From the very start of the Robert Cray Band’s new single “Won’t Be Coming Home,” off the band’s upcoming CD “Nothin’ But Love”, it is clear that the band is back in top form.
Starting with a solid intro, that seamlessly morphs into a slinky groove, wrapped around Cray’s simmering baritone, who croons in the chorus, “So long, I hate to see you go, so I saved my tears for later on down the road …” it is clear the Cray is back. By the 2:47 mark of the song, Cray rips into a blistering solo with the distinctive tone that pushed him into the limelight back in 1980, when he released his first album, “Who’s Been Talking”.
Since then, Cray has amassed five Grammys, along with 15 nominations, and has worked with everyone from Muddy Waters to John Lee Hooker to Albert King to Stevie Ray Vaughn to Eric Clapton and just about everyone in between.
Not bad for a guy who picked up his first guitar after seeing The Beatles.
When talking to Cray, it is very clear that he has a genuine affection for all kinds of music, which explains his distinct musical style — a style that is rooted in the blues, but covers just about every genre of music.
“It was the music that really hooked me in,” Cray said about his foray into blues music. “Muddy Waters’ ‘Louisiana Blues’ … that song is so cool. Or Albert Collins’ dynamic approach to the guitar, it was just irresistible to me. There are great things in all kinds of music. For the Beatles, it was that melody, you know. I was just in a hardware store yesterday and I heard, ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ with Paul McCartney singing and I just thought, you know what, this song is still strong. It was great.”
Six years after his debut release is when the music world would really take notice of Cray with the release of his breakout album, “Strong Persuader” in 1986. The album shot to No. 13 on the U.S. charts and included a No. 2 rock smash, “Smoking Gun”.
Since “Strong Persuader” Cray has released 11 albums and two live discs. He returns to his roots with “Nothin’ But Love,” his first studio CD release since 2009’s “This Time.”
The CD, which will be released Aug. 28 by his new record company Provogue Records, was recorded and produced by Kevin Shirley (Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin) and features Cray and his band, Jim Pugh (keyboards), Richard Cousins (bass) and Tony Braunagel (drums) on 10 new tracks.
Cray, currently on tour to support the record, will play the House of Blues, Myrtle Beach this Sunday.
“We are all pretty excited about it,” Cray said. “We were wondering what was going to happen and were a little bit nervous about going back into the studio with someone that we didn’t know that well, but we went in and we had a ball.”
“I had worked with Joe Bonamassa for a while and the record company suggested me for Robert’s record,” explains Shirley. “I had a meeting with him and we seemed to get along OK. I think he was a little reticent, but he was trusting in the process and we went into the studio and did it.”
“He seemed like a pretty normal guy to me (laughs),” Cray remembers about his meeting with Shirley. “I liked the way he talked about how he worked; he works live in the studio and that is the way we always worked, so it was good.”
The basic tracks on “Nothin’ But Love” were laid down in just two weeks.
“That is five days a week, with a weekend off,” Cray said with a laugh. “We worked pretty fast … I actually like working like that, because you just get it done. The more you start hanging around the studio, you start thinking too much and it gets in the way.”
He also said he was impressed with Shirley’s skills behind the board.
“The thing that amazed me about him is how quick his mind works, with suggestions and ideas as to the arrangements and what tempo the songs should be in for the most dynamic effect,” Cray explained. “It was really good. Plus, we would do the songs in the first, second, third take and then, right away, he would start mixing. It was great.”
Shirley said he wanted to bring the fire back to Cray’s work that he fell in love with early on in his career.
“We worked hard and we worked fast,” the producer explained. “You know, I had ‘Strong Persuader’ and some of his early work and listened to everything else once I got hired. I thought all of those records sounded good, but I really wanted to come in with this record and bring back that swagger Robert had back in the day. I know these guys have that fire in him and all you have to do is dig it out. I am very proud of it and think it sounds great.”
The tracks were recorded live in studio because Shirley wanted to get the energy out of the band. However, since the band was just coming off a 12-day tour, Cray said it played to their advantage once they got behind the microphones.
“We already had a couple hundred gigs under our belts as a unit,” he said. “What was also pretty cool was before we went into the studio, we rehearsed the week before. Before that, we had just come off of a 12-day run, so we still had that road energy when we went into record, so it worked out pretty good.”
Cray said “Nothin’ But Love” is filled with songs that relate to current issues.
“With this new record, it is the subject matter,” he said. “We talk about the fact a lot of people don’t have jobs in this economy; and we talk about the mortgage fiasco and all of those people who had their homes foreclosed on. There is different subject matter on this record. The whole thing about the music is that it can become current if you write about things that are about things that are surrounding you. This is the world we live in, these are the situations that make you have the blues.”
The idea, Shirley said, was to make a record with Cray that will remain timeless.
“I was surprised when I went back and listened to his work and how fresh a lot of it still sounded,” he said. “Some did have a time-stamp on it, but I wanted to come in and make something that was going to be organic and timeless. That is what I look for when I go in the studio. When you put on a Billie Holiday record or a Miles Davis record, it still sounds great. I would love for someone to put on Robert’s record in 30 years time and say, ‘it still sounds like a live band in the studio’.”
Cray wants that too, although he does not take the trip down memory lane too often.
“Well you know what, you always hope that your records are going to be that way for people,” he said. “For me, it is hard to listen to what I have done a long time ago, because I have become so super critical of everything. Oh man, my voice … or oh, I sound so young … oh, the sound of my guitar. But I think everybody who has recorded something is like that. I am like that myself.”
With the recent release of “Won’t Be Coming Home” that has already met with critical and fan buzz, Cray shouldn’t have a problem with it.
“The last couple of Robert’s records were safe,” explains Shirley with honesty. “I think, with this one, there is an element of danger there. Like I say, his records have always sounded great, they were just safe. This one sounds a little dangerous and that is attractive to people. I have been hearing great things about it already.”
Cray has just returned from the U.K. and says he enjoys touring.
“Because this is what this band has always been about — playing,” Cray said. “We are playing the kind of music that we have always wanted to. We had dreams early on, but we weren’t expecting much playing Elmore James and James Brown covers and all that stuff when we first started. But we have had success with the records and that has enabled us to be able to get out in front of more people than we expected so it has been pretty cool.”
His success throughout his career has not only garnered him a devoted fan base, but also has given him the opportunity to play with his early guitar heroes.
“It is really unbelievable,” Cray says in disbelief about playing alongside legends. “I had the opportunity to play with Muddy, we did like six shows together. It was just cool. He was just a beautiful man with great stories. I got to sit in with him on five of the nights doing the encore and then on the last night, I got to play the whole set with him — That was pretty cool. To meet John Lee Hooker, Albert Collins, Albert King … wow … I have been in able to be in a lot of cool situations.”
So is there someone that he want to play with that he hasn’t yet?
“I never really think of it that way,” he said. “There have been these great opportunities that have happened and I just kind of like to leave it that way and see what happens.”
In 2011, Cray was the youngest living inductee (at 57) to the Blues Hall of Fame. He still tours constantly and will pop up playing shows with everyone from Clapton to Buddy Guy.
“Nothin’ But Love” is the project that he is currently pumped about.
“I am really excited about the record,” he said. “The sound is really cool and I think we have some great songs on this …”
The CD can be pre-ordered at www.robertcray.com; tickets for the House of Blues show are still available at www.houseofblues.com/venues/clubvenues/myrtlebeach.
To reach Doug Clark call 910-592-8137 ext. 123 or email to firstname.lastname@example.org.