Three years after paying tribute to Blues heroes such as Muddy Waters, Magic Sam, Willie Dixon, Stevie Ray Vaughan and the three Kings (Albert, Freddie, and B.B.) on the deeply reverential album Goin’ Home, Kenny Wayne Shepherd is expanding his musical palette on his eighth studio record, Lay It On Down [Concord], with a host of all-original songs that encompass country, gospel, soul, and straight-ahead rock. But the modern-day Strat king swears that, no matter what style of music he’s playing, blues is always a key part of the foundation.
“I think if you’ve grown up playing the blues, and you’ve done this as long as I have, it’s impossible to extract that from your DNA,” says Shepherd.
But Shepherd did change things up a bit on Lay It On Down, and with an ear towards mainstream radio. Having worked primarily with Jerry Harrison since 1995, he sought out Nashville-based producer Marshall Altman, and he collaborated with a variety of Music City’s first-call tunesmiths such as Brian Maher and Danny Myrick, along with the team of Mark Selby and Tia Sillers (who penned one of Shepherd’s first hits, “Blue on Black”).
“My overarching goal was to make a very contemporary record,” he says. “I wanted great songs and lyrics, killer melodies, and fantastic hooks.”
On the new album, Shepherd finds himself in the comfort zone with two members from his regular band—singer Noah Hunt and former Double Trouble drummer Chris Layton—but he has tossed another wild card into the mix with bassist Kevin McCormick, whom he has performed with for several years in the Rides (with Stephen Stills and Barry Goldberg). For the most part, the guitarist bears down on tight grooves and eschews extended 6-string flash, although tracks like “Baby Got Gone” and “Down for Love” brim with bracing, masterfully phrased blues-drenched solos.
“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve stopped looking at every song as an opportunity to show everybody what I can do on the guitar,” says Shepherd. “Look at Clapton and his catalog of music. Sure, his playing is great, but you remember the material. He wasn’t always trying to blow people away with flurries of notes. So I want to take a page from him—play good songs, and play what’s appropriate.”
Marshall Altman has done mostly pop records. Is that what appealed to you?
I have a long history with Jerry Harrison, but I wanted to do something different. I met Marshall, and every time I’d come to Nashville, I’d swing by his studio to talk. I didn’t even look at his resume. I just went off what kind of guy he is, and what his instincts were like. He’s a good producer, and he knows how to get great performances out of people. At certain points, he would challenge me if he thought I could be better. I never mind that.
Even though you didn’t want to burn all over this album, did you woodshed at all before going into the studio?
Not really. I don’t sit down and play to get my chops up. For me, the prep for making a record is in the songwriting—trying to take material to different places and not repeat the same things.
Do you come up with licks at home and go, “Oh, I’ve got to find a home for that part”?
That does happen. I think anybody who plays guitar has those moments. I’ll record licks into my phone. I’ve got hundreds of them. But nine times out of 10, it doesn’t matter. When I’m in the studio, I’m so focused on creating that I can’t think about what’s on my phone. I try to go in with a blank slate. I’ll lay down a solo when I’m tracking, and, a lot of times, that will be the keeper. I like to operate on intuition.
Although you try to make your solos first-pass keepers, how often will you go back and work on them?
I’d say around 60 percent of the time. On “Baby Got Gone,” for example, I didn’t like the beginning and this little piece in the middle. Come to think of it, there was something at the end I didn’t like either. So I played through that one a few more times. If I overdub a solo, I’ll definitely experiment a bit. I’ll work with different lines to try to make things exciting, but everything still has to fit the song.
You give your wah a pretty good workout on “Diamonds and Gold.” Do you approach a solo differently when you use a wah?
I respond to the sound and I work off of it. The wah can dictate where I’m going to go on the neck, so it does influence my phrasing and the notes I play. I try to see where it takes me.
You play a pretty restrained acoustic solo on the title track.
I haven’t done a ton of acoustic stuff, but I thought it would be appropriate for the song to have an acoustic solo. I love playing rhythm on an acoustic guitar, but soloing on one is a little confining. There’s so much more you can do with an electric—especially in the genre that I play. I used my signature Martin KWS-16 for that track.
What were the electrics?
My signature Stratocasters, along with my ’58,’59, and ’61 Strats. I also played a Gibson Custom Shop Firebird, a Custom Shop Les Paul, and a Les Paul Axcess.
Your amps are all Fenders, right?
They’re all Fenders, but they have been completely reworked by Alexander Dumble. They’re Fender on the outside, and Dumble on the inside. In the studio, we had the ’65 and ’67 blackface Bandmasters, a ’59 tweed Bassman, a ’57 tweed Deluxe, and a ’64 blackface Vibroverb. When I’m recording, we select the best two or three amps for the part, and we blend the tones.
It’s kind of fascinating. Alexander builds the amps around my Strats, but they sound amazing with other guitars. I plugged in a Les Paul, and it sounded incredible. That was such a nice surprise, because I never thought about how the amps might sound with a Gibson or whatever.
Are effects a big part of your signal chain when recording?
I try to just plug the guitar into the amp. However, on “Nothing But the Night,” I used a Tycobrahe Octavia, and on “Down For Love,” that cool Leslie sound is an Analog Man Bi-Chorus. “Ride of Your Life” probably has an Analog Man King of Tone pedal, and a JAM Llama Delay is on “Nothing but the Night.” I also have an old Tube Screamer, but I can’t remember what I used it on.
Why did you decide to record the album to tape?
It’s good with everything. Tape really brings out the richness of electric and acoustic guitars. They try to make digital plug-ins to emulate that sound, but it’s just not authentic. Basically, I try to make my records sound great for my fans, and I also want to be excited while we’re working on them. If I can, I’ll go for tape every time.
For the past few years you’ve played with Stephen Stills in the Rides. Has his playing rubbed off on you?
Probably, but I can’t pinpoint how. For the most part, Stephen lets me do my thing, and I let him do his thing. Every once in a while, I’ll be playing something, and he’ll say, “Hey, why don’t you try this instead?” He has opened my eyes to some different parts that I wouldn’t have thought of playing otherwise. We have a lot of respect for each other.