UPDATED: Kenny Wayne Shepherd is no longer a contender for this year’s Blues Music Awards, due to controversy over his “Dukes of Hazzard” replica car and its Confederate flag imagery, which had been recently been called out by concerned and angry members of the sponsoring Blues Foundation organization.
The Blues Foundation also announced that Ken Shepherd, the artist’s father, has been asked to step down as a member of its board of directors.
The moves followed statements from prominent figures in the blues community who indicated they planned to dissociate themselves from the org because of the kudos this year for Shepherd, a previous Blues Awards winner. Muddy Waters’ daughter, Mercy Morganfield, had said she was resigning from the board because of the support for Shepherd. Supporting Morganfield, Kim Wilson, famous for his work with the Fabulous Thunderbirds, said he had asked for his own nominations to be rescinded.
However, Shepherd said late Thursday afternoon that he had seen the errors of his ways “years ago” and had mothballed the “Dukes” car and its flag, agreeing that the imagery was hurtful to Blacks and that he apologized for having perpetuated it.
Shepherd had once courted publicity for having a Dodge Charger built into a replica of the “General Lee” car from the 1979-85 series, which included a Confederate flag painted on the roof. The show and its signature vehicle have continued to be popular among large swaths of Southerners to the present day. He had also posed with a guitar that adopted the logo and imagery of the custom-made car he had dubbed the “Xtreme Lee.”
In a statement sent to Variety late Thursday, Shepherd said: “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,'” the musician continued. “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.”
Shepherd concluded, “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.”
Although Shepherd says he put the car under cover years ago, some who have been raising the issue in the blues community say photos and videos promoting the car have only been deleted from social media in recent days.
In a 2015 profile of the vehicle in the Wall Street Journal, Shepherd had said that people of all races loved the car. “The confederate flag can be controversial, but not in this case,” Shepherd told the WSJ at the time. “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.” He told the Wall Street Journal’s reporter that he got the idea to build a replica using a vintage Dodge after seeing a similar recreation at his friend Kid Rock’s house. “The horn plays the first notes of ‘I Wish I Was in Dixie’s Land,’ just like the TV car,” he said.
The heat that was on the Blues Foundation to distance itself from Shepherd came largely as the result of a long Facebook post by Morganfield, which came under the title “The Way My Daddy Looks At a White Man Winning a Blues Foundation Music Award While Waving A F*****g Confederate Flag.” Although her message was subsequently deleted from Facebook — with many claiming she’d been censored by the social media site (Variety could not reach Morganfield for comment) — her message was subsequently picked up and reposted by many in the blues community.
“The Blues Foundation has rescinded Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s 2021 Blues Music Awards (BMA) nomination for Best Blues/Rock Artist,” the org said in a statement Thursday. “The decision to rescind the nomination was based upon continuing revelations of representations of the Confederate flag on Shepherd’s ‘General Lee’ car, guitars and elsewhere. The Blues Foundation has also asked Ken Shepherd, father of Kenny Wayne Shepherd, to step down as a member of its Board of Directors. The Blues Foundation states that it is resolute in its commitment to purposefully address racism and contribute to a more equitable blues community.”
In her Facebook post, Morganfield wrote, “Blues Foundation — have y’all lost your minds? 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. When this was pointed out to the Blues Foundation the official statement is ‘We are not a political organization.’ What do you all think the Blues is at its core? At its foundational roots? If not political? 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.'”
Morganfield continued, “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?”
Toward the end of Morganfield’s statement, she added that she had resigned from the board, saying she “did 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.”
Kim Wilson picked up Morganfield’s ball and ran with it, writing, “This was brought to my attention today. I am fucking livid! Is this really 2021? As of this moment I am out of any blues award competition! I am having them take me off the ballot permanently! I have worked with the masters all my life! Muddy was especially generous and a great friend.”
Reached for comment late Thursday, Wilson said the Blues Foundation had done the right thing, and he was no longer angry with the organization. “I told my manager to call” the Blues Foundation, Wilson said, “and if it’s true they rescinded it, then they don’t need to rescind mine.”
Wilson (who sang on Thunderbirds blues-rock hits including “Tuff Enuff”) added, “I feel bad for him, but he made a big mistake in purchasing that car. They’ve told me now that he has (covered up) the car years ago. I don’t know what to feel about that. But there’s no room for systemic racism anywhere, and especially in the blues music field… I played with Mercy’s dad and he was a big mentor of mine, along with almost every master and inventor of blues music, especially from late ‘40s on, the people who really invented the music. I’ve been playing this music for over 50 years. Mercy wrote the piece, and I just used my voice to further her cause. But it’s everybody’s cause, or it should be, at least.” Wilson added that he has been happy to see a Black woman at the helm of the Blues Foundation.
Three days earlier, the Blues Foundation had responded with a general anti-racism statement that did not directly address the Shepherd controversy, which did not go far in quieting the restlessness. “The Blues Foundation unequivocally condemns all forms and expressions of racism, including all symbols associated with white supremacy and the degradation of people of color. We will hold ourselves as well as all blues musicians, fans, organizations, and members of the music industry accountable for racist actions and encourage concrete commitments to acknowledge and redress the resulting pain.”
As might be expected with the genre, the vast majority of nominees for this year’s Blues Awards are Black (see a list of nominees here), as is true of the roster of living and dead greats slated to be inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame this summer (listed here). The Foundation’s full statement about Shepherd can be read here.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said Shepherd had used the “Xtreme Lee” branding on a product line that included elements of the flag. While the musician had been photographed with a branded guitar, reps say there was never an “Xtreme Lee” product brand.