For a back-to-basics blues record, Kenny Wayne Shepherd went back home.
The renowned guitarist wanted to make a record not of blues standards and classics that had been heard a million times, but of the songs that inspired him growing up, personal favorites that were just as likely to be deep cuts on overlooked albums. Once the idea solidified for Goin' Home, Shepherd decided that the recording just had to be done in Shreveport, Louisiana.
"When I started exploring the concept of this album, it literally teleported me in my mind back to my childhood and I had these very vivid memories of being a kid, listening to this music and growing up learning the blues," Shepherd says. "It became apparent that the only place to record this album would be my hometown. It ended up being the best place for it."
There wasn't a top-quality recording studio in Shreveport when Shepherd released his debut album at 18, a self-taught prodigy who learned by following along his father's record collection, playing one note at a time. But now Blade Studios offers everything Shepherd could want. So Shepherd and his band, singer Noah Hunt, ex-Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble drummer Chris Layton, former Firm bassist Tony Franklin and keyboardist Riley Osbourn, cut everything in 11 days.
"The approach to recording was to record this music in the spirit it was originally recorded. To me that meant we needed to go in and play everything in the same room together, with instruments bleeding over on top of each other and all that. Do it to 2-inch tape and use as little technology as possible, no click tracks, no autotune," he says. "Back in the day these songs were recorded in 1 or 2 takes; they didn't go back and overdub a bunch of parts and that's how we recorded. It lends an important level of authenticity to the record."
During the year prior to recording, Shepherd and his band were tossing around ideas and settled on the idea of returning to old-school blues.
"It's an album full of music by the musicians who inspired me," Shepherd says. "It was a great idea, good timing, and it gave us an opportunity to get back to doing more traditional blues music, which our fans love."
Goin' Home, released May 19 on Concord Records, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard blues chart (it still sits at No. 3). Propelled by the single "Palace of the King," originally recorded by Freddie King (written by Leon Russell, Duck Dunn and Don Nix), the record also marks Shepherd's highest ever position on the Billboard 200 chart, debuting at No. 25. And while the record features songs by the greats like B.B. King, Muddy Waters and Albert King, these aren't those artists' most well known cuts.
"I went through lot of songs trying to choose what was right for this record. One thing I wanted to do was pick through songs that weren't recorded a million other times by a million other people. These songs stood out to me from going through artists' entire catalogs," Shepherd says. "There were lots of songs I wanted to record but I didn't because they'd been done so many times. I wanted the album to sound fresh, like a new record, not like an album of songs everybody's heard a million times before."
Augmenting the Kenny Wayne Shepherd band on Goin' Home are musicians with a similar reverence for classic blues: Joe Walsh, Warren Haynes, Keb' Mo', Robert Randolph, Ringo Starr and The Rebirth Brass Band.
Shepherd sought out songs with timeless hooks, solid grooves and lyrics that could sound like they came from current times.
"All of them stood out for one reason or another and they all turned out great," he says.
Next year will be the 20th anniversary of Shepherd's debut, the Platinum-selling Ledbetter Heights, and the guitarist says he's both proud and grateful to have that longevity in music.
"To me, that's a testament of the kind of music we're playing because it's timeless, and also to the fans," he says. "Blues goes through its surges and dips in popularity, but there's a core of fans who are lifelong fans and will always be there to support it. It's been around now as a genre for over a hundred years now and it's not going anywhere. Right now it's on an upswing and it's in good shape. There's no shortage of young people into blues music. I see them at my concerts all the time and you go onto YouTube and see all sorts of young kids playing blues.
"If you want to be a well-versed and well-rounded musician, this is the start. It's the cornerstone of rock and roll and country music and all the pop music that has come from that."