From the first compelling minutes of TEN DAYS OUT: Blues From The Backroads, it's immediately evident that bluesman Kenny Wayne Shepherd is up to something different. Shepherd embarked on a ten-day trek into the heart of America. Traveling highways and byways with a roving documentary film crew, a portable recording studio, portable house band—the esteemed Double Trouble, with producer Jerry Harrison, Shepherd visited blues veterans in their homes, backyards and local clubs, creating as intimate and intense a blues film as has been seen in many a year. The resulting film allows music lovers to join in the exploration and witness the artistic creation of both the film and the accompanying live CD.
Kenny Wayne Shepherd, who ably walks the line between bandleader and accompanist, is joined by a stellar lineup of collaborators. His guests include some of the most renowned blues artists—B. B. King, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, and Hubert Sumlin among them; some artists whose careers reach back to the earliest days of blues—Pinetop Perkins, Henry Townsend, Honeyboy Edwards; and some of the least known though most astonishing players—Cootie Stark, Neal Pattman, and Etta Baker. Other guests include Jerry "Boogie" McCain, Buddy Flett, Bryan Lee, John Dee Holeman, the Howlin' Wolf Band, and the Muddy Waters Band. Partial proceeds of this project are being donated to Music Maker Relief Foundation, a non-profit organization committed to helping impoverished blues artists.
"We could have stopped in every city in the US," says Shepherd, the platinum-selling guitarist and vocalist, "and we'd find somebody, whether an old cat who is an original product of this music or else a kid my age or younger—but we'd have found someone who is a fan of the blues and trying to do it justice. We could lay out a world map, throw a dart, and go there to play blues—and people are gonna love it."
With a career that began at age 16, Kenny Wayne Shepherd has a storied decade in music's big-leagues. His first three albums mixed blues and blues-rock; his 1995 debut Ledbetter Heights has sold over a million copies, making it a platinum record. Trouble Is…was released in 1998 selling over a million copies and Grammy-nominated. Live On followed a year later, and also got the Grammy nod. (The latter two were produced by Jerry Harrison, who returned to produce TEN DAYS OUT.) On his most recent record, 2004's The Place You're In, Shepherd took most of the album's lead vocals for the first time. "I cut my teeth as a blues artist," says Kenny Wayne Shepherd. "My first three records mixed my styles, and the last one, The Place You're In, was a pretty heavy dose of rock and roll. So this became a perfect time to present a solid dose of the blues."
With TEN DAYS OUT, Kenny Wayne Shepherd continues his love affair with America's homegrown music, introducing his fans to a varied lot of his blues predecessors. The goal was to get intimate recordings in intimate places, and maintain authenticity: the album has no overdubs, no high-tech fixing. "Live as it went down," says Shepherd. "What happened is what you hear. We kept it as real as possible."
The DVD lays bare that truth, taking us into the small rooms, the kitchens, the dense woods where this music was made. "I was trying to convey the place that produced this kind of music," says the film's director Noble Jones, a self-confessed culture junkie, "the elements that came together to produce the blues. The environment these people came from and how it weighed on them."
Shepherd set out with a home court advantage, by hiring the team who'd helped make Live On such an outstanding effort: Producer Jerry Harrison, himself a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, (his production credits include the Violent Femmes, Live, Big Head Todd & The Monsters; he was a member of the Talking Heads and the Modern Lovers), bassist Tommy Shannon and drummer Chris Layton, the rhythm section known as Double Trouble that came to fame behind Stevie Ray Vaughan. (For some of the acoustic artists, Shepherd's accompaniment was all that the artists needed.) "I can rely on Jerry to listen from an outside perspective," Shepherd says. "We worked together before, so I'm very comfortable with his musical advice. He can be sure the groove is there." Traveling in a bus like a family band, the group blazed a blues trail—from the mouth of the Mississippi River in New Orleans, over to Shreveport, up into Alabama, across to the Carolinas, then west to Salina, Kansas with a few other stops along the way. The whole trip has been captured in a documentary film that takes the same name as the album and is packaged with the release.
Shepherd's work creates an emotional connection between the listener and the performer. The combined effect of the record and the documentary makes Shepherd a conduit, a window through which we can see and hear how these other great artists live and play. The documentary is a series of magic moments—Gatemouth Brown instructing the band on the finer points of listening to others play; Etta Baker talking about the overhaul she intends to give her kitchen; a pre-show BBQ meal with legendary members of Muddy Waters' and Howlin' Wolf's bands sharing stories. The music on the CD creates a vast imaginary vista onto which the documentary burns images, images that are then evoked when the CD is played.
"Etta Baker was a real highlight," film director Jones adds. "She was very expressive, and had this great speaking style and body language. She was so impressive, this elderly skinny woman with the dexterity of a young person. We were completely floored by her spirit."
The slippery and ephemeral nature of a project like TEN DAYS OUT was brought home with the unexpected death of harmonica player and vocalist Wild Child Butler. Healthy and strong at the concert recording with Howlin' Wolf's band, Wild Child was expected to join Shepherd on a tour in support of the album. "He was laughing constantly when we were with him in Salina," Shepherd remembers. "It was a real shock that he passed away. But that further magnifies the importance of this project. Henry Townsend at 96, Honeyboy Edwards at 90, Etta Baker at 93 and B.B. King at 80… we captured them while they're vibrant and vital, and they'll be able to inspire others like they've inspired me."
While the record and DVD were being prepared for release, death has taken three more of the featured artists: Neal Pattman, Cootie Stark, and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown. "I wanted to get people in contact with the eternal spirit of the blues," says Jones about Kenny and the film. "As long as there's a struggle, there will always be a voice—the blues--that comes out of human beings. I wanted people to see that spirit still alive, and let them understand that it's a dwindling spirit." The DVD includes bonus material, including amazing footage of gospel singer Essie Mae Brooks performing "Rain In Your Life" a cappella, footage of early Shepherd mentor Buddy Flett, and a funky rural jam with Cool John Ferguson and Neal Pattman.
Most musicians are either bandleaders or band members, and few have proven capable of being both the stars and the accompanists. Kenny Wayne Shepherd, however, has proven himself a true devotee to the music as both a star soloist and a star accompanist. "In my career, I'm out every night playing in front of big crowds," he says. "It's my show, everything is the way I want it to be. And I love that. But a project like this picks me up, takes me out of my so-called reality and puts me right back where I was when I was 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 years old, listening to the people who were my mentors and who inspired me to play music, looking up to them, being humbled."
The years of intense study honed his musical instincts. "That's basically what separates the men from the boys in music," Shepherd continues. "Everyone of these guys has a different style. That's where doing your homework is important. I studied as a young man every style of blues that exists: Mississippi Delta, Texas, Chicago, acoustic, dobro, electric—all of it. And without that kind of knowledge and experience, I don't think I would have been capable of accompanying this diverse group of players.
"More than simply knowing when to play electric or acoustic, the accompanist has to know how to let others shine, which means understanding what's being played. And the variety of styles on the album would have daunted many musicians. "Basically, it's knowing how to sit back in the groove," he explains. "Find your musical niche and don't steal the spotlight. With these guys, I'm a 7 year old kid again; I can't help but show respect. I make sure not to overdo it—but I also have to bring something to the table. You got Tommy and Chris backing you, they're going to be doing their job, it's up to me to do mine."
"Kenny was really a high point," says Jones, about watching him interact with so many different kinds of people. "By the end of the ten days, when he played with these legendary bands, it was immensely rewarding to see him both hold his own and share the glory. Kenny was going to shine—he's a star, the light just goes to him, so I had to be sensitive to the other players, but Kenny made sure their presence was strong."
"A project like this, with all these great people, it's not about me—it's about the music," says Shepherd, "and about the people who inspired me to pick up an instrument and make music. You've got to listen to what they sing or write about, and you'll hear the people behind the music, the players behind the blues. And that's what the blues is about—the lives these people led, and that we are living today."
TEN DAYS OUT: Blues From The Backroads began with Kenny Wayne Shepherd weeding through boxes of CDs he'd collected by contemporary blues artists. "We got a bunch of people to send us CDs of these peoples' music," Shepherd says. "As I went through the discs, I was thinking from a producer's perspective. I looked for unique qualities in each of these people, a way for the listener to remember them for who they are. And I think you can hear their individuality in their music."
JERRY "BOOGIE" MCCAIN
"The first guy I listened to and absolutely knew we had to have was Jerry ‘Boogie' McCain," says Shepherd. The harmonica player had been inspired by Little Walter in the early 1950s, and made his debut in 1953 on the famed Trumpet label, original home to Sonny Boy Williamson II. McCain recorded for a who's who of blues labels: Excello, Rex, Okeh, and Jewel. In 1960, he had some success with the gutsy "She's Tough," a song later covered by the Fabulous Thunderbirds. His career was somewhat low-key for many years, until a spate of new recordings began in 1989. His 2000 release, This Stuff Kills Me, included many prominent guests, among them Double Trouble. McCain has always been known for the humor and double-entendre of his lyrics, and that's what caught Kenny Wayne's ear. "His song ‘Potato Patch,'" says Shepherd, "it's sexual innuendos about his woman when he's not there. That's the kind of stuff that turned me on to blues in the first place, the way these guy put their personality into it. If you do it right, it can be hilarious, and at the same time it can bring a tear to your eye."
COOTIE STARK AND NEAL PATTMAN
"For me," says Kenny Wayne Shepherd, "just listening to Cootie and Neal talk makes my heart beat fast. When they play, they kill me." Stark and Pattman are among the last of their generation of Piedmont blues musicians; Etta Baker, also featured on Blues From The Backroads, is another. This style was centered around the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, hence it's name "Piedmont." Stark is a treasure trove of songs. Legally blind for decades, he was unable to find manual labor jobs and so became a street musician, developing a vast repertoire. He wasn't recorded until 1999 when the Music Maker Foundation (www.musicmaker.org) released his first album. Harmonica player Neal Pattman has been blowing the blues for seven decades. When he was nine-years old he lost his arm to a wagon wheel, but that slowed him not at all. "The blues knocked at my door and wouldn't leave," he says, and his performance affirms that truth.
"In the documentary," says Shepherd, "I love how Cootie talks about learning to play guitar when he's a little kid. He says from the moment his brothers and sisters went to school until the moment they came home, he never even went inside to get a drink, he just stayed at the barn."
"My daddy and my momma bought me a little old guitar," says Stark. "I played around, used to get up in the morning, 5 o' clock, wash my hands and face, bang on that guitar before my momma got breakfast on. I didn't want to quit. I used to keep that guitar in my hand, slamming it…all day long I was out by the old barn, that's where I learned."
Cootie Stark and Neal Pattman died within months of each other in mid-2005.
This track features Cootie Stark with Shepherd and Double Trouble. "We didn't want to throw a whole band around ‘Prison Blues' and change the vibe," says Shepherd. "We wanted to keep the feel as true as we could. For ‘U-Haul,' Tommy and Chris lay down one of the thickest grooves on the whole record. It's musicians playing what they feel naturally. As far as rhythm sections go, there's none better. Tommy's walking on the bass, Chris is playing that shuffle, and I'm just throwing some fills. It reminds me of the approach on Muddy Waters' Hard Again, which is my favorite blues album of all time. On that record, everyone's soloing at the same time and it creates a big solid fat foundation. When it's done right, it's perfect, and I think ‘U-Haul' is just about perfect."
Buddy Flett was a Louisiana star when Shepherd was exploring the live music scene around his hometown of Shreveport. "I grew up watching him and his band in my home town over the years. Buddy always treated me with a lot of respect. I was 15 when I had my first gig lined up in Shreveport, and he let me use his band. Buddy is a real treasure to me. His style is completely different from mine but he's a real talent. He's had success in the past, but I'm hoping this will propel him onto a national level."
B. B. KING
"The Thrill Is Gone"
B. B. King is the reigning king of the blues. He's played with the Rolling Stones, U2, Eric Clapton and a host of other major stars. Kenny Wayne has sat in with B. B. King on the road many times, but this is their debut recording collaboration. "I've played with him since I was 15," says Shepherd. "He's the only guy that makes me nervous. I was really aware of that when I was watching the documentary footage of our song together. He throws me a solo, and I'm too self-conscious to really let it rip. You can see him look at me to egg me on to keep playing. He has to keep looking at me. From him I need that green light. He has to open the door for me to walk through."
CLARENCE "GATEMOUTH" BROWN
"Born in Louisiana"
Gatemouth Brown is a guitarist and fiddle player whose wide-ranging and eclectic tastes have made him legendary. He's as likely to break into a Texas swing standard as a calypso tune, a big band chestnut, or even a novelty tune like "May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose," which was a hit for him in 1965. Brown's instrumental recordings of the 1950s, featuring his virtuosic yet extremely melodic (and very exciting) guitar playing, made him very influential. "Okie Dokie Stomp" is one of the most important guitar instrumentals of all time. "Gatemouth won't talk about the blues," laughs Kenny Wayne, "because he refuses to be pigeonholed."
Gatemouth Brown succumbed to lung cancer and heart disease in mid-September, 2005.
Bryan Lee, known as "The Braille Blues Daddy," came to prominence playing on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Since the early 1980s, he's been releasing blistering recordings that feature the Chicago sound of his Midwestern upbringing. In the documentary, Bryan and Kenny discuss their early friendship, and the warmth between them is obvious. "When everybody else was turning me down, Bryan gave me a chance," says Shepherd. "Like he said on the film, I think it's because he was blind and couldn't see me. He didn't judge me by how I looked but by how I played. I got on stage with him at 12 or 13 and we didn't stop playing until 3 in the morning. He's just as important to me as someone like B. B. King. B. B. is like another father to me, and Bryan is like a brother. If it weren't for him, I don't know if I'd have found out what it's like to play on stage. Stevie Ray Vaughan taught me a very valuable lesson: he always gave so much credit to the people who influenced him. Bryan has been a huge influence on me."
JOHN DEE HOLEMAN
"Chapel Hill Boogie"
John Dee Holeman operated heavy machinery most of his life. Now in his mid-70s, he's been able to devote his life to music. He's a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage fellowship and a North Carolina Folk Heritage award. "John Dee," Kenny Wayne says, the awe audible in his voice, "that guy taught me some stuff on the guitar I didn't know. He's an amazing player. It's almost like chords, and almost like finger-picking, but he chords and picks in a way that becomes a lead style, sort of like Robert Johnson but less involved. He's real mellow and soft-spoken. Everything about him is soft, which is why he only performs acoustic. For me as a sideman, I had to play a lot more softly. After we recorded, we were fooling around. I said, How did you do that? And he actually showed me. I'd say, Can you do that one more time? So I learned some interesting chords and patterns for turnarounds, got ‘em first hand from him. My regular vocalist Noah Hunt is on that song. When he starts singing, John starts to grin. That's one of those unspoken moments that the documentary lets the listener see."
Born in 1913, Etta Baker didn't pursue a recording career until she was well into her 60s. She'd always performed for family and friends, caring little for pursuing music professionally. Her dazzling skill in the Piedmont style of finger-picking earned her immediate respect upon the release of her first album in 1991, at the age of 78. Even today, she remains a formidable player. "Oh my god, that was the hardest day out of all of them," says Shepherd. "Piedmont Blues—I can fingerpick, but the Piedmont style is different. And her song has weird changes. I was baffled trying to follow her. You can see me—my mouth is wide open, I'm staring at my hands. Playing with Etta Baker was humbling. She's 93 yrs old and I'm lost. Then again, as she explains in the documentary, it's a song she wrote in a dream. How are you supposed to follow that?"
HENRY TOWNSEND AND HONEYBOY EDWARDS
"Tears Come Rolling Down"
"These guys are living legends from the era of the creation of the blues," says Shepherd. Indeed, both of these guitarists knew Robert Johnson. Their style is as authentic as it comes, and while playing with them was an honor, being in their presence was the real charge. "The best part of that day was watching the two of them interact with one another," Shepherd remembers. "These two guys were cutting up, reminiscing about old times, making jokes about one another. That was real special stuff to me. Close your eyes and listen to the stories, and you can really go back to their heyday. The film brings out some of that, and the music certainly does."
THE HOWLIN' WOLF BAND with Hubert Sumlin, Henry Gray, Calvin Jones, and Wild Child Butler
"Sitting On Top of the World"
The recordings made with the Howlin' Wolf and with the Muddy Waters band were the only ones done in a concert setting—live performances for an audience. The night before any of the taping was done, after the sound check and with all the players in the house, there was a roving free-for-all jam. "I was up there with any number of different groups of musicians," says Shepherd. "One would go up, someone else would come down, and each change changed the vibe of the whole thing. That's how you become a better musician in my book, constantly playing with different people, and learning different approaches and how to fit in. I think you can get a vibe for how amazing that show was by watching the film."
From the Howlin' Wolf band, pianist Henry Gray and guitarist Hubert Sumlin each sing a song. Sumlin was the young guitarist that Wolf trained to deliver the signature Howlin' Wolf sound (Muddy Waters stole Sumlin from Wolf, but Wolf eventually wooed him back.) "Playing with Hubert, it was like I gained another father," says Shepherd. "We really had a serious connection. He told me he'd played with everybody, from Clapton to Stevie Ray Vaughan, ‘But you,' he said, ‘You're the one I've been waiting for. I knew you were coming and now I know it's you.' Wow, what could I say to that? I look forward to playing with him again."
Henry Gray was Wolf's pianist for a dozen years, beginning in 1956. From Louisiana, he had already established himself in Chicago as a popular session musician, recording behind Jimmy Reed, Little Walter, Bo Diddley, Jimmy Rogers, and Billy Boy Arnold. "Henry Gray played chords I've never heard," Shepherd explains. "He's out there pushing the envelope even at his age, throwing in stuff that sounds like it just barely belongs. On ‘Red Rooster' he plays this solo, and at first I was wondering if he was playing out of key, but he's not, he's just taking the song really far out. You've got to know what you're doing to know that he's right. There's so much to learn from these guys."
THE MUDDY WATERS BAND with Pinetop Perkins, Willie "Big Eyes" Smith, and Bob Margolin
"Muddy Waters's album Hard Again!" says Kenny Wayne Shepherd, and you can hear the exclamation marks in his voice, "That to me is by far the greatest blues album ever made! That's my favorite record of all time! So to have that rhythm section and those guys there, to get to play with Willie ‘Big Eyes' Smith who laid down those beats that are so far in the pocket you think he's going to miss the one, that was one of the biggest thrills for me. I'll never forget that as long as I live."
Muddy Waters lived the archetypal blues life, playing an acoustic guitar in the rural south before moving to Chicago, where he picked up an electric guitar so he could be heard in the industrialized north. His recordings established the language, grammar, and diction of most of the blues that would follow. "I was inspired by Muddy Waters. There's only one Muddy. He has a presence and personality with his music. People identify him with that. And really, he was inspiring me for all of this recording. I wanted to find people who had a uniqueness to their personality and music that was distinct like Muddy's was. I wasn't trying to find people who sounded like Muddy Waters, but I wanted to find artists who had a singularity like Muddy had. I'm real happy with how it all turned out. "
TEN DAYS OUT: Blues From The Backroads is a record that will be played for years to come. Set in the present, it is built on the strength of the past and it sings clearly to the future. "In any song the bottom line with me," says Kenny Wayne Shepherd, "is the groove. Even people who don't pay attention to lyrics can't help but notice when their body starts moving." TEN DAYS OUT shakes some body. It moves you.
The blues has endured through the power of its truth, and TEN DAYS OUT embraces that truth. This album is honest, emotionally powerful, artistically gripping, and universally compelling. Kenny Wayne Shepherd and the diverse musicians he's gathered speak across generations to remind us that music means little if it's not played from the heart, and blues means the most when its delivered with the truth. TEN DAYS OUT invites you in to experience a mess of blues, a world of music, a real good trip to the heart of America and of Kenny Wayne Shepherd.