Interview: Kenny Wayne Shepherd on “Dirt On My Diamonds Vol.1”

Credit: Jim Arbogast.

Muscle Shoals and working with a crack band keeps the music fresh.

It is a sobering thought that Kenny Wayne Shepherd is nearly thirty years into his career as a roots rock blues-based artist which has brought him quite a degree of commercial success. While he can shred with the best if the mood takes him, Kenny Wayne Shepherd is more than a virtuoso blues-based guitarist thanks to his collaborative songwriting and his band that includes renowned New Orleans keyboardist Joe Krown, bassist Kevin McCormick who has played with Crosby, Stills & Nash, Nils Lofgren, Natalie Merchant amongst others, Double Trouble drummer Chris Layton, and vocalist Noah Hunt. Shepherd has released ‘Dirt On My Diamonds Vol. 1’ which includes songs that Shepherd wrote at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. American UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Kenny Wayne Shepherd at home in California over Zoom to discuss ‘Dirt On My Diamonds Vol 1’ and the influence of Muscle Shoals had on his latest record. Shepherd explains how he looks to keep his music fresh while still maintaining his signature sound. He also gives full credit to the contributions his band members make to the overall sound. Stephen Stills has been a big influence on his songwriting, and he explains that it was their shared love of American football that eventually led to their collaboration in the Ride in the 2010s. Finally, Kenny Wayne Shepherd confirms that he will be touring the UK and Europe, and details will be announced once they are confirmed.

How are you, and where are you?

I’m great, just here in my garage with my 2018 Dodge Demon race car.

You’ve been recording for nearly thirty years, where do you get the inspiration and drive from?

I think it is because I love the music, I love to play music, and I love to create music. I thrive on the challenge of what can I do differently for each album, what different songs can we write, what different sounds can we create, and what different grooves can we play in the studio. That’s what keeps it interesting for me, I never wanted to be the kind of artist where you knew what my album would sound like before it is even released. I think this new album, ‘Dirt On My Diamonds Vol. 1’, is a perfect example, it has a familiar sound in that when you hear it you know it is the  Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band, but we are doing lots of different things on it that I think that, maybe, people weren’t expecting and that to me, is exciting.

There is definitely some country soul in the air, why did you feel drawn to Muscle Shoals to write this set of songs?

It was really great. I think being down there really contributed to the creative process and the vibe you hear on the stuff on the record, for sure.

What did it feel like being in such an iconic location?

It was pretty cool because in FAME Studios it’s pretty much the same as it was back in the day. So, when you walk into the studio you are pretty much transported back in time. The vibe is everywhere, it’s in the walls, it’s in the carpet, it is everywhere.

Why ‘ Dirt On My Diamonds Vol 1’ and will there be a Volume 2?
Male monk in black robe holds wooden rosary and cross in hands, religion. Mysterious friar in dark cape

Yes, there will be a volume 2, it’s already finished and we are just waiting for the right time to release it. I think it will be towards the end of 2024 when we put that one out so that we give ourselves an opportunity to tour this album. I usually find a title track on a record to name the album. The thing is, ‘Dirt On My Diamonds’, that song has all the elements of the Kenny Wayne Shepherd sound right there, it has the blues, it has the rock, it is contemporary, it has the fire in the solo, it has a good vocal delivery. The message is also relevant, it is about today’s world where things like social media have created this unrealistic expectation of perfection where everybody feels that we have to portray this perfect life, this perfect appearance, and we have to look like this. We have to have this house, this car, these clothes, and vacation in that place and put it up for everybody to see that we are living this perfect life. ‘Dirt On My Diamonds’ is about embracing the flaws, because the flaws are what makes everybody unique, they give us the opportunity to grow, and they make us beautiful. That is the big overall message of the song, so we thought it was relevant because it addresses the weird society we live in today because of all these things.

What were the recording dynamics with your band?

I try to find the best musicians that I can who can both perform live on stage and in the studio. Chris Layton from Stevie Ray Vaughan’s band Double Trouble is playing with me and he goes all the way back to my first album, ‘Ledbetter Heights’ in 1995. He’s been on every album I’ve ever recorded except for one, and he’s been in my touring band for close on twenty years I think, and he’s as good as you get. Kevin McCormick on bass, I met Kevin when I formed the band the Rides with Stephen Stills and Stephen brought Kevin in to play bass and I brought Chris in to play drums, and that’s when those guys played together for the first time. Since then Kevin joined my band, and I’ve used him on a few records. Noah Hunt has been with me now for 25 or 26 years singing with the band, and even as I’ve been taking more lead vocals myself, Noah’s been the lead vocalist in the band and he is still very much an important part of the band, and he’s got such a great voice. His voice and my voice are very different, but I think that allows us to do a lot more things than if we only had one voice in the band. The dynamic is good within the band, we have a lot of experience playing live concerts together, and we bring that into the studio environment.

How do you and Noah Hunt avoid stepping on each other’s toes?

What happens is that I write the songs, and when I write the songs with the people I write with I kind of imagine who I can hear singing a particular song. Ultimately when we are recording Noah sings all the vocals when we’re tracking because I’m focusing on my guitar parts, but I know the songs I intend on going back and singing myself. I think what it boils down to is whose voice and delivery is the most appropriate for that song. That’s who ends up singing a particular song, and there is no ego in it, it is just about what’s best for the song, and that’s always been the case. Over my first three albums, I only sang lead vocals on one song on my first record, I had somebody else do it because my voice wasn’t, in my opinion, what was best for the music at that time. It’s all about what’s best for the music, that’s how it was in the beginning and that’s how it is today.

What’s your relationship with producer Marshall Altman?

I’m about long-term relationships, I think the longer you work with someone the more you get to know them and the more you know how to work together. We did ‘Lay It On Down’, ‘The Traveller’, ‘Trouble Is….25’. ‘Dirt On My Diamonds Vol 1’ and ‘Dirt On My Diamonds Vol 2’ so we are getting quite a body of work together, and it’s been very productive and exciting.

How involved were you with the horns on the record?

I’m involved with every aspect of it. I don’t write the horn parts, if they are playing and I hear something different I might make a suggestion. I try not to tell guys how to play their instrument, I like to find guys who can play their instrument well so I don’t have to tell them how to play their instrument. Marshall comes up with specific parts, and I will hear something here and there, but first, we give them the opportunity to come up with their own parts, and if we hear something different we will chime in.

What is the inspiration behind ‘Best Of Times’?

That’s all about this show I was doing. Marshall and I rented a car and drove to this gig I was doing, and along the way we drove through this town and it was a low-income area. Again, it was back to the theme of ‘Dirt On My Diamonds’. If you applied today’s standards of what is supposed to bring you happiness, which is money, nice things, fancy cars, big houses and status you would think the people in this town would be miserable because it was a little rough around the edges.

However, the more we drove through the town we started seeing the people who lived in that community, sitting on their front porches and they were waving at us as we were driving by, or you see neighbours talking in the yard with their kids playing together. These are hard-working people and they don’t have a lot of money, but they have found happiness outside of all those things. It just kind of struck us so we wrote that song based on that experience, and then we inter-twined another story. Some of it is from my experience, but it is not directly from my experience, and it includes someone from that community trying to boost themselves with their instrument to go to different places. So it is kind of two different stories being told at the same time, but ultimately it is about the experience of driving through that town.

Why cover Elton John’s ‘Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting’?

Well, I’m friendly with his guitarist, Davey Johnstone, and he is such a great guy. I admire him as a person and as a player. So really it was inspired by knowing Davey, but Elton is just such a tremendous artist, he’s one of those artists who can do anything, he can sing any genre, and he can play any genre. This is probably one of the hardest rock and roll songs he ever did in his career, so it is kind of up my alley. I keep a running list of songs that I think would be cool for us to cover, I think we could do a good version of that song, and that was on the list. So we just whipped it out one day, and I think we did a great job and the timing just worked out because he is doing his farewell thing, though that wasn’t intentional. It was a great opportunity for us to show our appreciation of him as an artist.

You mix genres in your own music with blues, country, soul and rock, sometimes even in the same song. How much do you think about the genre?

I feel like I do what I do. The blues has always been a core sound for me, when I was so young I just adored blues music, that’s all I wanted to listen to and all I wanted to play, but I grew up listening to everything from Jazz, country, rock and gospel, everything. All of that comes into play when I’m creating music because when you are a kid you are a sponge and you soak all that stuff up, and it comes back out at some point in your life. So when I’m creating music, all those other influences and genres I grew up listening to find their way into the music. People have to put labels on things or put you in a category, and most often I’m put in a blue category because I do love blues and when we get on stage I think we play blues with the best of them.

When I write music and when I create music I don’t just limit myself to the blues. From the very beginning, I take the blues as the foundation of what I’m doing, but I try and push it into different interesting directions to try and create something different. That’s how you reach different people, and my goal has always been to expand the awareness of blues music, and you do that by not just preaching to the choir. You don’t just play music for the people who have already been converted, the goal is to convert new fans, and to do that you’ve got to know how to reach them, and then because they’ve discovered your music they will find out about the traditional blues artists who came before you if you tell them. I think if we just played traditional blues every day we would be preaching to the choir.

Who are your songwriting heroes?

Stephen Stills for one when we did that band with him and we recorded two albums. We wrote a bunch of songs together, and I learnt a lot from him and I really tried to absorb a lot of his wisdom, and I really watched his approach, the way he observes the world and how he is able to put that into words. He is one of the most incredible songwriters of our time, and that is certainly not lost on me because I’m a big fan of his songwriting.

How did that collaboration come about?

Stephen wanted to make a blues album, and then he wanted to turn it into a blues band. He and Barry Goldberg had initially got together and tried to write some songs but they felt there was a missing element, and I guess my name was thrown into the ring and I got a phone call asking if I’d be interested. I’d known Stephen for years prior because we would go to American football games together to see the Indianapolis Colts football team play because we are both friends with the owner of the team, Jim Irsay. So Stephen and I first met, and jammed together, at football events but never thought about having a band until he wanted to make a blues record. It sounded like a lot of fun to me when I got the phone call so I said yes.

He’s not a bad guitarist.

He would often remind me how many times he’s been listed in the Top 100 Guitar Players Of All Time rankings, but he is.

What did you get out of the collaboration?

I think I got a lot of growth, and a lot of insight into songwriting and also album production. I’d been making albums for a few years, but he’s been doing it for decades longer than me, and he was at the cutting edge of recording in the early days, you know, multitrack recording and things like that. Those guys were figuring it out as they went along. It was really interesting being part of that process with him.

This is a traditional-length album, how easy was it to keep it tight and focused?

I think the classic album length is great. The whole industry is so different now from when I first started, and in a different way, it has gone back to a single mentality rather than an album mentality. You can put a whole album out on streaming, and they can just listen to one song whereas previously they would have to buy the whole album to hear the one song. So therefore you’d at least listen to the whole album once because you’d paid for it. The original single phase was 45 vinyl records and then full ink vinyl LPs, and then one era kind of bleed into the next.

So, I don’t know, I’ve always made albums and I still approach it that way, it’s like I’m trying to take somebody on a musical journey from start to finish and I record these songs and I put them in a specific order. One is supposed to lead you into the next so you go from the beginning to the end. So in today’s world where so many things are distractions and vying for our attention the idea of putting out a record with 10, 12 or 15 songs and think anybody is going to be able to sit down and listen to it uninterrupted from start to finish is nearly impossible, but if you have eight songs and it is 35 or 40 minutes, that’s a lot easier to do. It could be a little road trip and you put it in the car you can do that whole record before you have to pull over and go to the bathroom. The goal is to try and get people to have the entire experience, and also, there seem to be so many legendary albums that have 4 songs on each side for 8 songs total, so many legendary records. I think it is a nice appropriate amount of songs to digest, much more than that is overkill and then things don’t get the attention they deserve.

Any plans to come to the UK and Europe?

Yes, they are working on the dates as we speak and as soon as they have the schedule confirmed we will make an announcement. I think we started coming back consistently to the UK and Europe about eight years ago, or it may have been ten I’m not sure. It had been a long time up to that point since we had played over there, and then we started making a consistent effort to keep coming back and building our fanbase over there. We have a new record out, and yes, we want to come and play the music for the fans.

We like to share new music with our readers, so currently, what are your top three tracks, artists or albums on your playlist?

If you want to know what I was enjoying a moment ago we were just listening to the Christmas Classic Station, with my kids. So, we were listening to Sinatra, and all those guys, singing those classic Christmas songs from way back in the day. That is literally what I was just listening to in the car before we started our conversation. That may not be very exciting, but that’s the time of year we’re at right now.

Is there anything you want to say to Americana UK readers?

Some of these people have been on a long journey, this career has been going for 30 years making records, and I make it a point to let everyone know how much we appreciate them being along for the experience and continuing to support us and come to the concerts. Then there are probably some people who might just be discovering us. You know, I do shows and sometimes I will take a poll from the stage and I will ask people to raise their hands if they’ve seen us before, and about half the audience will raise their hand or applause. Then I will ask them who is seeing us for the very first time tonight, and the other half raise their hand or applause. That tells me something incredible in that we have people who continue coming to see us over and over again, but we are also at the same time continuing to reach new people and fans who come to experience our live performance, which is really what we do best. That’s exciting for me, 30 years into my career we continue to reach new people and we perform for some fans for the very first time.

Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s ‘Dirt On My Diamonds Vol 1’ is out now on Provogue Records.

About Martin Johnson 378 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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