Like many music fans, I first heard Kenny Wayne Shepherd when “Blue on Black” took over the airwaves in 1997. I was instantly hooked despite being into a lot of alternative music. I assumed Trouble Is . . . was his first album because he seemed to come out of nowhere. I also thought he was the lead singer in the band. Boy, I had a lot to learn.
On September 19, 1995, Shepherd (who was only 18) released Ledbetter Heights, his scorching debut thatintroduced a new generation to the power of the blues. Shepherd, a self-taught guitar player, started playing at the age of seven, after attending a Stevie Ray Vaughan concert. Thanks to his dad, who was working promotion for the show, Kenny was able to meet his idol. The impact SRV’s playing had on his impressionable young mind (and fingers) is undeniable.
The album wastes no time getting down to business with the heavy, in-your-face rocker, “Born With a Broken Heart.” This track is best described by its second line, delivered soulfully by Corey Sterling: “Keeps getting’ stronger, like a slow rollin’ train.” At the end of the ride, this train is nearly off its tracks, and the listener is treated to a thunderous jam session crackling with electrifying leads. Kenny and his band drive down a similar road with “I’m Leaving You (Commit a Crime),” a hard-edged blues assault originally written by James “St. Louis Jimmy” Oden and recorded by Howlin’ Wolf for his 1971 album The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions.
In addition to a clever name, “Deja Voodoo” wields a groove that grabs you and doesn’t release its grip for six minutes. It’s near impossible to stop your head from bobbing back and forth with pure gratification. The first time I heard it, I was confident it would remain a moody, slow-burner until a minute and a half in when the band unexpectedly kicked things up a notch. This rock n’ roll sneak attack occurs again in “Aberdeen,” a tune originally done by blues legend Bukka White. The track is rich with slide guitar and a knee-slapping acoustic rhythm until the bass and drums furiously explode onto the scene. A simple song, enjoyable enough to relax with on the porch while sipping a cold one, magically turns into a hellacious barnyard burner.
If you’re feeling down, that “bluesy” mood is no match for Ledbetter Heights. The album succeeds remarkably in lifting spirits, thanks to upbeat romps such as “What’s Goin’ Down” and “Everybody Gets the Blues.” The latter focuses on daily struggles we all go through, but does so in a lighthearted way with inspiring words of wisdom:
“It don’t matter if you’re black
It don’t matter if you’re white
You know you got to get it wrong
To have a chance to make it right.”
Shepherd also wasn’t afraid to slow things down. “While We Cry,” a live cut, is a calming instrumental that takes inspiration from Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” and SRV’s “Lenny.” It also sounds wildly similar to Pearl Jam’s “Yellow Ledbetter,” the B-side to their 1992 hit “Jeremy.” This has sparked some internet debate over plagiarism, but both parties claim the tunes are original without any arguments. There’s a wonderful hypnotic effect to the song that can ease your worries in an instant. Sharing a comparable power is “Riverside,” a laid-back number that goes well with any campfire gathering.
Overall, the ‘90s were a great time for music with guitars, and this album is no exception. None of the originals or covers feel out of place, and the tracklist flows effortlessly between heavier and lighter moments until climaxing with the fast-paced title track. Thanks to the producer, David Z., everything is excitingly crisp when the volume knob is turned all the way to the right. 25 years later, Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s Ledbetter Heights still deserves a spot on your shelf next to all the other great ones.