Kenny Wayne Shepherd was certainly ambitious when setting out to make his eighth studio album. With the mission statement for the album being to record the greatest songs of his career, the bar was certainly raised. Lay It On Down continues to break ground in the blues-rock arena with plenty of genre blending sounds along the way. From the guitar novice who was signed at the age of 16, supported B.B King and The Rolling Stones and joins the bill at this year's Blues Fest alongside pioneers Gov't Mule, Shepherd has continued to move the genre forward. As an award winning and platinum selling artist Shepherd is in demand.
If he's not touring or appearing on US TV shows, he's working alongside Steven Stills and Barry Goldberg in The Rides, so it's unsurprising that with his hectic schedule the album's year and a half genesis had to squeeze in around everything else. Returning once again to Nashville, Shepherd's spiritual home to write the material with long-time collaborators Mark Selby and Tia Sillers, but also with some new blood including Danny Myrick and Dylan Altman, Shepherd wanted to really focus on the word and music of each song, allowing every song to stand on its own merits. Nashville may be famed for its country music scene, but as Shepherd will eagerly point out there is also a history of blues and rock there too, making Lay It On Down a very rootsy album.
Unlike many rock and blues tracks that focus on the negative aspects of troublesome women and the 'can't live with them, can't live without them' overtones, Shepherd tries to steer away from them as being a problem, but rather to be appreciated and glorified, which kind of turns the genre on its head. Here it's less 'my wife left me and the dog died' and more ' I'm happy my girl is doing her own thing and my dog is still by my side.' The opening track Baby Got Gone talks of a girl who is a free spirit 'riding on a gypsy wind' and that's an aspect of her personality he's not gonna try and change. It's an uptempo, carefree blues-tinged track that has pop sensibilities at its heart and its message. There is, of course, the 'tragic' country ballad about a doomed relationship in Hard Lesson Learned replete with pedal steel, mirroring the yearning vocals from Noah Hunt. Shepherd's solo adds a blues feel to the track, giving it a glorious cross-genre feel and bags of emotion. It's a fairly well-worn thematic path, but it's executed with adroit precision from every one of the track.
Diamonds and Gold's is a cautionary tale of materialism and celebrity. Its big brass opening is achingly contemporary, but there is a nod and a flurry to the classic style too with a Hammond organ roaring into action alongside the oh so sexy guitar solos and grinding percussion. Once again it's one of the many tracks on offer with a hell of brio and plenty of modern appeal. Nothing But The Night drips with edgy, heat soaked attitude and an 80s style bluesy offering. Hunt performs with soul and fervour pairing off against Shepherd's teasingly enticing licks, drawing you into a musical world that is impossible to resist. As musical journeys go, this Americana jaunt never drags its feet. The title track Lay It On Down is pure country, with full-bodied harmonies adding pathos to the genuine emotion of the song. Like many country songs, the structure is simple, and the message of allowing others to help carry a burden is clearly right at the heart of it.
One of the album's other love songs is to Shepherd's home state, Louisiana. It's another song that's from the country rock mould: romantic, expansive and sincere. Just so we don't think he's getting too soft on us, Ride Of Your Life beefs things up with just the right amount of machismo with lyrics referencing cars and girls; it's smoky, slinky and raw with the feel of a beer-soaked club somewhere down the highway, where anything goes hanging over it like the taste of lipstick and bourbon the morning after the night before.
Passing down the lineage of the blues is not an easy task, but The Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band continues to rework the classic sound by pulling in other influences that spans a whole spectrum of styles, ensuring the music reaches new ears. The focus on the songwriting throughout the album is apparent from the first song to the last and when he intended to record the best songs of his career he may have succeeded. With the emphasis shifting to songwriting rather than bravado, he's recorded his best album yet.
Groupie Rating 5/5