“I use to hope that the Blues would survive, that was back in the ’70’s when Blues got real slow. The Blues had the Blues then, but ’80’s they bounced back. Now today is stronger then ever, the Blues will live on.”
Kenny Neal: The Blues Bloodline
Kenny Neal is a superlative guitarist in multiple genres of music…he just happens to be devoted to the blues, which has garnered him a reputation as one of the most acclaimed blues guitarists on the planet. Kenny also blows a pretty mean harp. And for you foodies, Kenny’s home-cooked gumbo is to die for. Born in New Orleans and raised in Baton Rouge, began playing music at a young age. Learning the basics from his father, singer and Blues harmonica master, Raful Neal, Kenny is known as a modern swamp-blues and multi-instrumentalist, that draws from the sizzling sounds of his native Louisiana. Neal has received multiple awards including the Blues Music Award for Song Of The Year and the Monterey Bay Blues Artist Of The Year Award – he has also earned multiple Grammy nominations and was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall Of Fame in 2011! Kenny Neal is an acclaimed multi-instrumentalist and is widely renowned as a modern swamp-blues master.
Neal preserves the blues sound of his native south Louisiana, and learned his craft from Slim Harpo, Buddy Guy, and his father, harmonica player Raful Neal. In 1987, he cut his critically acclaimed debut album for the Florida record producer Bob Greenlee – an updated swamp feast initially marketed on King Snake Records. Alligator Records picked it up the following year. In 1991, he proved to be a talented actor in the Broadway production of the folk musical Mule Bone (by Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston), singing numbers written by Taj Mahal. Neal has played with blues stars including Lucky Peterson and Lazy Lester, and was at one time a member of The Downchild Blues Band. Neal’s “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” (2015) mixes both traditional and modern holiday favorites! Recording his debut in 1987, Kenny has gone one to develop a worldwide following through a relentless tour schedule and the release of 18 highly acclaimed albums, including his latest “Bloodline” (Cleopatra Records) in 2016.
What do you learn about yourself from the blues culture and what does the blues mean to you?
I learned that it’s really in my blood. I just recently recorded a CD, the name of it is “Bloodline”. Hope to have it released in early part of 2016. It talks about my grandfather and my father, who was also a Bluesman himself and my Grandpa was a Preacher. So it’s very important for me to keep the roots of American Music alive.
How has the Afro-America Poetry and Literature influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?
It gives you wisdom and strength and makes you a stronger person.
How do you describe Kenny Neal sound and songbook?
I describe my sound as Swamp Music which is a mixture between Cajun, Blues and New Orleans funk and jazz, which was originally called ‘Ragtime’. It’s like making Gumbo, it’s got a little bit of everything in it.
What characterize your music philosophy?
From the heart within, you have to feel it.
“I really miss those ‘old timers’ a lot. They was the ‘Real Deal’.”
Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you?
Meeting Muddy Waters, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker, Big Mama Thornton, Eddie Cleanhead Vincent, BB King, I can go on and on, I’ve shared the stage with them and became close friends with them and many many more Blues Legends. The best experience you can ever have, I was very fortunate.
What is the best advice has given you?
Treat people the way you would want to be treated. And my Grandmother use to tell me “everybody is somebody, so treat them with respect”. I always carry that advice.
Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?
Having the James Brown horn section, Maceo Parker and Fred Wesley record my “Walking On Fire” CD back in 1991. I want to say it was like a dream come true, I couldn’t believe it because I never dreamed something like this would even happen. I was so excited and happy, these were the guys I grew up listening to.
How do you describe ‘Bloodline’ songbook? What are the lines that connect the legacy of Neal family’s bloodline?
It tells the story of my history and where I come from with my father being a blues musician and my grandfather being a preacher and having four generations of the Neal’s on the video as well…Bloodline passing it on!!
What has made you laugh and what touched (emotionally) you from Bloodline’s studio sessions?
When my grandkids and nieces and nephews got up to the mic to sing background they all wanted to be right up to the mic at the same time pushing each other out of the way.
“It (Afro-America Poetry and Literature) gives you wisdom and strength and makes you a stronger person.” (Photo by Richelle Farley)
If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
To get blues music played on international and pop rock Radio and TV stations around the world.
Is it easier to write and play the blues as you get older? What´s been the highlights in your life so far?
Yes it’s much easier because I’ve been playing it for a long time, its second nature to me. Having the lead role on a Broadway show and also touring with Ray Charles and B.B. King for over 25 years and buddy guy, John Lee Hooker, Big Mama Thornton, Junior Wells and the list goes on and on.
Are there any memories from Muddy, Junior Wells, and Big Mama Thornton which you’d like to share with us?
Too many to list, I remember Junior Wells had a hangover the next morning he had his five year old nephew to go get him a cup of cold water so he can feel better. He drank the water and sent the kid back for a 2nd cup, by that time his mother walked in and said to him, “Junior do you know where that baby is getting that water from?” Junior had no idea the kid was dipping it out of the toilet.
What has made you laugh and what touched (emotionally) you from the Christmas atmosphere and songs?
Having my daughter, Syreeta Neal and my son, Kenny Neal, Jr. and my younger brothers, Darnell Neal and Frederick Neal record with me on the “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” CD, it was very emotional. Now I know how my dad must of felt when I was a young kid growing up playing in his band in the Juke Joints around the South of Louisiana.
What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?
I miss all my old friends that have gone on it, like the names I mentioned earlier. I really miss those ‘old timers’ a lot. They was the ‘Real Deal’. I use to hope that the Blues would survive, that was back in the ’70’s when Blues got real slow. The Blues had the Blues then, but ’80’s they bounced back. Now today is stronger then ever, the Blues will live on.
“From the heart within, you have to feel it.”
What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues from Slim Harpo and Raful Neal to your and new generation?
The song “Scratch my Back” by Slim Harpo, he and my dad was best of friends. And Slim died soon after that song came out and my dad, Raful Neal made a promise to himself that he would play that song “Scratch my Back” for the rest of his life. And that’s just what my dad did up to the end of his life, now I’m keeping it going for the younger generation.
You have starred in a play written by poet Langston Hughes and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston. What is the impact of Blues music and culture on the literature, and to the racial and socio-cultural implications?
The Blues was a very big impact because it was the way of life down in Florida, a little town called Eatonville where Zora was from. So she wrote about the way it really was back then, she wrote about a black man who bought 200 acres of land and started his own town. But he hadn’t quite worked it out so nobody had anything to do except sit on his store porch and wait for Jim and Dave to come into town and play some Blues for them. So Zora’s writing and Langston’s poetry was a real good combination. By the way I played Jim Weston in the play. To let us know that we are all equal.
What has been the hardest obstacle for you to overcome as a person and as artist and has this helped you become a better blues musician?
I lost three of my family members in 11 months, my dad, my brother and my baby sister immediately after that I went into 58 weeks of liver treatments, it wasn’t easy.
Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?
I’d like to go to Washington DC, not to visit the White House, but to go and see if it’s anything like Amsterdam.
Photo by Richelle Farley