Noah Hunt has been the voice of Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s band since 1997, when he recorded the Shreveport-born blues guitar player’s second album, Trouble Is. We know a lot about the blonde-haired former ingénue who can channel Stevie Ray Vaughan with just a few plucks of a guitar string and that he is mighty obsessed with classic cars. But what do we know about the dark-haired man behind those vocal cords singing the blues rock that Shepherd is known for? “I’d rather just sing than talk about myself,” Hunt proclaimed with a hearty laugh upon starting our interview before their show in Biloxi earlier this month.
Shepherd may be the face and orator of the KWS Band but we felt it was time to get to know the other voice. Touring on the heels of a wonderful new album appropriately titled Goin’ Home, Hunt was again called upon to stir up the blues pot of gold, covering such classics as Bo Diddley’s “You Can’t Judge A Book By The Cover” and BB King’s “You Done Lost Your Good Thing Now,” both of which they have been performing live.
Hunt has always been a natural fit for Shepherd’s guitar tone. Despite earning a college degree in English, music steered his future from an early age. With soundcheck looming, Hunt opened up a bit about his life before and after Kenny Wayne.
Since we don’t know a lot about you, why don’t you tell us where you grew up and how you got into music.
Well, I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, and I always loved music, even as a small child. I used to lay in bed when I was a little kid and make up songs when I was like three years old. When I was four, my parents got me piano lessons at the old Baldwin factory in town there. I think it was 1974, and they had a real advanced, for the time, kind of teaching method. It was sort of like the Yamaha method but it was very hands-on. I learned how to play piano and to read music and taught how to sing. So between the time I was four and seven, I had piano lessons and I really got the basics.
At the same time, I got a little record player, a kids record player, and I got tired of my own records so I went and pillaged my parents’ record collection and I loved The Beatles. I would play all their Beatles records, and this was before I was in Kindergarten, but I would play all their Beatles records and scratched them up (laughs). Then I kind of worked my way through their catalog. As I grew up and got older I moved on to like the Stones and Pink Floyd, and into my teen years I got into the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead. So I was pretty much raised on Classic Rock. I quit playing the piano when I was seven or eight because I got into sports and other things kids do. Then when I was sixteen, I taught myself to play guitar, which was pretty easy because of piano, but I pretty much just did that so I could accompany myself with singing. That’s always what came natural to me, the singing. I tried to be Jimi Hendrix for a while but I just couldn’t do it (laughs) so I had to focus on other things.
You said you loved The Beatles. Which songs got your attention first?
The first Beatles song I remembered hearing was “I Saw Her Standing There.” My cousins had the 45 of that and I remember hearing that. Actually, they played it first. I think I stole it and took it home and put it on my record player (laughs). But I had the 45 of “I Saw Her Standing There” on one side and “I Want To Hold Your Hand” on the other side. And I think I was pretty much done.
When did you really start writing your own songs?
Well, you know, when I was in like fifth or sixth grade, I didn’t know how to play guitar yet. I was just kind of writing songs in my head. But when I was in my teen years and I taught myself to play guitar, then I started actually writing songs from beginning to end, coherent numbers. So it was in my teen years I started getting into that.
Do you remember one of your earliest times performing in front of an audience?
Yeah, I must have been about, I don’t know, six or seven, at some school thing maybe; some Christmas thing. I remember some of the adults said I had a nice voice or something (laughs). The first time I like played in a band in a bar, I think I was like fifteen or sixteen. I was too young to be in them but I could hold my end with the other guys.
Were you just singing or were you playing guitar too?
I was doing both but I was mainly singing.
You went to college and you majored in English. What were you planning to do with that degree?
I didn’t have much of a plan. I was just going to either be a writer or a lawyer. But then everyone said music is just too tough. I was in Ohio and this was the late 1980’s. But I got out of college in 1992 and I decided I didn’t want to be a lawyer or a writer. I wanted to play music for a living. My parents said, “Well, as long as you can pay your bills, you can do whatever you want.” So I started in bars five nights a week, then I started my first real band. I had bands in college, you know, but it was like hippie music and playing fraternity parties and stuff (laughs). We weren’t really serious but I started a band, Uncle Six. I was going to make demos and send them to the right people. There was a record promoter there in Cincinnati named Bill Scull and he was one of the biggest independent record promoters in the country and he had started a management company. He had signed people from the coast but he discovered me and signed me and he got my music in the right hands, into the big labels hands.
I think about 1994/1995, I had signed a deal with RCA, which is called a spec deal, which is where they kind of develop you as an artist, and it was kind of floundering. Well, I thought it was. And I got a call in early 1997 from a friend of ours named Bill Williams. He was a photographer and he took a lot of famous pictures of Stevie Ray Vaughan and BB King. He’s from Cincinnati and he knew me and he knew Ken [KWS’s father] and Kenny, and he called the management company and he wanted to talk to me. I called him back and he said, “Kenny Wayne Shepherd is looking for a lead vocalist.” I actually had his first record so I called them myself and sent them down some of the stuff that I had done for RCA and they called me right back and said, “Can you come down tomorrow?” And I said, “Sure.” So I asked my management company and my A&R guy if I could do it and they said, “Sure, go ahead and check it out.” So I went down there one night and we played the blues and Kenny and I stayed out all night and bonded and we’ve been together ever since (laughs). A few weeks later we started making Trouble Is.
Uncle Six actually recorded a couple of albums.
We did some records, yeah. We did two full records and two EPs. They’re awfully hard to find (laughs)
Now it’s tempting to go out and find them.
Good luck (laughs)
What was it like going into the studio for the first time? What surprised you about recording an album?
I had no idea how to do it. This was before the days of ProTools and all that. I found it kind of intimidating. I didn’t feel comfortable in the studio for a long time, until maybe five years ago.
I don’t know, the tape would roll and I would just feel this kind of tangible tension (laughs)
That little red light
Yeah, the little red light is what always intimidates you. Playing live and performing live is always so natural and I was always so good at doing that but I found the studio really restricting and confining. I’ve since been able to become familiar enough with it and I approach it in such a way that I know how to do it now (laughs). But it took me a while to try to harness that freedom and expression that I can do live and bottle that into a studio performance. And I think I continue to get better with it as the years go on.
You grew up on Classic Rock but how much actual blues music was in your world at that time?
I started to get into the blues when I was in college. Obviously, I was into Stevie Ray Vaughan and we used to go see him all the time. A lot of the Classic Rock people were all clearly influenced by American blues. So what happened in the late 1980’s was this Hair Metal. I just couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t stand popular music at the time. So I just started to go back and discover the influences, the people that influenced the people that influenced me. So I discovered Buddy Guy and Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and it was just amazing. I was just unearthing these incredible treasures and I just soaked it up. So I guess you can credit Hair Metal for restoring my love of the blues (laughs)
Over the years, you’ve opened for some of the biggest bands in the world. Which ones were you most excited about?
On a personal level, probably Bob Dylan because I’m such a big Bob Dylan fan and I know his work so well. I’ve studied him and I’ve done term papers and all sorts of things about him before I ever met him. So on a personal level, that was pretty amazing for me. But I guess maybe overall, opening for the Stones and meeting them, that was pretty amazing. The only band I really haven’t met anyone in that I would like to would probably be Pink Floyd. I’ve never met any of the guys in Pink Floyd.
I’m sure you know Doyle Bramhall II and he toured with Roger Waters.
Oh yeah, Doyle and I are good friends and he was absolutely amazing [with Waters]. He is also a real inspiration to me before I ever met him.
Who was the first real rock star you ever met?
Oh wow, that’s a good question. I don’t know, I mean, the only rock stars growing up in Cincinnati were these guys who were in the band Pure Prairie League. Craig Fuller and Larry Goshorn and they had the song “Amy.” They actually had Vince Gill as the first guitarist. So those guys were friends with my dad. I think he did some legal work for them or something. So those guys were like the only real rock stars I knew. And that had an impression on me. A couple of those guys taught me how to use an electric tuner and gave me tips on how to be on stage and stuff. Those were the first that I actually knew.
What is it like having bass player Tony Franklin in the band with you?
Oh he’s fantastic. You know I saw him when I was fifteen with the Firm. We have Chris Layton, who I used to see with Stevie Ray Vaughan all the time, and Tony Franklin I’d see with the Firm when I was just a kid with a mullet out there jumping up and down wishing I was up there (laughs). So it’s pretty cool now, to say the least.
When performing these old blues songs by people like Albert King, how did you figure out where you were going to add in your personality to them without changing the original compositions too much?
I think by listening and learning. I was exposed to a lot of these songs, these blues songs, by other people doing them; like the Allman Brothers doing a blues song and Warren Haynes doing a blues song. And I just sing it like I hear it. I don’t really think about it. That’s just how it comes out. In my head, I’m singing it like I’ve heard them sing it but somehow when it actually comes out of my mouth, it’s my own thing and that’s the only way I can explain it. I guess hearing other people do great renditions of blues over the years helped me to just approach it like that.
On the new album, you and Warren Haynes sing “Breaking Up Somebody’s Home” and your voices sound so great together.
Yeah, I was really happy about that too. You know Warren and I have sang together over the years but just never on record, so I was real excited to do that. The first time I ever sang with Warren was in Austin, Texas, one night at Stubb’s BBQ and I think we did “Born Under A Bad Sign” back and forth. I remember everyone saying, “Boy, you sound really great together” and I was like, “Yeah, we really do.” Which was great for me because Warren was already a hero of mine at the time so that was a real milestone for me to have us sing together, doing that on a record, and it coming out so well. I was real happy about that, to say the least.
Everybody knows that Kenny Wayne has this car fetish. What does Noah Hunt like?
I’m on the other end of the spectrum. I like hot rods and stuff like that but I don’t have the thing like he does. I’m just like a real nerd (laughs). I’m a big PC gamer. I have this like portable PC gaming laptop that I have on the road and I just play games all the time (laughs). I read a lot of books, I read comic books, I play PC games.
What games do you play?
Oh jeez, I play all sorts of stuff. I really like role-playing games. I’m playing a game called Watch Dogs right now where you flit around in this futuristic version of Chicago and do all sorts of stuff (laughs). I play the shooter games, I play the sports games, I play role-playing games. It’s my guilty pleasure. I don’t drink anymore. I like to indulge in long gaming sessions (laughs). It’s an escape for me and it helps pass time. Out here we sometimes have a lot of time.
So what still excites you about playing and creating music?
Well, the most exciting thing is that I get to go out and do this in front of people who want to hear it every night and for two hours just have that perfect world on stage. For two hours on stage, everything, the travel, being away from loved ones and every other hardship, is worth it. It makes it all worth it and the opportunity I have to do that is still the most exciting. I’m excited about going and doing soundcheck and playing tonight right now as we stand here.