November 10, 2023

Louisiana bluesman Kenny Wayne Shepherd is back in the fray with his new album, the enigmatically titled Dirt On My Diamonds Volume 1. More blues oriented than a lot of his more recent material, the set nevertheless packs in a broad spectrum of genres across its 36 minutes, from rock to soul, to Caribbean influences and heartfelt balladry. Shepherd got together with his favourite co-writers to thrash out the songs at FAME Studios in Alabama, before doing the bulk of the recording in LA with long-standing drummer and ex-Stevie Ray Vaughan alumnus Chris Layton, bassist Kevin McCormick Jimmy McGorman on keys, along with co-lead vocalist Noah Hunt. Shepherd and Hunt share the vocals on this album straight down the middle.

It also forms the third instalment in a kind of trilogy with producer Marshall Altman. That partnership began with 2017’s Lay It On Down, and continued a couple of years later with the extremely well-received The Traveler. The thing with Lay It On Down was that, to me at least, Shepherd seemed to have left the blues behind and was pushing in other directions. The lead single and undisputed best song on that set, for me at least, was the hooky Diamonds and Gold, which was essentially a soul number, funky and groovy with plenty of horns, only tied into Shepherd’s previous work by guitars treated with loads of wah pedal. Elsewhere, the album featured gypsy rhythms, acoustic country and pedal steel.

Photo by Mark Seliger

Since The Traveler though, he has revisited older material, with his Straight To You live set in 2020 and last year’s 25th anniversary re-recording of his entire teenaged Trouble Is album. So effectively, this is his first album of new material since 2019, and to me it seems he has returned to his rocking blues roots, at least to some extent. OK, there’s very little straight 12-bar on here, and he still delves into other areas, notably with the Caribbean-influenced second single You Can’t Love Me, and the poppy Man On A Mission, complete with maracas. There is also evidence of some subtle additions of electronica, especially in second number and lead single Sweet & Low (featured at the foot of this page), which starts with a kind of lo-fi cabaret jazz sound, before the full band comes in, complete with breathy and squeaky rhythmic samples. A deep, electronic bass sound is also in evidence on Best Of Times, which alternates between slow, bluesy soul and harder-rocking instrumental passages.

Many of the numbers are loosely roped together by the general theme of imperfection being a necessary part of the human condition, and with that in mind, he has consciously kept overdubs and patching to a minimum, although this set too, features a generous helping of horns added at a friend’s studio in Burbank. Seven of the eight songs are original numbers, but they also serve up a great rendition of Elton John’s Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting, a rocking, rolling head-nodder with an extended, belting solo at the end. This would probably have been the highlight of the set, but for the opening title track, Dirt On My Diamonds, featuring great vocals and a hard, aggressive guitar solo. The number sings the praises of the aforementioned imperfections that bring character to existence, the chip in the glass, the scratch on the finish, and the titular grubby gemstones. I’m not totally sure I’d rather have these things chipped and scratched, but I can at least testify that this is what will happen anyway, so we might as well embrace it.

It’s an excellent set for sure, and it walks an assured line between the electric blues of Shepherd’s early career, and the more recent varied genres. It only remains to be seen why this one is named Volume 1. I guess there’s more music coming down the pike?

Dirt On My Diamonds Volume 1 by Kenny Wayne Shepherd is released on 17 November 2023 via the Provogue/Mascot Label Group