He picked up a toy guitar at age 4, switched to a real guitar at age 7 and started learning the licks by listening to the records his father, a deejay, had amassed. Among his early influences were Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown and country stars from Hank Williams Jr. and Sr. to Willie Nelson.
At age 13, Shepherd was invited to join New Orleans bluesman Brian Lee on stage. It was a pivotal moment. The Shreveport, La., native knew what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.
“I feel like this is what I’m here to do,” says Shepherd, now 32 and living in Los Angeles. “At that point, it was still kind of a fantasy. Nobody knows what they want to do at that age, but it showed me I could get on a stage and do it. It gave me the motivation to actually do it and see what would happen.”
It didn’t take long to find out. He was signed to Giant Records at 16 and released “Ledbetter Heights” at 17.
His debut album turned gold, then platinum.
And he was off — blazing a rock and blues trail that has racked up multiple Grammy nominations, two Billboard Music Awards and several other industry honors, including the Blues Foundation’s “Keeping The Blues Alive Award.”
He’ll bring his fiery sound to the Riverside Casino’s Event Center at 8 p.m. Friday.
He’s no stranger to Eastern Iowa venues, having played a string of concerts in the Corridor since 1999. And he vividly recalls his BBQ Roundup concert in Cedar Rapids on June 27, 2008, shortly after the floods.
“I remember driving through there and seeing water levels marked on the sides of houses, and all the trash of things ruined by the floodwaters. As we played that night, a storm rolled through,” he says, “but we were able to play.
“I had driven through there a week or two before, on a multistate hot rod caravan, and saw lots of standing water. It definitely stands out in my mind.”
His current tour has taken him from San Luis Obispo and St. Louis to Seattle and Vancouver, from small clubs and ballrooms to casinos and cruises.
“I like playing all kinds of venues,” he says by phone from a tour stop in Asbury Park, N.J. “We really try to mix it up a lot. Last night and the night before, we did some club dates. It’s a different experience — smaller and much more intimate. The more intimate a venue, the more the fans like it. We can feed off the energy of the fans in theaters, amphitheaters on major tours. Every one’s a unique experience and it’s all good.”
He’s also working on a new album, after his ambitious “10 Days Out (Blues from the Backroads)” project released in 2007. Recorded on DVD and CD, Shepherd spent 10 days traveling to the homes of old-school blues pioneers. He jammed with such greats as B.B. King and the now-deceased Etta Baker, a guitar player who in her 90s, gave Shepherd “a run for my money.”
When he’s writing his own music, Shepherd looks for inspiration in “life in general.” That’s taken a new turn, now that he’s a dad. He’s married to Mel Gibson’s daughter, Hannah, and they have a daughter who’s 1 1/2 years old and a son who’s 3 1/2 months old.
“I’ve written a couple of songs for the new record for my children,” he says. “They’re not children’s songs — they’re about the whole experience of falling in love with your children. It’s the most profound experience of my life and motivates me, inspires me about who I want to be, with their innocence. I want to emulate that.”
Being a parent also has changed his approach to his live shows.
“My stage performances used to be wild,” he says. “I don’t want my daughter looking at me and saying, ‘What is Daddy doing up there?’ I find myself toning it down a little, especially with the stage antics.”
And is his famous father-in-law a good father-in-law?
“Absolutely,” he exclaims. “He’s a great grandfather, too. He really has a good time with the children.”
So does Shepherd.
“When I’m at home, I’m playing with my kids more than I’m playing with my guitar,” he says. But with his heavy tour schedule, he still gets plenty of guitar time.
And even though he’s been on the road half his life, it hasn’t gotten old.
“I’ve really gotten to a place where I can really appreciate it,” he says. “I can truly appreciate all the things I’ve been blessed with.
“Having family is the most immediate, then my career and fans. My professional life is a very unique blessing — something I truly feel like I can appreciate now, that allows me to give it all that I have. I thank God for the privilege to play and bring some light into their lives.
“I cherish that opportunity every night.”
— DIANA NOLLEN, The Gazette