Kenny Neal can't remember when he didn't play the blues. 

Born Blue

Resting in the shade of a pecan tree after a hard morning building his backyard recording studio, bluesman Kenny Neal says it's strange to hear other musicians talk about learning to play at a certain age. Neal grew up surrounded by music and he can't remember not playing.

Neal's dad, Raful Neal, was a full-time musician and with players such as Lazy Lester, Buddy Guy and Slim Harpo hanging out at the Neal house in Baton Rouge, La., young Kenny's future was set before he could think about it. Watching his Dad's band at his grandfather's club became the focal point of the week.

"That's where I was getting my school at on Sundays," the 43-year-old multi-instrumentalist recalls. "Monday to Saturday didn't mean anything to me, man."

The oldest of 10 kids, Kenny eventually joined his father's band but left briefly for a funk band in the early '70s. The funk band never got beyond the rehearsal stage and a rueful Neal returned to Dad. "I realized, 'Pops, I need my job back. I'll play blues,'" he recalls.

A couple of years later while on a band break in 1975 he got a message that Buddy Guy had called looking for him. Guy had a gig the next night at Antone's in Austin and wanted Kenny in the band. Guy told Neal to pack his suitcase and get to Texas.

Neal laughs about that now — his travel accessories were pretty slim. "What suitcase?" Neal says with a chuckle.

But he took the gig and played bass with Guy for five years. He also formed a band with four of his brothers in the late '70s and moved to Toronto. In 1984, he returned to Baton Rouge and opened a club where he played six nights a week. He also recorded an album for a label in Florida. Alligator Records eventually picked the record up and Neal was on the national music map in 1985. In 1991, while he was touring and winning fans with his guitar, harmonica and lap-steel playing, he got an offer to join a Broadway play. The production needed an actor who could play the blues and Neal's name had come up. He remembers the audition as "awful" but he got the job and did the play's full-year run.

"I learned to play with [acting]. … I had a great time once I figured that out."

Neal regularly performs about 250 blues shows a year and he's played in 15 countries during his career. Now back on the road to promote his latest CD, "One Step Closer," the veteran performer says he enjoys his days off even if it means toiling on a project such as the backyard studio. He says he'll use the studio but he'll also make it available to young players who can't afford studio time. He also has plans to open a club for local kids.


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