Kenny Wayne Shepherd, who performs tonight in Club Bijou, says it was 'a natural progression' to add vocals to his formidable guitar skills.
Ten years ago, blues fans weren't quite sure what to make of Kenny Wayne Shepherd and his debut disc, "Ledbetter Heights."
The high school hotshot certainly was a monster musician, cranking out liquid-fire guitar solos and thunderous power chords, but some purists questioned whether a white teenager from suburbia could play "authentic" blues.
Those questions were quickly erased, however, as Shepherd's first disc earned Gold Record status and the guitarist, who will be in concert tonight in Club Bijou, earned the approval of one of the blues' most respected practitioners, B.B. King.
"He's a star blues player who reminds me of how I felt towards Stevie Ray [Vaughan] in the beginning," King wrote in his 1996 autobiography.
The validation was welcome and Shepherd was grateful, if for no other reason than it kept critics at bay and let him continue playing his guitar and following his muse without those distractions.
Today, Shepherd is 27 and touring in support of his fourth album, "The Place You're In," released in October by Reprise Records.
The 11-song disc marks another turning point in Shepherd's career as it's the first on which he does vocals. Previously, Shepherd stuck to guitar and had let soulful singer Noah Hunt handle all the lead vocals.
"Well, people have been kind of pressuring me to do that ever since the beginning of my career," Shepherd said in an interview this week from a tour stop in Urbana, Ill.
"I wasn't ready for it before, but I felt that now was as good a time as any."
About two years ago, he said, he had "a real moment of clarity" when he had a vision of himself on the stage singing and playing the guitar.
When it came time to record the latest disc, all his new songs were "more personal" than before, he said, and the different factors came together to make it "a natural progression" to add vocals to his formidable guitar skills.
Hunt, meanwhile, remains an important part of Shepherd's band, he said.
"Noah's fine with it. He still sang the lead vocals on two songs on the new record, and in concert he sings stuff off the other records. His job's not in jeopardy," Shepherd said.
A native of Shreveport, La., and the son of a radio station disc jockey, Shepherd grew up in a musical environment and was 7 when he first saw Vaughan in concert.
"He picked me up and sat me on one of his amp cases on the side of the stage, and that's pretty much where I got my first real inspiration to play guitar," he said.
By age 13, Shepherd was earning national attention as a blues guitar wunderkind. His first disc was released when he was 17 and still in high school.
Both Shepherd's second disc, 1997's "Trouble Is " and third, 1999's "Live On," were nominated for Grammy Awards. In 2000, after eight years of steady touring, he took a break, moved to Los Angeles, and took his time before tackling "The Place You're In."
Shepherd said he wrote about 15 songs before heading into the studio again, but wanted to be flexible and "leave room for spur-of-the-moment inspiration."
As a result, about half the songs that ended up on the disc were written in the recording studio, he said, including "Spank," a funky rocker co-written and recorded with Kid Rock.
"That was cool. He and I are friends," Shepherd said. "I played guitar on a song for his record, and I had this song and thought it was appropriate for him, and he came down and did it."
The overall mood of "The Place You're In" contains more rock elements than his previous electric-blues albums.
"That's just where the music was going when I was writing it, and basically my voice kind of leans more toward rock," Shepherd said. "I also want people to not know what to expect from me when I do a new record."
Kenny Wayne Shepherd will be in concert at 8:30 tonight in Club Bijou, 209 North Superior St. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $25 from Ticketmaster. Information: 419-243-4446.
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