Blues music has the welcome tendency to creep on the casual music listener and bite when they least expect it. Every generation has their blues catalyst. In the 1990s, guitar slinger Kenny Wayne Shepherd brought the genre to the Kurt Cobain crowd, with the intent to helping the genre change with the times.
Guitar pyrotechnics amidst 12-bar shuffles will only get one so far, and 1997 found the Grammy nominated Louisianian, not content with being written off as a Stevie Ray retread, shifting gears for his sophomore album “Trouble Is.” The result was a noble experiment in fusing blues and country’s accents within the framework of grunge’s melodious grimace. The record’s centerpiece was the well-deserved crossover hit “Blue on Black” a “cheatin’ woman” blues soliciting shades of Seattle rather than Shreveport. With a little less twang, it could have easily wound up on an Alice in Chains album.
Elsewhere on “Trouble Is” Shepherd’s Delta sensibilities and smoky licks are balanced out by songs sympathetic to grunge’s moody, folk-influenced chord progressions.
Subsequent releases saw Shepherd continuing to meld his blues roots with newer phases of contemporary rock. Though never disingenuous or pandering, it was a trial-and-error process, and not everything worked. “The Place You’re In,” from 2004, missed its mark, with the blues now sporting a turbo-charged sheen for the new millennium, complete with a sophomoric cameo from Kid Rock.
Shepherd has sounded more at ease on more recent releases, with 2010’s “10 Days Out” a wild romp through prisons, potato patches and honky tonks with B.B. King, Hubert Sumlin and other legends riding side car. His newest offering, 2011’s “How I Go,” indicates that Shepherd finally found a happy medium, with polished song structures and raw, pick-up tearing fretwork all meeting at the crossroads.
Credit is due to Shepherd not only for his self- taught chops but for his acknowledgement that blues — arguably America’s most authentic, sincere genre of music — remains, for some reason, a tough sell to the masses. The concession must be made that all styles of music need a bit of shape shifting, not only so a larger audience can hear it, but so they can appreciate it. The blues purists and Gen Y iPod shufflers may have disparate tastes, but they’ll surely toast their bottles at happy hour when “Blue on Black” comes on the jukebox.
Kenny Wayne Shepherd will perform at 8 p.m. Sept. 18 at the State Theatre, 130 W. College Ave., State College, Visit www.thestatetheatre.org or call 272-0606 for more information.