NASHVILLE — When Kenny Wayne Shepherd invited renowned guitarist Hubert
Sumlin out on the road last year, he spent as much time as he could
with Howlin’ Wolf’s favourite right-hand man, trading stories and
talking over the mysteries of the guitar.
That tour not only led to Shepherd’s first concert album, “Live! In Chicago,’’ it also produced something far more special.
“Getting to know Hubert, he’s become like a father to me, you know,’’
Shepherd said. “That in itself is the most precious thing that I’ve
taken away from the whole experience, is the personal relationship that
I have with Hubert now.’’
The 79-year-old Sumlin also felt that special bond, one that reminds
him of his days as a young guitarist with The Wolf. Sumlin remembers
being terrified of the imposing Chester Burnett when he first met the
fiery 300-pound singer, but he also remembers being determined to learn
from the best.
“He wasn’t going to stop me,’’ Sumlin said. “I just looked at him,
man. He said, ’Boy, I know you don’t like me, but I think you just like
what I’m doing.’ I said, ’Yes, sir.’ And he sat down, man, and showed
me things Charlie Patton had shown him.’’
Wolf hired the then-18-year-old for his band, and Sumlin spent the next
25 years refining a style that became a siren’s call to guitarists for
the last 50 years.
When the 33-year-old Shepherd decided he wanted to do a live album, he
didn’t want to offer fans reheated hits. He invited Sumlin, along with
others who have influenced him along his journey to becoming one of the
blues’ finest young players — Willie “Big Eyes’’ Smith, Bryan Lee and
He let each help pick which of their songs the band would play on the
record and the resulting concert has a varied, celebratory feel. It
spent four straight weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard blues chart when
released earlier this fall.
Sumlin’s unique finger-picking style is on display on the Wolf songs
“How Many More Years’’ and “Rocking Daddy,’’ and his own “Feed Me.’’
His airy, bouncing guitar lines can alternately dance with gleeful
abandon and spread a feeling of dread and menace.
“His style is pretty cool, with the way he plays without a pick and
everything,’’ Shepherd said. “Watching him, he’s got a real
interesting vibrato. To see everything up close and firsthand is
definitely a learning experience for me. He can hit his stride still.
In his prime nobody could touch him. He had that signature sound.’’
Despite a heart attack and having a lung removed due to cancer in 2002,
Sumlin remains active and has a robust schedule for a man his age. He’s
still the nattiest dresser on stage in a suit and hat, but he will
accept the offer of a chair during sets.
“You know what? I love what I’m doing, man,’’ Sumlin said. “I’ve done
worked sick so many times. When they took the lung away from me I was
back to work about two or three weeks after that. I couldn’t stand up
on the bandstand. They let me sit down. I appreciate it. I can work
sick, it doesn’t matter. As long as I ain’t dead.’’