You can take the sweet guitar skills for granted, but Robert Cray’s first record in three years also shows a master stylist and true storyteller at work. Blues album of the year? Lay your money down
It was his third album, Strong Persuader, that elevated a softly-spoken Robert Cray to fame and no doubt played a part in his becoming the youngest inductee to the Blues Hall Of Fame last year, aged 57. Add to that five Grammys (and a whopping 15 nominations), over 12 million records sold, a checklist of musical outings with the likes of Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, BB King and John Lee Hooker, and now a compelling sixteenth album, Nothin’ But Love, that continues to wave the blues flag furiously, and the strength of this man’s persuasive powers are beyond doubt.
While the Georgia-born guitarist may be a relative youngster in blues terms he’s fast becoming a living legend thanks to his trademark unfussy Strat tone that gives his chops the attention they deserve. The Deep South has offered up another to add to the history books – and as his latest set of tunes confirms, Robert Cray’s in his prime.
There were two waves of inspiration that struck a teenage Cray and got him hooked on guitars. The first came from across the pond in the form of four rather well-known young Liverpudlians.
‘My dad, being a big Ray Charles fan, had me going after piano for a bit,’ Cray remembers. ‘Then we moved back to the States and the Beatles hit. Everybody got a guitar and I was one of ’em. I wanted to be George, but I didn’t get the Gretsch… I got Harmony Sovereign acoustic guitar and then I went on to a Harmony electric with one pickup.’
It wasn’t just the Fab Four that played their part in Cray’s initiation; their fellow countrymen chipped in too with a musical movement awash with potential tunes for youngsters to have a crack at. ‘It was the whole wave of the British thing coming over to the States,’ he chuckles. ‘Anything that we could take a stab at that was in E, A or G. We were going after all that.’
The second was Hendrix, and although Cray was lucky enough to witness the great man live twice, that revolutionary sound first reached his ears via a covers band. ‘The first time I heard Hendrix was at an assembly in junior high school. A classmate’s brother was playing in a band and they came out and played Purple Haze. Those first chords threw me for a loop!’
Telecaster-toting legend Albert Collins also had his say in the fledgling guitarist’s musical upbringing, having played at a school dance; Cray would end up performing with him a few short years later.
‘He played at my high school graduation. Our class had a choice between Albert Collins and a group called Crow – we voted for Albert Collins. After the gig was over I walked up to him and he said, “Young man, you play guitar?” and I said, “Yes sir,” and he goes, “Keep it up!” That was in 1971… and by 1976 we were backing him up.’
To say Robert Cray ‘kept it up’ is somewhat of an understatement; surely he must have been a natural? ‘Well, I guess I could hear where I needed to be,’ he demurs. ‘We had music around the house so it wasn’t anything unusual for me.’
Last year Cray was inducted into the Blues Hall Of Fame alongside most of his childhood heroes, and as with all the great players he follows, there’s no ego here, just thoughtful words and a way with a story – the backbone of the blues. ‘In the early days it’s all about the guitar, and then after a while it’s about the groove, then as you get older it becomes more what the story is all about, and then how the story is delivered, who’s delivering it… those things come after a while,’ he offers. ‘Now when we write, the story is the most important thing.’
With Cray, the music colours the story rather than vice versa, but he never falls into the trap of allowing his music to relax into a rut. ‘What I like about this band is we get out of the 1-4-5 progressions and have different delivery systems for the stories,’ he explains. ‘We could do 1-4-5 for all the tunes. If you do that you better have a damn good story!’
Real life stories have provided the backdrop for many great blues standards, and Cray squeezes out every last drop of life experience on Nothin’ But Love.
‘Some of the songs on this new record didn’t really happen to me. They’re observational and maybe sometimes about somebody I know. There are some about the way the economy is going in the US and probably everywhere, about the housing prices and the bank screw-ups. Then there’s one song called A Memo and it’s speaking to the public as if President Obama was speaking. It goes: ‘I’m gonna’ warn ya’ it ain’t over yet/Got you out the hot water but you’re still all wet/And if you don’t pay attention, you get what you deserve.’
Cray worked with bigwig blues producer Kevin ‘Caveman’ Shirley, a favourite of Provogue Records and the man behind many of Joe Bonamassa’s best releases. Shirley, it seems, squeezed the most out of the Robert Cray Band too. For him, Cray’s session was the ‘dirt under the fingernails.’ ‘We just got into it, you know,’ Cray laughs. ‘We just put our hard hats on and went to work. We knocked it out! There’s no BS-ing about! We go in and we cut ’em! When we did all the other records, even Strong Persuader, we cut them in a couple of weeks and then we went back out on the road.’
For Nothin’ But Love, the whole band got in on the action. ‘Everyone wrote. I could tell the guys were writing their songs, and they were thinking of me, or they were thinking of what the Cray band music has been in the past. The first song is written by our bassist Richard Cousins and a good friend of his, Hendrix Ackle. They wrote A Memo, too. Our keyboard player Jim Pugh has a song on there that he and our drummer Tony Braunagel wrote called Worry and another slightly more jazzier song called I’ll Always Remember You. There’s a cover of Blues Get Off My Shoulder by Bobby Parker. The other five songs are written by myself.’
Sixteen albums in, and Nothin’ But Love still manages to keep his blues sound moving forward.
‘To me my stuff sounds the same,’ Cray jokes. ‘Richard always reminds me, he says, “Cray! It’s not the same! It’s your style!’ I guess you just have to put yourself in that tune – that’s the whole thing… just be there for that tune.’
Although Cray’s idea of ‘big’ differs somewhat from ours, he has a limited number of guitars for your average star guitarist. ‘I don’t have a big collection. I probably have about 30 guitars,’ he says. ‘The Tele that I’m playing on the album is made by James Trussart. It’s one of the Steelcasters. I play that on occasion on certain songs, but it’s my signature Custom Shop Strat that I play with mostly.’
While we don’t think this particular guitar has a name as of yet, Robert Cray’s violet Strat is close to becoming the ‘Lucille’ of its generation. It’s certainly got Cray’s personal stamp on it – the ‘Cray violet’ colour was taken from a square of material removed from his favourite pair of his shorts and then sent to the Custom Shop to be matched.
‘When I first started I had a Gibson SG Standard and a Gibson ES-345 Stereo,’ he remembers. ‘But then I saw Phillip Guy, Buddy’s brother, playing a Fender Strat through a Fender Super Reverb amp, and he had just the right amount of reverb… it sounded like cut glass, echoing like he was playing in a skating rink or something. That was the moment I really fell in love with the Strat, and that was back in 1979. Luckily for me I found a guy selling an Inca silver ’64. That was the first one I ever had, and I’ve stayed with them ever since.’
However, despite his love of Fender’s flagship six-string, Cray would also reach for another particularly rare axe in his collection in the event of that fictitious ‘house-burning-down incident’, and rightly so.
‘Eric Clapton sent me one of those Beano Les Pauls, so I’d probably run out with that one first – it’s expensive!’ he chuckles. ‘That and the ’58 Strat… I’d have to have that one out too!’
Cray’s sweet signature sound is achieved via a certain mix of amps that is ‘just so’, allowing him to get the most out of his beloved Strat for the different styles at play on Nothin’ But Love.
Matchless owners will probably agree that those particular amps allow the guitar space to truly show its character. From the two ready on stage as we speak, it seems Cray agrees, as he uses Matchlesses together with some old favourites.
‘I remember when Mark Samson from Matchless brought the amps to our show at the Hollywood Bowl opening up for Bonny Raitt,’ he recalls. ‘He brought them into our dressing room and the thing just went “RAAAR!” and that was that.’
Ever since hearing Philip Guy, Cray has also been a fan of Fender’s 4×10" Super Reverb combos (‘I have one that’s just the boss!’), and they’re ideal for his pure instrument-to-amp tone. He takes his sound very seriously and, with the help of his trusted guitar tech Zac, he goes a step further through paying attention to the finer details.
‘I like to experiment in the studio with different tubes when the amp’s cooled down,’ he explains. ‘Lower plates if you want a dirtier sound and higher numbered plates if you want a brighter sound. You have to be really particular about your tubes.’
Alongside the stereo Matchless attack, Cray finds room for another favourite. ‘I also like to use the Magnatone vibrato amps. They’re not really roadworthy, they’re just too sensitive. You open up the back of the amp and it looks like a spider’s nest! So Zac made one, and put it in the rack. I use the effect so it pulsates on each side. Then we’re using a Fender Vibro-King in the centre for a dirtier sound.’
The marriage of that signature violet Strat and a bit of backline magic may provide the effortless clean-as-a-whistle tone that has served him so well, but it’s that touch – gilded by the blues gods – that makes Robert Cray an ideal candidate to be the next great blues icon. ‘I think as a musician you’re taking more in,’ he muses. ‘You open up a lot more and bare more of your soul.’ Cray’s giving us nothin’ but love… and as far as Guitar & Bass is concerned, the feeling is reciprocated.