Kenny Neal was inspired to become a musician while growing up in a family of musicians.

But it wasn’t just his love of music that made Neal — one of the country’s most respected blues musicians — want to get into the music business. It was also the way he had seen the music business treat his family.

His father, Raful Neal, was a successful bluesman based in Baton Rouge, La., who counted the legendary Buddy Guy among members of his band. He recorded lots of music dating back to the 1950s, but saw very little monetary return.

“When I started thinking about going into this business, I started looking into how bad my dad and others of that time got ripped off, and it interested me to try to change things, to maybe do some things my dad and others didn’t,” said Neal, 53, from his home in Baton Rouge.

“In those days, they gave them a few dollars to make a record, and that was all they got. They didn’t know anything about publishing rights or anything like that.”

Neal has done things differently. He’s been recording and touring with his own band since 1986, makes a comfortable living, and has a home in Palo Alto, Calif., besides his old family home in Baton Rouge.

But even though he’s done things differently from a business standpoint, he says he’s a true product of the same music scene that inspired his father.

Neal says Baton Rouge blues players are proud of the “swamp music”-style that is unique to their city. New Orleans is an hour and a half to the east, and the Cajun and zydeco center of Lafayette is about an hour to the west. Both are better known for music, but also help create a unique musical stew in Baton Rouge.

“When I was a kid, (zydeco legend) Clifton Chenier would come to town, and if my dad wasn’t playing with him, we’d go see him,” said Neal. “And then Fats Domino would come to town from New Orleans, and we’d see him. That mixture really made our music different.”

Neal will bring his Baton Rouge-based style to two shows in Maine this week. On Monday, he’ll play the Time Out Pub in Rockland, and on Wednesday, he’ll be at One Longfellow Square in Portland.

Neal says he’s played Maine many times, and is always surprised by how well people treat him. He also has fond memories of a wedding he played in the Bangor area more than 20 years ago.

“They paid me, like, $5,000. They must really like their blues up there,” said Neal.

Neal first joined his father’s band when he was 13. Four years later, Guy, who had left Baton Rouge for Chicago and found great success on his own, came back and hired Neal as his bass player.

After establishing himself as a blues musician, Neal branched out to acting and Broadway in the early 1990s, when he landed the lead in the musical “Mule Bone.” The show was written in 1930 by Harlem Renaissance writers Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. Neal won a Theater World Award for his performance.

But for most of the past 20 years, Neal has been concentrating on the blues — playing in bands with his brothers and other relatives and winning accolades along the way, including several Grammy nominations.

As a student of the blues, Neal is happy that blues festivals and events continue to sprout up around the world. He worries a little, though, that some of the people who think they’re playing the blues really aren’t, which dilutes the music.

“I think sometimes people misuse the word,” he said. “If you’re doing the blues, you want to keep it real, sing out reality. I think some of the guys who play it don’t do their homework.

“But I’m not worried about the future of the blues. We know the blues is here to stay.”


Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:

[email protected]


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