Since the mid-'90s, singer/guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd has been merging blues and rock in a concoction that sounds custom made for the radio (especially his 1998 hit, "Blue on Black"). And he is continuing on that path, as evidenced by the arrival of his ninth full-length release overall, Lay It On Down, in 2017, which saw Shepherd working with a variety of songwriters for the first time in his career.
While speaking to Songfacts, Kenny spilled the beans about the inspiration behind the majority of the tracks on Lay It On Down, as well as the aforementioned "Blue on Black."
Greg Prato (Songfacts): How do you come up with riffs?
Kenny Wayne Shepherd: If I sit around and play guitar for more than 10 minutes, the ideas just start coming. You really just sit down and start playing - whatever comes - and see what develops from that.
The great thing is, in today's world we have the modern technology with cell phones. If you have an idea, you just grab your cell phone and record it right into your phone so you don't forget it. Before that, there were so many song ideas that I came up with that never got finished or written because I couldn't remember them. I would come up with it and would have no way to put it down, and I don't write or read music, so I couldn't do it that way. So I had to do it by memory, and then I would be like, "Oh man... how did that thing go?" There was a song that never was because of that.
Even before the cell phones, I had the ability to record. If I had a phone close by, I would call my answering machine and then I would sing or play it over the phone and record it that way. But I just like to accumulate ideas sitting around, jamming by myself with a guitar. Eventually, I wind up with hundreds of little riffs or grooves that are in my phone.
Since 2013, Shepherd has been in a band called The Rides with Stephen Stills and keyboard player Barry Goldberg.
Songfacts: As far as songwriting goes, how do you compare playing in The Rides with Stephen Stills to coming up with solo material?
Kenny: It's the same. You just have people helping to tell the story.
He has such an eloquent way of working. I guess everybody that I work with has their own way of doing it. Like, Barry and I came up with lyrics for a song once, and we handed them off to Stephen. He looked at them and scoffed at them. He liked the idea, but he looked at it and went, "Ah, pedestrian!" Then he takes the lyrics and goes in the next room for the next 30 minutes, comes back, and he had restructured the song and rewritten most of the lyrics, and I'm looking at the paper going, "Oh my gosh, this is incredible!" The way he was able to take the story that we had started, and re-tell it in a particular way was just amazing.
Songfacts: Do you write lyrics on your own, or do you collaborate?
Kenny: All of it. I help with the music, the lyrics, the vocal melodies. Every song is different. Every song, somebody takes the lead on a certain part. I always bring the music to the table from the get-go, and other people will help contribute to the music, and somebody will start banging out lyrics, and then everybody chimes in.
Like, with Mark Selby and Tia Sillers [who co-wrote "Blue on Black" with Kenny], Tia is an amazing lyricist. When I'm working with them, I'll throw out the music, and Mark and I will start hammering out the chord changes or maybe a bridge or the chorus - if I hadn't already figured that out - and a vocal melody. And while we're doing this, Tia is going nuts on the computer, writing all these lyrics. And then 10 minutes will go by, and she'll go, "Hey guys, what do you think about this?" And then when she throws down the meat of the story, then we start fine-tuning it together.
But every song is different - that's just one example.
Songfacts: Let's discuss the memories of writing and the lyrical inspiration behind the songs on Lay It On Down.
Kenny: One thing I wanted to do on this record was get outside of my comfort zone, which meant I wrote with a lot of people I had never written with before. And I figured I would set up a lot of sessions with new people and see what would come from that.
"Baby Got Gone" is the result of myself, Dylan Altman, and Danny Myrick working together. That trio, there are several songs on this record that came out of those guys. Everyone started on acoustic guitar. I had the riff. We were sitting around, and we decided to write a cool story about a free-spirited girl and a guy who is in love with this girl, and she can't stay tied down and doesn't really want to commit. He knows that, but he still is nonetheless infatuated with her, and totally understands the situation. It's not a bad thing or a good thing - it's just a guy who's in love with the unobtainable, and he knows it. It's a fun song.
The next song is "Diamonds & Gold." I wrote that with the producer, Marshall Altman. That was a song where we were having a meeting at his studio, and we weren't even supposed to be writing a song that day, but I grabbed a guitar and started playing this riff, and then 10 minutes later, we had about half of the song finished. We finished the rest of it right before we started recording in the studio. It's cool. It's got a real R&B vibe with a horn section, but it's also got this urban thing going on with the vocal delivery and the phrasing. I think it's pretty fresh and new sounding.
And then "Nothing but the Night," that's just a vibe track. It's about a guy and a girl that he loves, wanting to spend the evening together, but that music and the lyric really just puts you in a place - it puts you in the song and creates this really cool, smoky, under-the-moonlight kind of vibe, just by listening to it. That song is a complete original. I don't feel like you can listen to that song and go, "Oh, that sounds just like so-and-so's song." That song really stands on its own as a true original song. That's another one that Danny Myrick, Dylan Altman, and I wrote.
The title track, "Lay It On Down," is a beautiful ballad and great lyrics. There are a lot of lyrics on this record that tell stories and tell them well, and this is about somebody that we all know. Everybody knows somebody that doesn't feel good enough and buys into the idea that they're not worthy. It's just a message for people to love themselves the way that they are, so other people can love them the way they should be loved. It's one of my favorite songs on the record, and the message is a very positive one.
"Down for Love" is just straight-up blues. A Texas blues shuffle, right in my wheelhouse. It's the typical blues thing: The guy's throwing it out there for the woman that he's the man and he's got her in his sights. "Down for Love" was me, Danny, and Dylan as well, and "Lay It On Down" was me, Mark, and Tia.
"Hard Lesson Learned" I wrote with Keith Stegall, who is a great producer/songwriter in Nashville. It's just one of those heart-wrenching love stories where the guy is in love with this woman and he's getting his heart broken over and over again. He loved her, and she doesn't love him back, and he keeps going back, knowing he's going to get hurt. One of those stories that is as old as time.
There is another one called "She's $$$" [pronounced "she's money"] that I wrote with Keith Stegall - just a fun, uptempo song that's glorifying women. I like to say good things about women more than talk about the negative. It's just one of those things where she's got everything. She's so good, she's like money.
Then there is "How Low Can You Go," which was also written by Keith Stegall, and really, that song isn't about the lyrics, it's about the music. We had this killer riff, and we just had to write some lyrics to give us an excuse to play the music. It was this really cool, rocking, Roy Orbison type deal, and it was fun to play, so we had to throw some lyrics in there to make it a song, and that's what we did.
"Ride of Your Life" is a hypothetical song. It's not really my personal experience - we just wanted to write a song about a bad dude on the run from the cops. He picks up a hot lady and she has no idea what he's done or why the cops are after him, and she's stuck in the middle. It's a fun groove and it's got some blazing guitar on it.
Songfacts: And lastly, let's discuss your biggest hit, "Blue on Black."
Kenny: We wrote that when we were down in New Orleans - me, Mark and Tia. I had the music, and Mark and I were just rolling with the music and tried to develop things up. Tia came up with this idea based on a shirt that I was wearing that was blue and black. She noticed the two colors that were dominant on my shirt, and if you mix those two colors together, black consumes the blue. It doesn't amount to anything if you put the two together: You still have one color, instead of creating a new color.
So she built on that idea, and it became this really deep song. It's really up to the listener to determine how they apply it. So many people have applied it to a death in the family, an abusive relationship, a broken relationship, or whatever. There are so many different ways. That's what's beautiful about music and lyrics is trying to write a song that the listener can apply to their own experience in whatever way seems fit. And that's one of those songs.
August 15, 2017.
For more Kenny, visit kennywayneshepherd.net.