Celebrating the man at the corner of blues and soul
In a time long ago and far away, Robert Cray coined a term – “bluenatics” – to put a tag on a certain mindset of blues fans.
These were the purists, the guys who saw blues in inflexible terms. Sure, Cray loved the blues but he loved soul music, too, and he liked rhythm and blues, explaining that rhythm was the way he and his band played and blues were the lyrics he sang.
“I don’t run into them [the bluenatics] like I used to in the early days,” the singer-guitarist said when I spoke to him four years ago. “There were people who didn’t like horns in blues, there were people who didn’t like [other deviations]. You had to do the songs exactly like the record and that was never our intention. I just thought it was way over the top. If somebody says that we’re a blues band, I think they miss out on all the other things. But I think now that we’ve been around for a while, there aren’t any surprises.”
That’s not to say the songs don’t take twists and turns – that there aren’t improvisational moments. “We change the list nightly,” Cray said. “There are a few exceptions that we play every night but even with those we change them up and that’s what it’s all about. Nothing, I think, would be more frustrating or more boring than to go up and play your records. That’s not what we’re about.”
Cray, who celebrates his 70th birthday Aug. 1, broke through to the big time in 1986 with his fifth album, Strong Persuader. He’s released 16 more studio albums, the latest being That’s What I Heard in 2020, scoring an 83 on the Metacritic board and prompting Robert Christgau to write, Cray is “one of the sharpest songwriters ever to identify bluesman identifies the abuser in the house and invents a dance called the FBI.” It won the Soul Blues Album award at the 2021 Blues Music Award.
Some of things we talked about…
Rock and Roll Globe: What’s the best part of your job? Writing and recording or playing live?
Cray: Oh, being on stage, live. It’s the most fun. It’s where you can be creative with things that you’ve done in the past, but you want to make it new and exciting.
When you started out, there was a perception that “Hey, here’s a black guy who’s picked up on the blues when everyone else was going hip-hop.” So, your immersion in, and promotion of, the blues was kind of retro, kind of cool and kind of rare. Did you feel that? That you were, oddly enough, doing something different?
Yeah, we were, we were doing something that was different, but also at the same time I was surrounded by a bunch of like-minded friends. We just did what we did and had fun doing it and I think people realized that. They saw what we were doing and started to get a fan base.
I know the young you was inspired by The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix. I’m guessing the blues entered your life after that. When did that happen and who unlocked the door?
We had heard some of [the blues] records growing up but didn’t pay much mind to it. But I saw Albert Collins in 1969 – I graduated high school in 1971 – and after seeing Albert I started hanging out with a couple of other guitar players who were friends of mine listening to Albert and Muddy [Waters] and all the guys. So, after school we’d go to one another’s house and play the records and try to cop the licks. Here’s a cool thing: Our high school graduation class had Albert Collins play for our graduation party. And this was in Tacoma, Washington.
VIDEO: Albert Collins “Things That I Used To Do”
I saw this quote of yours, what you said about sexism in blues, women and blues: “The pre-60s blues tunes were often very macho, and we used to cover them as an up-and-coming band. We were playing in Eugene, Oregon, a college town, and a lot of our audience were active in the women’s movement. If we played something out of tune with them, they’d leave. It affected us, so we’d drop say an Elmore James song, or extend it to give the woman’s point of view, ‘cause love is a two-way thing.” To not ignore it, but balance it out…
I learned a lesson a long time ago about the sexism in the songs. And you don’t want to … you have to balance it out. You have to look at both sides and, in our music, that’s one of the reasons we incorporate a soul aspect into it – it isn’t always about you being treated bad, there’s love involved as well. So, we do love songs as well as blues tunes. One of the lessons we’ve learned since we were young and ignorant, we love B.B. King but we did one of his songs “I Didn’t Want You Cuttin’ Off Your Hair,” and we had a whole lot of people walk out on us. That was a lesson learned. This was like in the ’70s.
What’s in the song?
Part of the song goes, “There’s something about your girlfriend that I don’t understand/She got her hair cut off the other day and now she looks just like a man.”
Well, it’s kinda humorous …
Yeah, but it’s also anti-gay.
Very true. So, you did the song then but you do not do that song now?
I would never do that song. We were youngsters doing a lot of covers back in the day. We didn’t know.
A thought I’ve had with the blues – as opposed to maybe pop or punk or metal – is you can grow older and not only not lose your audience but maybe gain more as you get more “authenticity.”
I’ve always thought that as well. The older you get, and you talk about Muddy and John Lee, the more significant they become, the more relevant they become. Because you grow with them and you understand their plight, their stories, and you might have some of those same blues stories to relate to as well.
The blues has some real bad characters and good characters. Do you prefer being the good guy or the bad guy?
Ah, well, we can go back to albums we did on the Hightone record label [1980-1985], and some of the early Mercury records where we did a lot of songs that were a collaboration with a great friend and songwriter Dennis Walker who had the misfortune of being married about four times. [Laughs] He did a lot of lyric writing and I sang the songs so I became that person who was sneaking around the back alleys and all that stuff. Which I dug at the time. I was a bachelor and I thought it was cool. But as time goes on, once again that advantage of growing old with the music and living a little bit more and experiencing more, and having life change and having the music change along with your life. I don’t sing a lot of those songs [anymore]. I sing some of them, out of nostalgia, but I don’t like being the bad guy. I’d rather be the guy telling the story but also trying to make it a little bit more positive.
VIDEO: Robert Cray “You Must Believe In Yourself” Live at Austin City Limits
I get that from your music. Let me switch it up. You’ve won five Grammy’s and were nominated, but lost, in 2018 for Robert Cray and Hi Rhythm. So, what does winning or losing mean to you, if anything?
It’s the recognition by peers of course and it’s not all we work for. It’s a nice gesture. This past award I was looking forward to it because we did the record with the Hi Rhythm section – the members of which had played and backed Al Green, Ann Peebles, Otis Clay and O.V. Wright and I was really hoping for a win for those guys. And it would have been really wonderful. We walked the red carpet and I was talking to somebody in the line and I looked over to my left and I happened to see Charles Hodges, who’s the organist, talking to a young guy in his 20s. And I could hear Charles saying, “Yeah, I played on all those Al Green records” and the kid was just freaking out. Imagine! A man in his 70s nonchalantly saying that! And I was thinking, “This guy needs to win an award.”
When you look into the future, what does it hold? Do you ever think of retirement or will this be continuance until you can barely walk?
I see it as continuance. I don’t see any point in retiring. I don’t know what I would do if I quit. If it’s in your blood, it’s what you do and it’s the most fun I have during the day when I’m on the road. How could you retire? And do what?
Although maybe, like an athlete, if you lost your chops and you’re not who you used to be…
Maybe, but then again, if you do, it’s like life: You change how you approach it.
Last question: I know when you tour, you’ll often play casinos. After you’re paid, do you take that wad to the floor?
[Laughs] No, it’s pretty sad [on the casino floor]. I got over that years ago.