The Story of Kenny Wayne Shepherd's 'Blue on Black': From '90s Crossover Hit to 2019 Superteam Smash

Kenny Wayne Shepherd
Robert Knight Archive/Redferns

Kenny Wayne Shepherd photographed circa 1998.

The blues rocker's signature smash barely made it onto his 1998 album, but is still resurfacing as a hit over 20 years later.

“Blue on Black” almost never happened.

Kenny Wayne Shepherd's career-defining crossover hit -- which topped the Mainstream Rock Songs chart while cracking the Billboard Hot 100 in 1998, and recently returned to both charts, via a genre-mashing cover by the metal band Five Finger Death Punch, country star Brantley Gilbert, legendary Queen guitarist Brian May and Shepherd himself -- was the final song to be cut for Trouble Is... , Shepherd's platinum-selling sophomore LP. Schedules were tight, Shepherd says, and there was a scramble to lay down this one last tune.

“The guys who played on [“Blue on Black”] were in Stevie Ray Vaughan's band, Double Trouble: Chris Layton on drums and Tommy Shannon on bass,” Shepherd says. “We were recording the drums and bass for that song, and their flight was going to leave in an hour --  [Layton] was literally in the middle of playing the drums and he’s getting up from the drum kit as he’s playing, trying to run out the door because he doesn’t want to miss his flight. We didn’t even know if we had enough of them playing to really make the whole song work.”

But by the grace of the blues-rock gods -- maybe the late legend Vaughan himself -- the rhythm section fell into place, and a celebration soon followed. Even at 19 years old, Shepherd says, he knew “Blue on Black” was unlike any song he’d written before.

“We knew that we had something really special,” he says. “I remember we were in the studio mixing it, and everybody in the control room was dancing around and high-fiving each other. Still, we didn’t know how big it was going to become.”

Talk about an understatement. Shepherd’s “Blue on Black,” and its widely appealing meld of brooding southern rock, searing blues guitar and alt-country touches exploded on rock radio, blasting to the top of Mainstream Rock Songs in April 1998 -- besting Van Halen’s final rock No. 1 single, “Without You” -- and later being named top mainstream rock song of the year (Trouble Is… was also named blues album of the year).

After an adolescence spent idolizing blues masters like Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy, the Louisiana teen was now witnessing his name appear on the Hot 100 chart -- at No. 78 only a few slots removed from seemingly worlds-away artists like Jay-Z and Lisa Loeb.

“Being a kid, there’s this naivete that comes along with being so young, I don’t think it totally registered,” he says. “But now, to have a similar experience again — with the same the song — I’m older and can really be present for it. It’s a pretty amazing experience.”

Shepherd refers to the recent revival of “Blue on Black,” which first sparked in 2018 when, at the request of singer Ivan Moody, Las Vegas thrashers Five Finger Death Punch recorded a cover of the tune for the band’s seventh album, And Justice For None. The incendiary tribute quickly began to resonate with fans, even outperforming the new LP’s official singles, says Allen Kovac, CEO of Tenth Street Entertainment and FFDP’s longtime manager.

“We kept seeing ‘Blue on Black’ moving up on streaming and sales on its own… the audience came organically,” Kovac says. “And we saw that the demographic and psychographic on it was really wide.”

The gears began to turn, and Kovac introduced the idea of recording a new mix that crossed genre lines even further. Jackie Kajzer and Konstanze Louden of 10th Street Management got Shepherd on board, while Gilbert was introduced by Chris Nilsson of 10th Street Management (via his connection to Big Machine Records founder Scott Borchetta), and  Eleven Seven Music European managing director Dan Waite brought May to the table, all to play alongside FFDP. The product was a serrated sonic revamp, bolstered by Moody and Gilbert trading vocal lines before May’s propulsive solo -- and signature guitar tones -- brought the song home.

The idea was to deliver the enduring jam to hard-rock, blues, country and international rock fans -- akin to the days when radio wasn’t as segmented, Kovac says.  

“Think about ‘Honky Tonk Women’ and The Rolling Stones, and think about Johnny Cash -- think about how big those records were when [radio] didn’t have silos and they pretty much just went with requests,” he says. “If the phone started ringing, they played the music.”

This “Blue on Black” All-Star cut has already made its mark, debuting at No. 66 on the Hot 100 (on the chart Apr. 27) -- 12 spots higher than the original tune ever climbed -- and No. 2 on the Hot Rock Songs chart, boosted by immediate support from rock radio. (The song currently sits at No. 11 on Mainstream Rock Songs, which measures radio airplay).

“There’s so much spark on this with our audience -- it’s the most requested song right now on our station,” says Robyn Lane, Music Director for WRAT “The Rat,” a longstanding rock radio channel in New Jersey.

Lane also notes the station’s loyalty to “Blue on Black” over the last two decades: “We’ve played it from the beginning until now. It's a staple in our library. It’s just a good song -- it’s instantly recognizable and it stays with you.”

“The song is not typical; It's a kind of song that crawls under your skin and get stuck in your head," FFDP guitarist Zoltan Bathory told Billboard in April. "There are songs you hear and go, 'Oh, that's a hit,' and there are the sneaky ones, and this is one of the sneaky ones."

Shepherd believes the success of “Blue on Black” -- his most-streamed song on Spotify, with 15 million plays, and a staple of his live shows -- is tethered not only to the song’s sonic versatility, but to the ambiguous and “very deep” lyrical content, provided by his longtime collaborator Tia Sillers. “(The song) can be interpreted in so many different ways,” he says. “A lot of people think it’s about a personal loss, a broken relationship, a death.”

Despite these weighty interpretations, the real inspiration was much more straightforward: Shepherd simply happened to be wearing a two-toned, blue and black shirt during a writing session with Sillers and blues songwriter Mark Selby. “(Sillers) really honed in on that, saying, ‘What happens if you mix blue and black? The black consumes the blue,'" Shepherd explains. "And she went off on this concept, and came up with a whole list of things which became the chorus where one effort against the other amounts to nothing, no progress is being made.”

The impassioned lead vocal was provided by Noah Hunt, who has sung in Shepherd’s band since 1997 -- and off the song went, carving one of the more winding paths in recent rock memory. “It’s surreal,” Shepherd says. “I like that the song has been reborn and reinterpreted for a new generation. The way the song was approached, it maintains the spirit of the original tune.”

Whichever version you prefer, there’s additional reason to root for the new cut’s success: proceeds earned by this remix are being donated to the Gary Sinise Foundation to assist first responders. A poignant video that juxtaposes working military and firefighters with the new version was released April 11. “With different artists from different genres we can also bring a unified awareness to this cause," Bathory said last week.

Kovac says yet another mix of “Blue on Black,” with banjos, dobros and pedal steel guitar will be brought to the country market in the coming months. And as Shepherd prepares to release his own new album, The Traveler, on May 31, he’s humbled by the song’s resurgence and its overall longevity.

“My heroes are the guys who recorded songs that sound as good today as when they first came out and that’s always been my goal as an artist,” he says. “I’m in this for the long-term.”