As Captain James T. Kirk on the television show Star Trek, William Shatner went “where no man has gone before.” Shatner has had a long successful career since his days of space exploration on television, and the now 89-year-old star has never been without work as he stays busy acting, producing and directing, writing screenplays and authoring books. Recently Shatner has appeared as the host of “The UnXplained” on the History Channel, a program where he is also the executive producer. And while he was once and is again associated with the mysterious and the unknown, Shatner’s latest project is something completely down to earth — an album of blues music simply called The Blues.
The Blues is a star-studded event as Shatner has, on every song but one, a famous player featuring on guitar. Among the well-known ax-slingers are James Burton, Albert Lee, Steve Cropper, Ronnie Earl, Sonny Landreth and country music star Brad Paisley. From the rock world, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, Pat Travers and Ritchie Blackmore and his wife Candice Night also appear. The guests contribute to a set that features covers of classics like “Sweet Home Chicago,” “Smokestack Lightnin’,” “Crossroads,” “Mannish Boy,” and “The Thrill is Gone.” Shatner called from his home in California to give American Blues Scene the lowdown on The Blues.
Kevin Wierzbicki: Are you having a beautiful bluesy morning?
I am! I’m filled with the joy of the blues. It’s kind of an oxymoron, but what are you gonna do?
You’ve been a fan of the blues for a long time. In your earliest appreciation of the music, was there a particular artist or concert or recording that really got you interested in the genre?
I can’t think of somebody who might of … you know the blues is a strange venue. It crosses over, so you might say “I like that blues song” and somebody else will say “that isn’t blues, that’s rock ‘n’ roll, or jazz.” I love music, and the bane of my life is that I’m not a classical tenor. So I’ve tried to make music in various ways and done my best on that.
This album is like the culmination of trying to put lyric and melody line together. Every one of these songs was suggested to me by some artist of one kind or another as I asked them “what are your favorite songs.” I found these songs and thought I could do these the best. So I would record the lyric as though I were an actor doing a scene. “The Thrill is Gone,” not to compete with anybody, especially B.B. King, but I approached it as an actor as somebody whose love now had dissipated, and not being able to quite understand why. And then of course with Ritchie Blackmore and Candice Night on guitar and harmony vocals, it came together.
But each one of these songs is an acting scene which I tried to perform as though I was entertaining you by performing a scene, and having the music as background. And this album is the culmination of doing that, like with my Christmas album that did very well last year and a country music album that I did prior to that. During this time I’ve recorded an autobiographical album too and I’ve had fun with that. That’ll be released next.
Speaking of every song being a scene, the technique is really obvious on your cover of Canned Heat’s “Let’s Work Together” and the lyric “c’mon, c’mon, let’s work together” where at one point you really stress the word “c’mon.” Come onnn! It’s very easy to picture you trying to convince someone to see reason.
That sort of thing is exactly what I mean. The more I would practice, the more I would rehearse the song, as actors do, in the toilet, the bedroom, the dining room, driving a car, the more the lyric began to have more meaning. I was talking to various blues people before recording and they reminded me of the reverence for the music idiom that the true believer has, and not to violate that.
That was one of the concerns: that I don’t overstep myself in doing the blues, that I show a reverence for this music and whence it came. I didn’t fool around; I was being as earnest as I could. Except in those songs which themselves were fun. “I Put a Spell on You” is an example. Pat Travers is a great Canadian rock guitarist, (Shatner is momentarily interrupted by the barking of his dog, Macchiato) my dog is calling me. Be quiet! (Laughs) Macchiato is outside saying “let me in!” “I Put a Spell on You” is great fun and Pat Travers does a great accompaniment.
How was the album recorded? You sang to the backing tracks and the guitar parts were added later?
That’s exactly right. I had a backing track. I tried to interpret the lyrics and I tried to make them my own, yet stay within the context of what it was meaning and how it was done prior to me. And then we sent it out. And the amazing thing to me were the great artists who agreed to be on the tracks.
Those people who are on the tracks are some of the greatest musicians that we have in the world, and for them to accompany me is beyond anything that I could think; that Brad Paisley would come with me, Kirk Fletcher and all the others. Ronnie Earl plays on “Mannish Boy,” the Muddy Waters song. He’s unbelievable.
Do you know any of your guest guitarists, or have you had personal interactions with any of them?
No. No more than a passing few words to some of them; none at all to many of them. But several of these guys have been on other albums of mine, and while I don’t know them personally, I know their work and apparently they know mine because they’ve agreed to be on it.
Everyone knows your work.
No, no; blues. Albert Lee plays on “In Hell I’ll Be in Good Company,” a song by The Dead South, I don’t know if you know them or not. Albert Lee has received five consecutive Guitar Player Magazine awards for Best Country Guitarist. Within the industry he’s known for his sound. It’s just extraordinary when you look at this list of people. I’m honored by some of these guys.
There’s one cut on The Blues, the album closer “Secrets and Sins,” where you don’t have a guest guitarist. The cut sounds much more personal to you.
That’s one of the songs that I wrote with my lyricist and composer. My lyricist is in New York City, the composer is in upstate New York and I’m here in Los Angeles. This is for the autobiographical album, for which we’ve written 18 songs, and we thought we’d fit in “Secrets and Sins” on this album because it was most like a blues. The whole autobiographical album is very personal songs.
Does that album have a title yet?
Yes, it’s called ‘Love, Death and Horses.’
In the cover photo for The Blues you’ve got a guitar slung over your shoulder. I can’t quite make it out, but it looks like it might be a resonator guitar.
That’s fascinating; only an aficionado would know that about the guitar.
Yes, the guitar was given to me and it’s in my office. The cover is an amalgam of what we could do and what I wanted. What I wanted was sort of a modern version of “Crossroads,” alone in the city of Los Angeles, at the corner of two streets in downtown L.A., with a silver guitar slung over my shoulder, and that’s our crossroads. We couldn’t get the permits to do that so the background is green screened, and with the guitar I would’ve used.
The Blues is going to be available on vinyl, on colored vinyl. How do you listen to music? Do you have a vinyl collection or are you all digital?
I’m all digital. The vinyl is for fans and people who like to collect those things. My music education is, like everybody else’s, eclectic, but I don’t hold on to those things. I listen to a lot of music where I don’t quite know who’s playing it. I know when I hear it that it’s a song I like, but I don’t have a name. I’m very primitive in my music collection. But for the people who collect vinyl, it should resonate.
Is there also going to be a video released the same day that the album comes out?
Yes, there’s going to be a music video for “I Put a Spell on You.” I suggested to the animators, because it’s going to be an animated music video, that it was like a bar and this crazy guy is at one end, and there’s a buxom maid behind the bar. And this lonely guy, in his mind, is saying “I put a spell on you” and cackling, and totally crazy. Of course he’s not speaking out loud, and the animator got it completely. I’ve seen some of the animation and you’re going to laugh and have fun with it the way I do. I think you’ll just start to laugh at the concept.