Bayou Bluesman Kenny Neal Talks ‘Straight From the Heart’ – American Blues Scene

As a second-generation child of the Bayou State, Kenny Neal has taken his own inimitable guitar, gale-force harp and roadworn voice all over the globe. But in 2022, the Grammy and BMA nominated blues master’s latest album, Straight From The Heartfinds him drawn by the siren call of his hometown and musical ground zero, Baton Rouge.

Neal was born in New Orleans in 1957, the son of harp master Raful Neal, who served as Kenny’s inspiration early on. By the time he was 13, Kenny was wowing crowds with his father’s band, and just four years later was playing bass for Blues Hall of Famer Buddy Guy.

When I was a kid, all my friends would be going to baseball games on Saturdays. My dad would load me up in the car and we were going to a matinee. That was more exciting to me than going to the baseball field. I used to sit in the back of the car and talk to the older guys outside. They would be like my baby sitters watching me. And then my dad would come out and say, ‘Okay Kenny Ray, get ready. I’m gonna call you up after this song.” You just see my little face light up, man. I get in there and I do James Brown and all kinds of shit. I had a pair of James Brown boots back then he had bought me. I was about 10 years old, 11 years old. Shit, man, they put me on the bar because we didn’t have no stage, right? So they used to put me up on the bar with the microphone. And god damn, I was all tearing it up.

I just turned 18 and I didn’t know where the hell I was going when they told me to meet them at Antone’s in Austin, Texas. I got a note that Friday night in the club — Buddy Guy’s brother, his name is Sam guy and he lives here. Sam walked in the club and stuck a note in my pocket that said to call Buddy Guy. I’m like, “Call Buddy Guy?”

So I went to the payphone and I called him collect. He said, “Man, I heard you playin’ bass pretty good down there in Baton Rouge, and I need a bass player if you’re interested.” I go, “Well, I’m interested. Where are you playing at?” He says, “I’m playing in Austin, Texas on Tuesday at a club called Antone’s.” I say, “Oh, that’s good.” So I told my parents that. Well, my dad was okay with it, but my mom she was crying her butt off. She wouldn’t. She didn’t want me to leave. I was first born, you know? My dad said he was pushing me out the door and she was pulling me back in.

So I went to the bus station and caught the Greyhound bus to Austin, Texas and then I caught a taxi to the hotel. I went to rehearsal and I was a little nervous man. But once I got to rehearsal, they started calling out all of these songs that my dad would sing. So I knew all that shit. I was like, man, they done thrown the rabbit in the briar patch. I knew probably 80% of the songs so it was a piece of cake. I played that night and they said, oh man, we enjoyed you. Then the following week, I was coming back through Baton Rouge. I left Baton Rouge as a nobody and I came back a week later as the bass player in Buddy Guy’s band. I was a star. One week later, I was playing at a club here, a big club that me and my dad never did play it because they would bring in international acts.

But I came back that next week and played at a place called Kingfish. Man, all my family and my friends all showed up and I was big timin’ all in one week. Yeah, but and that’s how I got my start. But yeah, I started when I was just a little kid man six, seven years old playing music. I had to be an old soul because my mom was just telling me yesterday, she was laughing at me because she say you’ve been something all your life.

His fabled period working with his siblings in the Neal Brothers Blues Band is still spoken of in reverential tones on the Toronto circuit whose roofs they blew off. But perhaps Neal’s true arrival came in 1988, when his first solo LP was reissued by the Alligator label as Big News From Baton Rouge!! and ears pricked up for a modern swamp-blues master who had the touch and voice of an old soul, but the vision and hunger of a young gun.

Stick a pin in Neal’s discography since then and you’ll strike gold, from 2008’s Let Life Flow (which shook up his playbook with a dose of Memphis soul) to 2016’s Bloodline (which not only scored a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Blues Album but won two Blues Music Awards). From Neal’s WC Handy Blues Award of 2005 to his 2011 induction into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame, few contemporary artists are more decorated.

But now, Kenny Neal brings it all home on Straight From the Heart. One would assume that Neal’s Ruf Records release would be music he’s been writing during the COVID shut-downs, but that’s not the case. It all started with a phone call from none other that Tito Jackson.

I didn’t write shit, man, to be honest. I got a call one day from Tito Jackson, and he was trying to do a blues album. He said he needed some help on it, and would I be interested in helping him? I said, man, I said, I would love to do it, but my studio is closed here now because of the pandemic. I didn’t know if I wanted to take a chance of going in there with my guys, because then at that time, we didn’t know what was going on. You know, we were all scared. And so I asked everybody to come over to the studio, and I started listening to his tracks and then we started working on an album. It started going pretty smooth once we saw we were in a safer environment and I wouldn’t let a bunch of people in.

So after I finish his album, I had the momentum going in now I’m like rolling with music in my head. And I go, damn, maybe I shouldn’t stop and just go ahead and continue on and start my album. I had my album in my head since 2016-17. I knew what style in which direction I wanted to go in my head, but I hadn’t written any lyrics or anything. You know, so after Tito’s album, I started working on this one Straight From the Heart. And man, it fell right in place. I’m really pleased with it.

It was gonna be my first album that I ever recorded on my own turf in Louisiana. i always recorded in New York, Nashville, Columbus, Ohio and all that crap, man, but I came back home to do this. I used all the local guys and also the older musicians from my dad’s band when they used to play with him. They’re much older guys now, but they were some of the guys that still know how to play the stuff I was looking for, you know, so I had a ball with that thing. And then I call up some of my friends who played in Buckwheat Zydeco’s band over in Lafayette. They drove over here, and they did two tracks with me. Buckwheat’s rhythm section, and also Rockin’ Dopsie Junior and the Dopsie family came over and performed on it. So that’s why it was definitely straight from the heart, you know? Well, that’s where it came from, and it worked. Man, it came out pretty cool.

It was like a family reunion. It was excellent because I had all the musicians that grew up under me here in Baton Rouge. And just being in my own studio, not worrying about the clock.

The session also drew in another lightning guitar slinger, BMA and Grammy award winner. Christone “Kingfish” Ingram. Kingfish co-wrote and played on the track, “Mount Up On the Wings of the King.” The story on how that happened is one of modern day blues lore.

I’ve been around him since he was about 12 or something like that. And, you know, I knew his mother well. And so the way that happened was me and Tito Jackson decided to go to Clarksdale Mississippi to do a photo shoot. So we went down to Clarksdale and when I got there, we call up Kingfish. He came over and hung out with us and spent the day. One of the managers for Tito was singing this damn song for me that he had written called “Mount Up On the Wings of the King.” He wasn’t worth a damn singing it to me. I was like, man, I don’t want to sing this crap, giving him a hard time you know.

But I took the lyrics home, and I listened to the lyrics thoroughly. And I didn’t like them that much, so I tore the song down and I wrote some more lyrics and sent it back to the manager and told him I had a nice track. I say “But by the way, I don’t even want to sing this song because I think is for a younger artist, a younger generation to sing it.” So he said, “Well, what about if I get somebody to sing it with you, get a young artist? I say, “That might work, but I don’t know who.” He says, “Well, what about Kingfish? He respects you and looks up to you a lot.” I go, “Well, you can give him a call, but he just signed with Alligator Records. How are we going to get him on?”

I don’t know but that guy went to work. He said, “Hey, man, Kingfish said he wants to do it with you. We just got to solve the problem with the manager and the lawyer.” And so we took it to the lawyers and they agreed and we signed the papers and just I just send the papers back last week. So it was just in time because he hit that Grammy last night.

Kingfish and Kenny recorded their track at Boo Mitchell’s Royal Studios in Memphis, Tennessee. On a side note, there will be an upcoming short documentary on that recording coming out soon. Neal and Ingram are also both nominated for Contemporary Blues Male Artist at the upcoming Blues Music Awards in Memphis.

I hope he wins that one. You know, I mean, I got like four or five of them at the house myself. I’m rooting for him.

Straight From The Heart is a fitting title for a record that salutes the many loves of Neal’s life. There’s the brass-driven opener “Blues Keep Chasing Me,” which tips a hat to his recently departed friend, Lucky Peterson. There’s the touching piano-led “Someone Somewhere,” which salutes the beloved father who put him on this path. Elsewhere, Neal’s deep love for every aspect of his home state is underlined by the zydeco chop of “Bon Temps Rouler” and “New Orleans,” whose lyrics reference everything from “sippin’ on Hurricane” to “sittin’ on the Bayou catching catfish” “.

In the opening of the video, Kenny and his wife are riding horseback on his property just outside Baton Rouge; a 17 acre parcel that includes space for his annual Neal Family and Friends blues festivals, Kenny’s classic car collection, and Brookstown Recording Studioswhere he recorded the lion’s share of Straight From the Heartas well as music from the artists on his own label, Booga Music. Some of those artists include Brody Buster, Patti Park, and Israeli guitar slinger Andy Watts.

From there, they pack up in Neal’s 1929 Essex and travel to New Orleans, where Kenny was born and everyone is invited to the party.

First of all, I’m actually on my old mule. That’s my wife with me. You’ll see even the kids are in the video.

Straight From the Heart hits the streets on May 20th via Ruf Records. This is a very personal album to Kenny Neal who brings the music back to his home and reaches out to a ton of people to help put it together.

Yeah, man. You know, well, I’m turning 65 In October, so I got to make it or break it. It’s got to happen, man. So I’m just going for the gusto now. I’m back home. I’ve been around the world, and I got this plaque a few years ago in my office, and it says ‘this plaque is for someone who’s been around the world looking for something and come back home to find it’. That’s really exactly what happened to me, man. I’ve been all around the world and came back home. And it was here all the time.

I just brought everybody man. Even the kids. It’s my responsibility to make sure that they get this information. So that’s why I contribute to the city a lot and work with kids and give guitars to kids, give talks and give guitars to schools, you know. Just givin’ back, man. That’s what you got to do.

I get that from my grandmother. You know, my grandmother when I was coming up, she told me to always remember, and I go with grandma, she say always remember, everybody is somebody. And I never forgot that. I mean, it though.

*Feature image photo credit: Laura Carbone

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