When Stevie Ray Vaughan died in 1990 it left an unfillable void for any lover of modern blues guitar, as it certainly did for me. Stevie Ray was my original guitarist obsession, and he was – and will always be – my favorite. Like the St. Pauli Girl, you never forget your first. At only 35 he’d effectively already become the elder statesman of the new wave of blues practitioners. In the years that followed a number of young, guitar-slinging phenoms emerged with the near impossible task of attempting to respectfully continue SRV’s style and tradition while still carving out their own individual blues-rock path. Jonny Lang, Smokin’ Joe Kubek, Tinsley Ellis and Albert Cummings were among them, and they are all phenomenal players.
I heard about another of them in 1997 by the name of Kenny Wayne Shepherd, who I came to believe did it best. He’d just put out an album entitled Trouble Is, his second, and I absolutely loved it from my first listen. His whopping tone, the absurd string bends, and the overall sound of the record – that astounding blend of ferocity and feel so reminiscent of Vaughan – just nailed a vintage Couldn’t Stand the Weather / Soul to Soul / In Step Vaughan-like vibe. Interestingly, Stevie Ray’s band – Tommy Shannon on bass, Chris “Whipper” Layton on drums, and Reese Wynans on keyboards – were all among the guest contributors (more surprisingly it was produced by the decidedly non-bluesy Jerry Harrison, veteran of both the Modern Lovers and Talking Heads). Kenny Wayne Shepherd, I quickly decided, could be considered the definitive post-Stevie Ray Vaughan blues guitar artist. Even the three-part name seemed to fit right.
Shepherd was just a towheaded 20 year-old when he released that album. And although I’ve certainly been plenty aware of his existence in the time since – he’s issued seven studio and live albums; for a few years he was in a band, The Rides, with Stephen Stills (yes, really); and I’ve also seen him frying his fretboard live on numerous occasions – I think I’ve still always pigeonholed him in my mind as the “kid” who was endowed with the most impressive traits of playing like Stevie Ray. Time marched on for the rest of us, but Kenny Wayne Shepherd was forever a guitar-wailing whiz kid.
But then earlier this year I was alerted to the fact that Shepherd was touring to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the release of Trouble Is – an album, by the way, that still holds the record for being the longest at the #1 spot in the history of the Billboard blues charts. Even I could do the math from there to determine that this amazing wunderkind was somehow now the ripe old age of 45. He’s married (to the oldest daughter of Mel Gibson…oy, and some of us think we have tough in-laws), and this kid now has five kids of his own. How this could’ve happened, it’s hard to explain. But fortunately it did cause me to go back and check out KWS’s latest, 2019’s The Traveler, which had somehow escaped me to date. And, I’m exceedingly pleased to be able to report that this middle-aged dad from humble Shreveport, Louisiana has, once again, blown me away. Yup, the kid can still play.
Among an album’s worth of high-quality tunes, this one, the dare-I-say sexy shuffle ‘I Want You,’ was the standout. Shepherd makes compelling use of the song’s plodding pace, at times playing noticeably behind the beat, and then contrasts that by unleashing a pair of absolutely hair-raising solos (first at 1:49, then again at 4:45 and up to the jarring finish) that recall both Stevie Ray and Kenny Wayne at their would-be combined best. As a bonus, in addition to the pyrotechnic guitar it’s Shepherd himself handling the lead vocals; for the majority of his work to-date longtime vocal collaborator Noah Hunt has provided the soulful singing while Kenny mastered the shredding guitar wizardry. Here, still more impressively (as well as fully SRV-like), he’d done both.
In a 2011 interview Shepherd stated that he’d initially begun playing guitar in earnest at age seven, roughly six months after meeting and being “mesmerized by” – you guessed it – Stevie Ray Vaughan, on Labor Day weekend in 1984 (it was at an event of his father’s, a regional concert promoter). Shepherd’s completely self-taught method from that moment on employed a painstaking process of learning one note at a time, playing and rewinding cassette tapes over and over while following along with material from his father’s record collection, starting on what he described as “a cheap Yamaha wanna-be Stratocaster basically made out of plywood.”
Now all these years later – is it possible – it is Shepherd who’s become not only the extension to the past but also the grizzled veteran, even a mentor to the next generation of blues artists. This month he’ll embark on a 6-city, East coast run of the Kenny Wayne Shepherd Backyard Blues Festival in which he’ll be sandwiched by Buddy Guy (at 85, clearly the last man standing of the true blues originators) and Christone “Kingfish” Ingram (23, and ascending as blues’ next star axe man). Shepherd, whether as a veritable old-timer hitting the latter half of his forties, or just starting out time-stamped as a kid, can nevertheless recognize an enduring advantage of the blues. “The beauty is that when you’re doing this kind of music, it’s not trapped in a specific era,” said Shepherd. “It’s not like pop music that tends to change and fall out of trends. People generally become fans of this kind of music and are, for the most part, fans for life. The same people that found out about us 25 years ago with the Trouble Is record, are still fans today.” In other words, people just like me. The playing of Stevie Ray and Kenny Wayne is timeless. Really, at any age.