THEY SAY bluesmen improve with age, and that’s certainly true of Robert Cray. His latest album Nothin’ but Love is one of his finest with an edgy, live sound producer Kevin Shirley (Aerosmith, the Black Crowes, Joe Bonamassa) calls “the dirt under the fingernails”.
The youngest blues player ever to be inducted into America’s Blues Hall of Fame in 2011, Cray’s style is instantly recognisable. As a singer he could easily have made it big on the R&B circuit (he sings the blues with an R&B feel anyway) and his guitar playing was good enough even way back in 1976 to win his quartet a job as Albert Collins’ house band; the first of many “pinch yourself” moments in his career.
Today, Cray’s guitar playing matches his singing perfectly. It’s not as aggressive as Buddy Guy or Albert Collins, who were key influences, but it is always meaningful, always soulful. And it takes effort. Cray’s elastic and powerful use of vibrato – the sound that underpins his guitar playing as surely as BB King’s “butterfly” vibrato did his – means that in live concerts he changes guitars, always Fender Stratocasters, between songs because his powerful playing throws them out of tune.
“You give your guitars a hell of a bashing,” I say. And Cray laughs quietly: “Well,” he says, “the guitars wind up in the luthiers every year for new frets …”
Nothin’ but Love, which is being promoted on the current tour, is an album of its time. One song, Done Cryin’ has the hook line: “You won’t take away my dignity, because I’m still a man”.
“It was a song I wrote just because of what’s been going on, the things that we see in America and I’m sure in other places,” Cray says. “You know, people losing their jobs and losing their homes because there’s no job, and you know, people just being trodden on. Letting people know that you can’t do this to me, you can do everything else you want but you can’t take my dignity. Yeh.”
Another knockout tune is a revisit of Bobby Parker’s Blues Get Off My Shoulder, originally recorded in 1958.
“That was Kevin’s idea,” Cray says. “He said to us before we came into the studio to record, ‘guys, let’s think of a cover or two we might want to add to the record’. We were so preoccupied with the idea of getting our own song writing done that we totally missed outon the opportunity to bring in something. And then Kevin brought up the idea of Blues Get Off My Shoulder and we all look at each other and go, ‘hey, how do you know about that?’”
The Robert Cray Band has been around more or less in its current form for decades. Cray started it with lifelong friend and bass player Richard Cousins in 1974. Keyboard player Jim Pugh joined in 1989. Drummer Tony Braunagel plays on the record, although Les Falconer is playing on the tour.
The result is a very tight quartet, with Pugh’s keyboard packs covering the horns and strings that are on the record.
He’s 60 this year, but Cray’s voice is stronger than ever: a contrast to his softly-spoken conversational style.
Our interview is warm, with some laughter, but Cray is a disconcerting interviewee, often replying to questions with a single word – “Right” or “Exactly” – and sometimes not responding at all if he has nothing to say.
At one point, I compliment him on his singing on Nothin’ but Love, saying that it’s a very mature sound with a fantastic range. Cray doesn’t respond.
“So, tell me, do you think you’ve improved as a singer,” I say – hastily turning a statement into a question.
“Well,” Cray says with typical modesty, “I would like to think so.”
Cray’s first album Who’s Been Talkin’ was released in 1980, when he was 27. I suggest that by that time his distinctive guitar and vocal style had already been developed.
“Ahm … well, I don’t know,” he says. “When I go back and listen to that particular record, I hear, you know, a young guy (he chuckles) and it makes me laugh, you know. And always – even with more recent records – you hear things that you could have done better, you could have done differently, that kind of thing.”
Surely, I say, the guitar style haddeveloped by the time Strong Persuader – the first Cray record I bought – was released in 1986.
“By that time,” Cray says, “I had grown into playing the Fender Stratocaster. Yeh, that’s what it was. Because when I think about it, back on the Who’s Been Talkin’ record I played a Gibson on that…”
The 2013 tour is a big one: March in the UK, then after that back in the US for less than a week, then off to Australia, back to the States and then back to Europe again.
How is the touring at 60, I ask.
Cray chuckles: “The touring’s not going to slow down. In our heads, you know, you don’t feel like you’ve changed but physically you can’t do all the things you used to do. I can still play guitar [he laughs again]. Once I’ve got a good seat on the airplane or the bus, I’m cool.”
Cray has been nominated for 15 Grammies and has won five. Today, he is an elder statesman for the blues – so what does he think of the new acts, the rising stars, is the blues changing?
“Yeh,” he says, “it’s moving and and it’s changing and that’s exactly what’s required of music. Everybody will do their own take. Like when we got started, we were doing our own take with our touches of rock to it and R&B and all that. That’s what it needs, to change. You know we can’t be … anybody in my age group … we can’t be another Howlin’ Wolf or Muddy Waters. We just didn’t grow up in those kind of times.”
Three or four years ago, fellow bluesman Keb Mo showed Cray a You Tube video of a young black guy fronting a seven or eight piece band with horns.
“Kevin (Shirley) goes, ‘bad ain’t he?’,” Cray remembers, “And I said, ‘get out, who is that?’ And he says ‘that’s Garry Clark Jr – he won’t let me produce him’.”
Cray laughs again, and adds: “And, yeh, he was holding his own, fronting the band. Now, you know, Gary Clark is a lot younger and he’s got all these other new music ideas that he adds to it and so he’s the next generation. It might not be my bag so much, but there’s stuff in it that I do like.”
Ours is just one of a string of interviews Cray is doing to promote the tour, so I get off the phone as quickly as I can as a matter of courtesy.
I mention that I’m going to see Cray in Tunbridge Wells, which is where I live. “If you see an old bloke with white hair waving at you from the back of the auditorium, that’ll be me.”
Cray laughs out loud and says: “Well, you’ll have lots of old guys with white hair waving at you too.”
Listen to Cray play Blues Get off My Shoulder.