Throughout his long, successful career, guitarist, vocalist and composer Kenny Neal has been associated with Baton Rouge and its hybrid musical style known as swamp blues. “It has a French influence because we have that right next door to us in Lafayette,” Neal explains adding that many people moved from there to Baton Rouge. He also mentions folks arriving from towns like Woodville, Mississippi and, of course, New Orleans music as influencers in his hometown’s brand of the blues.
“That’s where we get our swamp blues from—Cajuns, the Delta and New Orleans,” Neal says. “Oh, and it’s very much country because we’re deep down in the south.”
The Grammy-nominated, multiple-award winning artist and the son of the legendary harmonica player and vocalist Raful Neal Jr., boasts a greater tie to New Orleans than is usually recognized. Though his father was raised in West Baton Rouge Parish, his grandfather, Raful Neal Sr., lived in the Crescent City and was the pastor of the Mt. Calvary Baptist Church in the 9th Ward. “We always came down,” says Neal who still has uncles and cousins who live in New Orleans.
Neal, 62, who is the eldest of 10 children, credits his father for all of the music that has surrounded and influenced him. He began playing guitar with his father’s band when he was just 13 years old.
“I grew up in a household of music,” Neal says. “My dad always would have musicians over and that was like a free concert for us. So that—playing music—was what we [he and his siblings] wanted to do since we were little kids. Thanks to my mom for letting us make all that noise in the house.”
At Neal’s performance at the Crescent City Blues & BBQ Festival, his band will include his two youngest brothers, keyboardist Frederick and bassist Darnell Neal.
Noted blues man Buddy Guy, who is from Lettsworth, Louisiana, was one of the musicians who would spent time at the Neal’s home; he and Raful played together in the 1950s. According to Kenny, they got an offer to work in Chicago and, as those in the blues world know, Guy headed north with Raful Neal opting to stay in Baton Rouge to raise his family.
An important factor in Kenny’s career occurred in 1976 when he traveled to Chicago to play bass in Buddy Guy’s band. His tenure in the Windy City inspired him to take his career in another direction.
“When I got there, I noticed that a lot of people around Chicago had their own bands and they had records out—they were leaders,” Neal recalls. “I thought, ‘Wow, these guys aren’t that good and they’ve got record deals and they’re going to Europe. I can do this.’ So I started writing my own music and bought a guitar and started focusing on me being a front man. I always wanted to lead my own band and I was taking a backseat to Buddy.”
After a time performing with the Neal Brother Blues Band in Canada, in 1987 Kenny released his first album as leader, Big New from Baton Rouge on Alligator Records (originally released on King Snake Records as Bio on the Bayou). He’s been rolling ever since and really caught big attention for his original material and original sound heard on his 2016 release Bloodline which includes eight members of his musical family. Here he sings about his life: “Down in Louisiana where the bloodline runs deep.”
At this writing, Neal had just returned home to Baton Rouge after playing in Romania, the Netherlands and Ireland. “They’ve been following me for years,” Neal says of overseas audiences who he’s been entertaining since the 1970s. They love the blues and understand and know the history of it. I’m gonna tour until I can’t no more—but not like I used to when I’d do 250 dates a year.”
Since his return from a stay in California, Neal has established a studio, Brookstown Recording, and started a record label, Booga Music. He has begun recruiting young artists “to put them out there.” Neal just finished a new solo country album, Reminiscing, that he describes as “back porch pickin’.
Neal digs the Crescent City Blues & BBQ Festival for giving him and other musicians the opportunity to hook up. “It is a bit of a reunion because we’re always off doing our own thing,” he says. “The last time I played there I got a chance to hang out and sit and talk with Allen Toussaint and his son. I was so happy I did that because he passed soon after that. We all took pictures and laughed and talked. It was good.”