If the Blues Foundation and the Blues Music Awards want to remove guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd from consideration for awards henceforth for questionable use of the Confederate flag in the past, that is their right, and their business.
But let’s make something patently clear: Kenny Wayne Shepherd is not a “motherfucking racist” as was accused by the daughter of Muddy Waters, Mercy Morganfield, which led to Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s nomination for a Blues Music Award to be rescinded, and his father Ken Shepherd to be asked to step down from the Blues Foundation’s board this week.
The brushup started when Mercy Morganfield made a post on Facebook (since removed), saying in part, “Daddy’s greatest rebellion was refusing to return to Mississippi to perform. He avoided the Confederate Flag-worshipping southern states altogether. That was then and this is now. What is y’all’s excuse? Why haven’t y’all descended on the Blues Foundation in droves and demand they rescind that award to that motherfucking racist?”
Mercy Morganfield’s accusation stems from the fact that Kenny Wayne Shepherd owns (or owned) a replica of the Dukes of Hazzard Dodge Charger that included a Confederate flag on the roof—a feature Shepherd claims he covered over some time ago, while also putting the car in permanent storage. The vehicle was part of a larger muscle car collection the guitarist owns. In a Wall Street Journal feature on Shepherd and the car in 2015, Shepherd said, “The confederate flag can be controversial, but not in this case. I get thumbs up from everybody, regardless of race. The African-American community created the music that I play; racism is not a part of my DNA.”
Nonetheless, Mercy Morganfield, who sits on the Blues Foundation board, has used the car that Shepherd nicknamed ‘Xtreme Lee’ to question not just Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s consideration for awards and brand him a racist, but lash out at the legitimacy of the entire organization.
“Blues Foundation—have y’all lost your minds?” Morganfield said. “It has come to my attention that a winner of the Blues Foundation Award for Best Blues Something or Other proudly displayed a Confederate Flag on his social media pages, drove around with it on his fucking car … This type of shit is not just pissing off Black people; it is pissing off a lot of white people who understand the blues at a deeper level than ‘a white man growling out what he thinks sounds like Howling Wolf.’”
For the record, Kenny Wayne Shepherd did not win the award in question that he’s now been rescinded from. The 42nd Annual Blues Music Awards were announced on January 28th, with Kenny Wayne Shepherd being nominated for Best Blues Rock Artist. The awards are set to be handed on June 6th. Shepherd has won numerous Blues Music awards in the past.
Mercy Morganfield continued, “[I do] not have the bandwidth to manage board participation after my brother and grandmother’s deaths. I really believe my wyte and blk (sic) colleagues on the board have the best intentions to ‘do the right thing.’ I also believe progressive voices, like mine, are often suppressed by 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.”
For Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s part, he released a statement, saying:
I have just learned that the Executive Committee of the Blues Foundation Board of Directors has made the decision to rescind my nomination for the 2021 Blues Rock Artist of the Year award. We have been told this decision has been made because in recent days, concerns have been raised regarding one of the cars in my muscle car collection.
The car was built 17 years ago as a replica and homage to the iconic car in the television series ‘The Dukes of Hazzard.’ That CBS show was one of the highest rated and most popular programs of its era and like millions of others, I watched it every week. In the show, one of the central ‘characters’ was a muscle car which displayed a confederate flag on its roof. Years 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 want to make something very clear and unequivocal; I condemn and stand in complete opposition to all forms of racism and oppression and always have.
This is the latest case of taking 2021 perspectives, and applying them to past instances when societal norms were different. At the time Kenny Wayne Shepherd was promoting his Dukes of Hazzard replica Charger and spoke to The Wall Street Journal about it, the television show was still airing on TV Land and CMT.
It’s also a case of not taking into consideration the totality of an artist’s contributions and character.
In June 2004 as Kenny Wayne Shepherd was near the top of his popularity, he decided to undertake an ambitious project to pay homage to past greats in the blues world and use his popularity to promote bygone legends. Called 10 Days Out: Blues from the Backroads, the album and documentary film project features Shepherd vising and collaborating with the likes of B.B. King, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, David “Honeyboy” Edwards, Pinetop Perkins, Henry Townsend, Hubert Sumlin, Lazy Lester, and others, including the band of Muddy Waters. The project ended up being nominated for two Grammy Awards, and won two Blues Music Awards.
Kenny Wayne Shepherd also collaborated with Keb’ Mo’ and Robert Randolph on his 2014 album Goin’ Home. One of the last things Shepherd was doing before the pandemic was touring with Buddy Guy, with future dates still scheduled with the two. Over the 30 years of Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s career, there have never been any credible accusations of racism or racist behavior against the guitarist, and he regularly collaborates with African-American performers—something that would be completely out-of-form for someone who holds deep-seated racial intolerance.
Though individuals have a right to be concerned about Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s use of Confederate flag imagery in the past, Kenny Wayne Shepherd has the right for that imagery to be considered in context. Shepherd is not just an entertainer, but a husband, and a father of five. Calling him a “motherfucking racist” for no other offense than once owning a replica of the Dukes of Hazzard car that six years ago could be seen in theme parks and on television shows on broadcast and cable networks 24 hours a day is not grounds enough to make such a strong, and potentially career-ending accusation.
Meanwhile the fear others feel over staying silent or on the sidelines of such issues stimulates social media mobs that often unceremoniously and unfairly banish people from popular culture and society without due process. When Mercy Morganfield said, “Why haven’t y’all descended on the Blues Foundation in droves and demand they rescind that award to that motherfucking racist?” she was directly goading others, presenting an ultimatum that if you did not join in the condemnation, you would be considered racist yourself, or complicit to it.
Furthermore, such instances often stimulate a backlash that fuels the very racism they purport to be fighting against. Overreactions such as the one Kenny Wayne Shepherd has experienced is the stuff alt-right news segments are made of, while taking the teeth out of racism accusations when they are warranted and credible by making them commonplace.
Instead of bowing to public pressure any time someone chooses to level an accusation toward someone, a fair and sober assessment of the situation should be made. And in the case of Kenny Wayne Shepherd, there is no credible reason to believe a man whose spent three decades championing the cause of blues music and the black performers who helped found and popularize the genre is in any way a racist.