In June 2004, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, along with friends Chris Layton and Tommy Shannon (of Double Trouble) and Noah Hunt spent an extraordinary ten days on the road recording and producing a documentary film and live CD. His guests include some of the world’s most renowned blues artists, as well of some of the genre’s lesser know, but rare and towering talents.
These ten days were spent visiting this varied lot of Kenny’s blues predecessors in their hometowns to hear their stories and play their music with them, allowing the viewer to immerse themselves in the environments that produced these essential and historical blues players.
Set in the present, it is built on the strength of the past and it sings clearly to the future. Ten Days Out invites you in to experience a heap of blues, a world of music, a real good trip to the heart of America and of Kenny Wayne Shepherd.
Ten Days Out: Blues From The Backroads features performances by B.B. King, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Hubert Sumlin, Pinetop Perkins, Henry Townsend, Honeyboy Edwards and so many more. It was nominated for two Grammy awards, won the Blues Music Award and the prestigious Keeping The Blues Alive award and the DVD was certified Platinum by the RIAA.
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.”
“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.”
“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 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.”
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 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?”
“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 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.”
“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. ”