Don’t Start Me Talkin’: Muddy Waters’s Daughter, the Good Ol’ Boy, and the Blues Foundation

Kenny Wayne Shepherd and the Extreme Lee (2015)

“The blues world — the contemporary American mainstream scene and its discussants — has a race problem.”

Several years ago, when I wrote that opening sentence for my new book, Whose Blues? Facing Up to Race and the Future of the Music (2020), I’d already seen signs of serious discontent among some African American blues people, although few white blues musicians and fans seemed concerned. The trouble had begun with a panel at the “Blues & the Spirit” conference at Dominican University back in 2012 at which Billy Branch, Deitra Farr, and other Chicago-area blues performers, with unusual candor, aired a litany of complaints.

Disrespect from white fans and promoters; white blues singers who burlesqued black dialect; bad experiences with white-dominated blues societies; and, above all, a vivid collective sense that so-called “heritage blues musicians” — code for Black blues musicians — were being bypassed by talent buyers, festival organizers, and awards ceremonies in favor of their white peers (and nowhere-near peers). This lived displacement from the center to the margins struck everybody on the panel as an insult, given the music’s undeniable Black origins in the segregated South.

Sugar Blue at the Opening Plenary: Blues Summit on the State of the Music Today (Blues and the Spirit Symposium, 2012)

“These blues are not of you or for you,” insisted harmonica player Sugar Blue, calling out the whiteness problem as he saw it, “though some are about you. These Blues are in spite of you, Mr. Charlie. These Blues are mine and my children’s as they were my grandfather’s and his father’s.”

Racial tensions have simmered under the surface of the contemporary blues world for most of the past decade, a threat of disunion palpable enough that the Blues Foundation, the music’s leading advocacy organization, recently appointed Patricia Wilson Aden, a Black woman, as its new president in hopes of reorienting the dialogue. Last week, however, all this subterranean antagonism suddenly burst into the open in a spectacular way.

Patricia Wilson Aden, President and CEO of The Blues Foundation (2020)

It began with a Facebook post from Mercy Morganfield, daughter of blues legend Muddy Waters and executor of his estate, headlined “The Way My Daddy Looks At a White Man Winning a Blues Foundation Music Award While Waving A Fucking Confederate Flag.” Although she never mentioned him by name, she was signifying pointedly on (white) blues-rock guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd. Shepherd, 43, has been a major figure on the scene since he first debuted as an eighteen-year-old phenom back in 1995, receiving five Grammy nominations, six Blues Music Award nominations, and one BMA Award over the past decade. Nine of his eleven albums have reached #1 on the Billboard blues charts.

But Shepherd, a native of Shreveport, Louisiana, and a collector of muscle cars, has a little Confederate flag problem — although the precise dimensions of the problem remain in dispute. Back in 2005, he’d commissioned a replica of the General Lee, the iconic orange Dodge Challenger festooned with a huge rooftop Confederate flag that was the centerpiece of The Dukes of Hazzard (1979–1985), a hugely successful post-Civil Rights era TV sitcom. Along with Smokey and the Bandit (1977), the show helped redeem the white South by reconstructing white Southern masculinity into the figure of the fun-loving good ol’ boy — a “trouble-making” but harmless rogue who represented a stark departure from the violently racist and unregenerate poor white lynch-mobber that had long dominated the American imagination.

The Dukes of Hazzard: Tom Wopat and John Schneider with the General Lee (circa 1980)

There is no evidence that Shepherd, at any point in his life, has behaved like the latter figure, nor that he has actually waved a Confederate flag per se. The Blues Foundation, in an official statement rescinding his 2021 BMA nomination in the “blues rock artist” category, insisted that its decision to cancel him “was based upon continuing revelations of representations of the Confederate flag” not just on Shepherd’s “‘General Lee’ car,” but on “[his] guitars and elsewhere.” (At least one photo can be found online of a younger Shepherd circa 2005 with his arms wrapped around a Confederate-flag-emblazoned orange Stratocaster that Fender Guitars designed and built for him to coincide with the car’s unveiling.) The Blues Foundation, which had initially declined to drop the hammer on Shepherd, has now declared itself “resolute in its commitment to purposefully address racism and contribute to a more equitable blues community.”

For his own part, and unsurprisingly, Shepherd has softpedaled the whole thing. Although the “Xtreme Lee” (including a photo of the Confederate flag roof) and its adoring owner are featured in a 2015 profile in the Wall Street Journal, Shepherd insisted his Facebook response that “[y]ears ago I put that car in permanent storage and some time ago, I made the decision to permanently cover the flag on my car because it was completely against my values and offensive to the African-American community which created the music I love so much and I apologize to anyone that I have unintentionally hurt because of it….I condemn and stand in complete opposition to all forms of racism and oppression and always have.” Jimi Hendrix’s former bass player Billy Cox, 81, who has toured and recorded with Shepherd, invoked his own past as a Black man in the Jim Crow South as he vigorously defended the younger guitarist from the racism charge. “I value Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s talent as an artist, respect and applaud the way he treats his family and fellow man. All else, Kenny Wayne Shepherd should be STONE FREE to do as he pleases.”

Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Billy Cox

Is Kenny Wayne Shepherd a fundamentally decent good ol’ boy who deserves to be cut just the slightest bit of slack, or an unreconstructed racist who deserves to be canceled by the righteous and driven out of town? Perhaps he dawdled just a little too long — allowing the Xtreme Lee and its flag to remain a part of his brand past its effective shelf-date, allowing that flag-bearing guitar design to remain visible on Kennywayneshepherd.com until the recent flareup forced his webmaster to engage in some hurried image-scrubbing. We live at an especially unforgiving cultural moment, a post-Dylann Roof, post-George Floyd, Twitter-driven era when virtually nobody, except the handful of us who teach Southern Studies for a living, is interested in pausing for a moment to consider the duality of the Southern thing, as the Drive-By Truckers called it. Historian John Coski has called the Confederate battle flag “America’s most embattled emblem,” but the battle at this point has become a rout.

Here’s the truth: a popular white southern blues player who had dared for a period of his adult life to embrace that car, whatever the reason, was simply too choice a target: a sacrificial lamb, in my view, one whom Black blues players and cultural custodians (including Morganfield) could saddle with all their accumulated anger at white domination of the contemporary blues scene, even as those white blues players and fans who’d never much liked Shepherd’s rock-blues could scapegoat him, exile him from the blues family, as a way of salving their own anxiety and shoring up their bona fides in the face of increasingly strident Black claims of cultural appropriation.

Mercy Morganfield (2018)

Mercy Morganfield doesn’t just call out Shepherd in her long and incendiary Facebook post, after all. She calls out the entire mainstream blues world, beginning with white male “massahs” and their wholly owned “House N#gg@s.” “Whenever you have an industry heavily dominated by wyte men — colonized and coopted by wyte men. Blk folks become ‘step and fetch it’ by default.” She calls out regressive voices on the Blues Foundation board — “old fart ass members who have done the same thing, the same way, for 20+ years and won’t hear that their baby they created in 1981 no longer fits the bill in 2021.” She calls out what she understands — and correctly — to be the core of the contemporary blues audience: “middle-age, balding, white men with ponytails” who make up “90% of the blues awards attendees….All of them hollering about keeping the blues alive — when they’re the ones killing it. All of them trying to find those 1 or 2 black folks to legitimize them.”

The blues world has a race problem. It isn’t going away any time soon.

Husband, father, professor, author, musician, runner.

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