In the summer of 1987, I nearly drove my girlfriend mad with Robert Cray’s breakthrough album “Strong Persuader.” On every road trip we took, she was made to suffer though endless tales of love, lust and loss, each punctuated with the piercing sound of Cray’s trademark Fender guitar.
Yes, “Strong Persuader” was just that good. (Rolling Stone has it at #42 on its list of the 100 greatest albums of the 80s.)
A lot has happened in the nearly 30 years since “Strong Persuader” was released in November 1986: The woman I nearly drove to commit murder is now my wife. And as for Cray, he has scooped up four Grammy Awards and, in 2011, a Blues Hall of Fame induction.
With a new album out featuring music and videos that span his 40-year career, Cray and his band will stop in Charlotte Aug. 28 for a show at McGlohon Theater at Spirit Square. (Win tickets to this event.) When I heard he was coming, I knew what I had to do — get him on the phone to muse about his blues.
You were playing and recording blues long before “Strong Persuader,” which introduced your music to a new generation of budding blues fans? How has your music changed over the years?
Well, I think it’s changed quite a bit. Over time, we’ve taken more of a hand in the songwriting process. When we did “Strong Persuader” and “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” and albums prior to “Strong Persuader,” we were working with producers Bruce Bromberg and Dennis Walker, and Dennis and Bruce told a lot of the stories. Dennis Walker in particular wrote the song “Right Next Door (Because of Me),” which is the “Strong Persuader” tune. And he had other songs, like “Porch Light” and other songs that were very visual tunes. But we don’t work with those producers anymore. But one of the things that I did learn from Dennis was, being visual in a song is very important… I give a lot of credit to Dennis, and we try our best to be that way, but we’ve changed over the years.
And when you talk about “being visual,” what do you mean?
Well, you can see the story. The story is painting a picture in your mind — descriptions like, “I can hear the couple fighting right next door.” And songs like “Porch Light.” …You can envision a porch light, and you can see somebody in (her) nightgown through the window.
Where does all that come from — the lyrics, the stories, the heartbreak?
My good friend Dennis Walker at that particular time had been married three times, and we always ribbed him about that, and who knows why he was married three times. But I think the songs had a lot to do with it. The man was very visual, very descriptive, in his tunes, so I think a lot of that stuff came from him getting in trouble, maybe. Who knows?
So I take it your life is less dramatic.
Yeah, my life is a lot different than Dennis Walker’s. Therefore, the music has changed.
I’m sure you’ve been asked this question countless times, but why blues? You started playing blues at a very young age, when most of your peers were into other types of music.
Being a guitar player — I had played guitar several years before I got into the blues — there was so much guitar music. I started off playing guitar because everybody got a guitar when The Beatles came out. I was fortunate enough to be able to see Jimi Hendrix. And after I saw Jimi Hendrix a couple of times, I saw Albert Collins at this rock festival, and he blew everyone away who was on prior to him being there. Our high school graduating class voted to have Albert Collins to play the party. I got a chance to meet Albert Collins afterward. Then after high school, four years later, we were backing Albert. And so, I just got into that music. And I was into their music before the end of high school, because their music and their stories and their lives totally captivated me and a few other guitar-playing friends. It was like, “Who are these guys with names like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and Magic Sam, and what’s the stuff about Robert Johnson and the so-called association with the devil? And what’s all this double entendre in the songs?” As teenagers, we were like, “What is this?” and we just got into it.
Speaking of guitar, if you could play with any musician living or dead — someone you’ve never played with — who would it be?
Because he just had this power, and he had his own groove. And when he sings “Smokestack Lightnin’,” you believe it — “I asked for water and she gave me gasoline” — those grooves; they’re just undeniable; they’re just too deep. Muddy’s music was deep like that, too.
What do you think you’d be doing if you weren’t a musician?
Maybe cooking. I like to cook.
It’s just a way of relaxing and being creative.
Do you primarily cook for yourself or for other people as well?
No, I cook for our family. (Cray has been married for 26 years to wife Sue Turner-Cray.)
What do you think it takes to be a really good blues man?
Ears. And a heart. Your heart is the most important thing. When I say “ears,” being in an ensemble, you have to listen to the other players you’re playing with. You have to put your soul into what you are doing to be believable and to make music happen. But without the soul, the heart, you really don’t have anything, just playing a bunch of notes.
Is heart more important in blues than in some other types of music?
I think you have to have it in just about anything you do.
You have a new album out.
Yeah, “4 Nights of 40 Years” is our latest. It’s an album that we recorded live over four nights in four different venues for four different kinds of feel — theater, club, private party. Yeah, the club. The club was kinda cool. We had some guests. We had Ken Wilson, who was with The Fabulous Thunderbirds. We had The Cats’ horn section, with Steve Madeo and Trever Lawrence. And we also filmed some studio rehearsals and conversation, and we include some footage of the band from 1984 at the San Francisco Blues Festival. And then the “Strong Persuader” band with Peter Boe on keyboards, David Olson on drums, Richard Cousins playing base, and myself from a 1987 television show in Holland. So we just put a little bit of everything into this mix. It’s video and CD.
So what can people here in Charlotte expect at your show?
Well, a little bit of everything, because we don’t use a set list. We don’t know what we’re going to do until we’re standing in the wings. That’s how we run it… I believe a set list just sets you up to do nothing but play the notes. I think you just go out there on the stage and you look forward to not knowing what’s going on and being in the moment…and having it be fun and challenging.
One last question, and it’s from a woman: Everything about you seems so natural and unpretentious — your music, your lyrics, even the way you dress. Are you really as down to earth as you seem, or are you pretending to be unpretentious in order to steal our hearts?
This is who I am. I’m just being myself. I’m a jeans-and-t-shirt guy, and I like to cook, and I like a lot of different kinds of music.
Date: Sunday, Aug. 28, 2016
Time: 7 p.m.
Place: McGlohon Theater at Spirit Square
Cost: $32.50 – $42.50
Buy Tickets: Click here