more people into the Blues world so that they can then discover all these incredible, more traditional Blues artists that inspired me.

“My approach to my music, especially in the past 15 to 20 years, has been to focus more on writing positive songs to make people feel good. I will address the difficult subjects, but I want to make music that makes people feel good and put positive energy out there. You can do that with Blues music. A lot of Blues music is about celebrating life, whether it's up or down.”

In 2006, Shepherd married Hannah Gibson, the eldest daughter of actor Mel Gibson. The couple live in Nashville with their six children, “all musically inclined,” Shepherd said, “but none of them are sitting with the guitar for six or eight hours a day, every day, like I was.” 

Dallas is the eighth stop of the ”Dirt On My Diamonds” tour which began in Orlando on February 6. A 33-city tour and a large family seem like a lot to manage. “It's all about balance,” Shepherd said. “And since my wife and I started our family and having kids, it's been ‘How do we balance this properly? How do I fulfill my commitment to both my fans and my family so that neither feels neglected?’ I think we've done really good over the years and got it worked out. 

“We’ve got a pretty good system. I can't be gone for more than a certain amount of weeks on the road before I have to come back and reconnect with my family, for my wife's sake, for my kids’ sake and for my sake.”

Growing up in Shreveport and living less than three hours away by car from Dallas had a profound effect on Shepherd. ”Louisiana was a great place to live,” Shepherd said. “I was exposed to so many different kinds of music. And my dad, being musical as a radio guy, on any given weekend, we’d drive to Dallas to see concerts. We’d see concerts in New Orleans or drive up to Memphis. You’re right in the epicenter.”

Just before his tragic death in 1990, Vaughn played in a one-night Blues Festival with the great B.B. King at the newly opened Starplex at Fair Park. I was there and so was a 23-year-old Shepherd.

“Wasn't that show just incredible?” Shepherd said. “I don't know if you remember this, but for the encore, everybody walked off stage and the crowd was going nuts. The stage is black and everybody's cheering, waiting for the guys to come out and do a big encore jam. And then all of a sudden, a spotlight in the middle of the stage comes on. It is shining on Lucille, B.B. King’s guitar. B.B. King's guitar is center stage with a spotlight on it! And then Stevie walks out to the middle of the stage, gets down on one knee and he takes his hat off. Everyone lost their mind.”

For Kenny Wayne Shepherd, the spotlight is always on the guitar.