Kenny Wayne Shepherd

Kenny Wayne Shepherd
10 Days Out: Blues From the Backroads

Reprise Records CREP 49294

By Karen Nugent
January 2007

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A jolt comes in the last frame of 10 Days Out when an, “in memory of our friends” segment lists four of the musicians featured in the 2004 documentary who died before the DVD and accompanying record were released. Two more, Etta Baker and Henry Townsend, have since passed away.

Which makes this film all the more poignant.

Shepherd, a 20-something blues-rock musician who began his career at age 16, takes us on a 10-day road trip into the heart of blues country, visiting aging bluesmen – and one blueswoman – in their own homes and neighborhoods.

Shepherd, a superb guitarist in his own right, plays with nearly all of the featured stars, who include Ms. Baker, Mr. Townsend, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Honeyboy Edwards, B.B. King, Jerry “Boogie” McCain, Cootie Stark, Neal Pattman, John Dee Holeman, Henry Townsend, Bryan Lee, and the remaining members of the Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters bands.

The result is a riveting combination of great music and incredibly interesting conversations – in backyards, kitchens, a graveyard and clubs – and culminating in a once-in-a-lifetime concert at a church in Salina, Kansas, with the Wolf and Waters bands.

The bus leaves from New Orleans and stops first in Shepherd’s (and Leadbelly’s and Little Walter’s) hometown of Shreveport, La., before heading to Alabama, Mississippi, the Carolinas, St. Louis, and on to Salina.

Scenes of a hot and humid deep south are mingled with old footage of a segregated south, including blacks working in cotton fields.

The first meeting is in a New Orleans Club, where Clarence Gatemouth Brown, who passed away in 2005, discusses his musical roots in Texas. He explains in no uncertain terms why he shies away from Chicago blues (“too negative and not challenging;” and “white people can play it.”) During the song segment, Gatemouth sternly orders the band to play softer when someone is doing a solo.

After a stop at another New Orleans club, where Shepherd joins old friend Bryan Lee for his tune, “Tina Marie” the bus stops at Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter’s grave, before Shepherd meets up with Buddy Flett, another of Shepherd’s Louisiana pals, to play Flett’s hit, “Honky Tonk.”

Next is a wildly amusing scene of a pre-gig barbecue with the Wolf and Waters bands, including Hubert Sumlin, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Bob Margolin, Calvin “Fuzz” Jones, Wild Child Butler (who has since passed away) Henry Gray, and others, all trading stories while feasting on “beer can chicken” and ribs. There is a lot of embracing, while on the sidelines, Shepherd worries that he won’t be good enough to play with those guys.

But even before that gig, he’s playing with B.B. King at 3 a.m. in a sweaty juke joint at King’s annual June homecoming in Indianola, Miss. Shepherd has played with King before, on the road, but this was their first recording together. Shepherd says in the liner notes that he was nervous when King throws him a solo, but you’d never know it.

King gives a thoughtful interview about why he returns to Indianola every year.

Then, it’s off to Alabama for a visit with Jerry “Boogie” McCain, a harp player who wrote “She’s Tough” a song that later became a hit for The Fabulous Thunderbirds. McCain shows off his “harmonica graveyard” of harps dangling from his album-plastered music room. “Blues is culture, baby,” he tells Shepherd before the two jam on “Potato Patch” a humorous song full of sexual innuendos.

Next stop is the Carolinas, for some Piedmont-style blues, first with guitarist Cootie Stark and one-armed harp player Neal Pattman (he lost it in a wagon-wheel accident when he was nine). They both died in 2005 as well.

Then it’s on to see John Dee Holeman in Chapel Hill, N.C. for a rendition of his Robert Johnson-like “Chapel Hill Boogie.”

One of the best segments in the film is Shepherd’s jam with the legendary Etta Baker, 93 at the time, and credited with creating the Piedmont style of fingerpicking. Shepherd says in the liner notes that he was baffled trying to follow her changes as they played “Knoxville Rag” a song, she explains in the film, which came to her in a dream.

Much of the scene takes place in Ms. Baker’s old-fashioned kitchen – complete with Mason jars and a white Corningware teakettle on the stove – as she tells Shepherd about her family’s upcoming plans to redo the house. The camera shows us around her expansive gardens, as Ms. Baker talks about how she prefers her “happy” blues.

In St. Louis, Shepherd met up with 96-year-old Henry Townsend, and the ageless Honeyboy Edwards, both of whom played with Robert Johnson. In fact, Edwards was with Johnson the night of his mysterious 1938 death. Townsend, who died last year, talks about old cotton field “holler songs” which, he said, became the blues.

Throughout the movie, there is a build-up to the big concert in Salina featuring the Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters bands, with shots of concert preparations.

The finale is a landmark show, with Wild Child Butler singing and playing harp on Wolf’s “Little Red Rooster” and “Spoonful,” as Sumlin shoots out his wild guitar licks. Calvin Jones is on bass, and Henry Gray is on piano.

Muddy’s band is equally fabulous, with the dean, Pinetop Perkins, then 92, on piano for “Got My Mojo Workin’” and “Grindin’ Man,” and Muddy alumni Bob Margolin, Willie Smith, and Calvin Jones rounding out the band. Shepherd plays in both sets, and is given a big hug by Sumlin at the end of the show.

Shepherd is backed on some songs by the rhythm section from Double Trouble, Stevie Ray Vaughan’s old band. The DVD was produced by Jerry Harrison, formerly a member of Talking Heads and Modern Lovers. He also produced two of Shepherd’s three previous albums, two of which were Grammy-nominated.

Shepherd is donating some of the money from the DVD to the Music Maker Relief Foundation, a nonprofit group which helps impoverished blues musicians.

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