Elvin Bishop and Kenny Wayne Shepherd both play guitar, but they took wildly different paths to forge a career in music. Both were recently profiled in Blues Music Magazine (Issue 21, April 2019) and it struck me that becoming a professional musician doesn’t happen overnight, nor is there a simple A+ B = C formula to follow while chasing success. The two profiles offered an interesting comparison between Bishop, who started in the business in 1960, and Shepherd’s first shot at recording in 1995.
Elvin Bishop grew up on a farm in Oklahoma and earned a National Merit Scholarship to attend college. He knew he wanted to pursue the blues, but with the state of segregation in the South during that time period, there weren’t a lot of opportunities for young Elvin to explore the genre in Oklahoma. He headed north and enrolled at the University of Chicago. Bishop managed to pass his freshman year without attending class because the grades were all test based and he was particularly good at passing tests. He spent his class time exploring the rich blues culture of the Windy City and all was well until he had to take a required Physics class. As he told interviewer Don Wilcock, “I hit the wall. I had to make the choice between really studying and throwing up both hands. I just went on with the music, and it wasn’t popular with my family because they were products of the Depression. They were a long line of farmers I came from. The education was a big thing to them. I had a chance to do it, and blowing it was a big mistake as far as they were concerned.”
Bishop’s chances of making it in the music business were greatly enhanced when he met harmonica player Paul Butterfield on the first day of classes. Between 1960 and the release of thier first album as the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, they immersed themselves in the blues. While bands like the Stones and the Yardbirds were introducing white teen audiences to their version of the American blues, Bishop and Butterfield were getting their education directly from the artists playing the blues clubs in Chicago. As Bishop said, “The mixing of races was extremely frowned upon as real bad,” in Oklahoma, but there were no such strictures in Chicago. Their eponymous first album may have only risen to 123 on the Billboard Top 200 chart in 1965, but it created a lasting impression with young white listeners. The new blues movement the album kicked started is still growing to this day.
Having a mixed race band with Sam Lay on drums and Jerome Arnold on bass (they joined in 1963 after being part of Howlin’ Wolf’s touring band) gave the Paul Butterfield Blues Band the cred they needed to play in the clubs, something Bishop and Butterfield would not have been able to do comfortably on their own. When super guitarist Mike Bloomfield joined in 1965, they had a style that wasn’t like the music coming from London, Memphis, or San Francisco, yet it had cross over appeal in the young, white demographic as well as in the more traditional blues outlets.
Without a school deferment, getting drafted into the Army was always on the back burner. Bishop stayed a step ahead of the draft board by moving to New York and then back to Chicago. He was finally compelled to visit a psychiatrist at the Cook County Hospital to be evaluated for the draft. When he described his lifestyle (living in an apartment with seven black people, drinking to excess, and playing blues music), the doctor advised him to, “Get some white friends,” . . . and then the doctor wrote him a letter of medical deferment. From that point, Bishop says, “It was great to go out and play that music every night.” Such was his career until 1968 when he struck out on his own.
As for Kenny Wayne Shepherd, he was signed to music giant Irving Azoff’s Giant Records as a sixteen year old. Most guitarists that young would be given a list of of strong material by Stevie Ray Vaughn or Jimi Hendrix. The record company would appoint a producer to assemble a band of solid studio guys to help the youngster make the best record they could. Shepherd didn’t want to be the next guitar shredder: “I didn’t want to come across as just being a self-indulgent guitar player watching myself playing guitar all the time. I wanted to hear the entire package, a great story being told, a great singer delivering lyrics, a great groove, and a great guitar. [Azoff] gave me the green light to do something different.” Azoff must have seen beyond the ‘next guitar whiz kid’ thing because Shepherd’s 1995 debut, Ledbetter Heights contained twelve tracks, eight of which were Shepherd originals. The only part of the package that the kid couldn’t deliver at age sixteen was the vocals: “At the time, my voice didn’t live up to my expectations of what I had for my music. I sounded like a child, and I didn’t want that for my music. I had no problem finding another singer who could do it. I’ve always had certain standards and I’m willing to do whatever it takes to meet those standards, even if it means having someone else sing.”
As he grew as an artist, KWS felt it was his duty to shine the light on the lives of the many mentors that he looked up to. His 2006 documentary 10 Days Out – Blues From the Backroads, when combined with a companion album Live in Chicago, was able to showcase those important musical elements that Shepherd sought for his own career. Interviewer Art Tipaldi described the detail Shepherd puts into his work: “Shepherd’s laser-like focus is obvious on each detail – writing, arranging, recording – of his current project The Traveler. To help him broadcast certain messages in his songs, he works with a stable of writers, some reaching all the way back to Ledbetter Heights up through the recently completed The Traveler. A Shepherd tells it, “Music is a powerful thing with the ability to affect people’s moods. I feel like if I have that kind of responsibility, to affect people in that way, I would like to do it in a positive way.” As a 41-year-old father of six, KWS wants to send the right message to his kids, not just the old blues idioms: “I love the old blues songs with relationships going bad, but in my life today, I tend to talk more about the way things can go right. Instead of telling about how ruthless a woman is, I like to talk more about how glorious she is. I know my kids are listening to everything that I write or record. I feel like those things will feed into their subconcious, just like any listener.”
Elvin Bishop left the successful Paul Butterfield Blues Band in 1968 as they were moving away from their hard-core blues roots. Bishop says now that what they were doing, “Is not the main thing I think about when I think of my identity. There’s a lot of better guitar players than me and a lot of better singers, but the one thing I am most proud of is the songs I write.” Still, going solo meant projecting an identity that music fans could relate to, so he went country. At the time that his first solo record, The Elvin Bishop Group, came out, his image was the overall wearing farm boy who went by the nickname ‘Pigboy Crabshaw’. Apparently it was okay to be a white blues loving guitar player who dabbled in pop music. Bishop’s career flashed like a solar flare in the pop music market when MTV helped make Fooled Around And Fell In Love (propelled by Micky Thomas’s outstanding vocals) a hit. It certainly made it easier for ‘Pigboy’ to release 30 albums of his own music over 50 years without having to constantly explain himself to fans or record labels.
After his last full band album Can’t Even Do Wrong Right came out in 2014, Bishop found himself looking for something different. In 2015, he teamed up with Bob Welsh (guitar/keyboards) and Willie Jordan (cajon/vocals), calling themselves the Big Fun Trio. Don Wilcock described seeing them at a festival in Chicago: “As much as I’ve always loved [Bishop’s] kinetic, sometimes scattered energy on guitar, never have I seen him in finer form than with his partners here. True blues alchemy is when a group can be loose and tight at the same time. These guys did it with such finesse it made me forget the rest of the acts on the bill.” The Big Fun Trio’s 2018 release (Somethings Smells Funky ‘Round Here) is just as fun as it sounds and has been nominated for a Grammy as Best Traditional Blues Album of the year in 2019. The title track cuts loose with a train load of complaints about the state of race relations and the goings-on in Washington. Something Funky does not prepare you for the outstanding job they do on Jackie Wilson’s Higher and Higher featuring Jordan’s out of this world voice. Bishop likes the push he gets from the trio format: “You just gotta go for it, You gotta be totally into it all the time, If somebody drops out for a moment, it’s really noticeable, and there’s nothing to keep it going if you don’t really do your part.” At age 77, Bishop and his old beat up Gibson 335 (“Red Dog”) are still living the dream that first took him north from Oklahoma all those years ago.
Kenny Wayne Shepherd may be Bishop’s junior by 36 years, but like Elvin, he isn’t too old to learn new tricks. He has spent the last ten years improving both his guitar and vocal techniques. He has been blessed to have vocalist Noah Hunt with him for 20 plus years, but it took a side project to make him dig in more on the vocal end. Collaborating with Stephen Stills in the band The Rides, Shepherd figured Stills would take the majority of the lead vocals. Stills would have none of that on their first tour together in 2013: “I would say that [Stills] is really the one responsible for me progressing as a singer, I figured that I might sing one or two songs. Stephen told me that we were singing 50/50, so I needed to be singing more. He really pushed me hard. We did two or three tours with that band, and I had to sing every night. That experience helped me with the confidence that I could do it in a live setting. I’m getting more confident with singing and more comfortable with the sound of my voice. I am also exploring what I can and can’t do vocally.”
KWS is far from being at the peak of his career, yet it is hard to see how he could be much busier or collect more accolades. Even though he has experienced Grammy nominations, toured with the Experience Hendrix show and The Rides, received a Keeping The Blues Alive Award, and numerous Blues Music Award nominations, he remains humble and family centered. He grounds himself by working on vintage cars like the 1970 Barracuda convertible he was working on at the time of Tipaldi’s interview.
No matter how far Shepherd’s career takes him in the future, he will keep reaching back to the old guys for inspiration. He repeated to Tipaldi a lesson he had learned from the legendary Hubert Sumlin: “When Hubert was young and just starting with Howlin’ Wolf, he was trying to cram every note he knew in every song. Finally Wolf looked at him and said, ‘You gotta slow down, Where I’m trying to go, you’ve already been there. You’re not leavin’ any room for me.”
Elvin Bishop and Kenny Wayne Shepherd will be featured on WOAS-FM 88.5 during the August run up to the Porcupine Mountain Music Festival. Tune in and hear what KWS and Pigboy have been up to.
Top Piece Video: The song that introduced Pigboy to a larger pop audience.