Corrections or additions?

This article by Richard J. Skelly was prepared for the May 30,

2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Appel Farm: Robert Cray’s Relevant Blues

Robert Cray’s latest record, "Shoulda Been


just released by Rykodisc, is a wonderfully bluesy return to roots

that is certain to delight fans and critics alike. Like his 1999


"Take Your Shoes Off," this is a return to basics for Cray,

a singer-songwriter and guitarist who skirts the boundaries between

blues, blues-rock, soul, and gospel-inflected rock ‘n’ roll.

Fans are fans, and most of them have been along for the ride with

Robert Cray since the beginning: "Bad Influence," released

in 1983 on HighTone Records. But through the 1990s, some critics have

accused Cray of selling out to a more pop-oriented sound. At the same

time, fellow musicians like Eric Clapton have heaped praise on Cray’s

flair for writing relevant blues for the new millennium. So what if

Cray adds a few pop and soul influences to these albums?

"When somebody says the Cray Band is not a blues band," says

Cray from his home in Los Angeles, "I say, go back to the `Who’s

Been Talkin’ [1980] album if you dare. That song is a great Willie

Dixon song. We’ve also got a song on that album by O.V. Wright, and

we’ve always mixed up blues and soul — and even some gospel —

right from the get-go."

What does Cray have to say to those Blues Nazis, who, like the Folk

Nazis and Jazz Nazis, seem to be everywhere lately?

"Well, there’s a couple of Elmore James cuts on the new record

and a couple of songs that have a Bobby Bland kind of feel. What I

like about the new record is when I sit down or when Jim Pugh sits

down to write songs, we’re not concerned about what type of song it

is. It’s all the types of music we like to listen to: we have


and soul and gospel and rock ‘n’ roll — all the other kinds of

music we like to listen to — just kind of popping into our writing

now," says Cray. In other words, it’s not just straight-ahead

blues that interests him.

Cray and his band, which includes Kevin Hayes on drums, Karl Sevareid

on bass, and keyboardist Jim Pugh, will headline the Appel Farm Arts

and Music Festival on Saturday, June 2. Held on a 176-acre farm in

Elmer, the art farm site is minutes from the New Jersey Turnpike’s

Exit 2. Cray and his band will go on stage at 6:45 p.m.

Also featured: blues and roots-rock chanteuse Lucinda Williams with

a whole new band, singer-songwriter Dar Williams, and a bevy of


including Erin McKeown, Jeff Lang, Sarah Harmer, and Oscar Lopez.

The music alternates between two stages, the Meadow Stage and the

Grove Stage, and since these are just a short walk away, fans can

catch part of one set before heading off to the other stage.

Cray was born in 1953 in Columbus, Georgia. "My

dad was in the Army, so we lived all over the place," he explains.

"We moved from Columbus when I was 11 months old, to Washington

State, and then we moved to Virginia for a couple of years, to Germany

for a couple of years, and then when I finally left Washington to

go to Oregon, I moved down there with Richard Cousins, who played

bass in one of my earlier bands."

Cray attended high school in Tacoma, Washington, with Etta James’

bandleader, Bobby Murray, a Japanese-American guitarist now living

in Detroit, and with his former bassist, Cousins. The students got

Albert Collins, the late great Texas blues guitarist and his band,

the Icebreakers, to play at their high school graduation, such rabid

blues fans were these three.

After graduating high school in 1974, Cray and Cousins moved to


Oregon, where, with the University of Oregon right there, they knew

there were enough clubs to support the band they hoped to form with

another schoolmate of theirs, a drummer, who was attending college

in Eugene.

"We moved down there in 1974," Cray says, explaining that

it’s all of 60 miles from Tacoma to Eugene. Later, on a trip farther

south to the San Francisco Bay area, Cray met guitarist and lapsteel

player Sonny Rhodes and soul-blues vocalist Frankie Lee.

"One day, Bobby Murray, my friend from high school, called us

up and said, `You guys want to play with Frankie Lee? The name of

this band we formed was `Frankie Lee’s Bicentennial Blues Revue


Bobby Murray and Robert Cray and his Kings of Rhythm Band’! And


Cray adds, laughing, "we never even played one gig as that band,

we were down in Oakland and we just rehearsed together."

Cray was signed to record for HighTone in 1982, after an earlier album

he’d recorded was released on Tomato Records, a company that folded

about six months after the record was released. Ever the prolific

songwriter and having realized he’d established an audience for


Cray quickly followed up "Who’s Been Talkin’" with two other

critically praised albums, "Bad Influence" and "False


In the minds of some critics of blues and roots-rock and in the mind

of people like Eric Clapton, Cray is as much responsible as the late

Stevie Ray Vaughan for the current blues revival, which began in the

1980s with the rise to international prominence of people like Cray

and Vaughan. (Vaughan was killed in a helicopter accident in East

Troy, Wisconsin, in August, 1990.) When told this, Cray simply says,

"thank you, that’s very kind of you."

Cray won a Grammy Award in 1986 for his own album, "Strong


and in 1985 for "Showdown," his collaboration with the late

guitarists Collins and Johnny `Clyde’ Copeland on the Alligator


label. Later in the 1980s, a crusty old blues veteran, Albert King,

recorded Cray’s "I’m In A Phone Booth," which brought even

more recognition and credibility to Cray’s reputation as a songwriter.

Fortunately, both of Cray’s parents are still living, and they’ve

lived to see his international rise to prominence, crossing over from

the blues world into the world of more mainstream, radio-friendly,

homogenized corporate rock. Cray’s big break was the chance to record

for HighTone Records in Oakland, California.

"Being signed to HighTone was our first big break, because when

we put out the `Bad Influence’ album, that album got us to Europe

and even got us some airplay in the States," he says. "Whereas

when we recorded `Who’s Been Talkin’ on Tomato Records the record

company folded six months after the record was out."

"I remember when we got our copies of `Who’s Been Talkin,’"

Richard Cousins and I just sat across the table from each other and

listened to it for about an hour, without saying a word to each


Cray recalls. Asked how it felt to see his months of hard work go

down the drain when Tomato Records folded, Cray admits it was a bitter

pill to swallow, but he recovered, and then some.

"At that point, I was 23 or 24 and it was a heavy trip. But we

were a bar band playing blues and R&B, and so we just kept doing what

we always did and then we ran into [HighTone executive] Bruce Bromberg

again and we just began recording for HighTone Records."

Since his career began to skyrocket in 1986 and 1987, with the Grammy

winning major label debut, "Strong Persuader," Cray and his

band have performed at large festivals, stadiums, theaters, big clubs,

and even some smaller clubs. Now in the third decade of life as a

traveling bluesman, Cray says he looks back fondly at the time he

and Muddy Waters spent on the road together.

`I had the great pleasure of


Muddy Waters when we got booked on a series of six shows with him

up and down the West Coast back in 1980," Cray says, "so,

given that he was Muddy Waters, you know I had to go in and chat with

him. One night I went backstage to tap on his dressing room door,

and he says, `Come on in!’ He’s back there drinking Champagne with

strawberries inside the glass. He just opened up the book and he


about working with [pianist] Otis Spann and [harmonica player] Little

Walter. When he talked about himself, he talked about the young Muddy

Waters, and he used the third person. So I got to talk to him and

he invited me on stage to sing `Mannish Boy’ with him every


"On our last show in Vancouver, B.C., I’m sitting in the dressing

room with Muddy and this guy popped his head in the door and it was

Charley Pride! He said, `Mr. Waters, I heard this blues music comin’

from across the alley, I said, `That sounds like Muddy Waters, can

I come in and talk to you?’ He says, `Come on in, man, come on in!’

And they started talking about the old Mississippi that they both

knew, and how they’d gone back and bought the land they’d sharecropped

on when they were kids. It was great to see the respect they had for

each other. Muddy was a great man."

When this author met Muddy Waters in 1982, he was speechless, just

shaking his big, gnarly hand as he made his way up to the dressing

room at Stanhope House.

"I know exactly how you felt," Cray relates. "The first

time I met Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, they pulled up in a van in

the back of this theater in Eugene, Oregon. We stood alongside the

van, and they almost had to push us out of the way to get out of the

van. I wanted to say hi, but I really didn’t know what to say!"

Despite what blues purists may say about Cray and his band, his 1980s,

’90s, and current success is well deserved, because he is such a


songwriter. Cray says he carries a notebook on the road, which is

about 200 nights a year these days. "I write when things pop into

my head," he explains, "but I don’t really get that much done

out on the road. It’s easier for me to just get away from everything

and write when I’m at home. And, I tend to write more when it’s


close to crunch time," he adds. "I just work better under


Given that Cray got started playing blues and paying his dues so


was there any one performer who was particularly helpful or


about what the life of a traveling bluesman is all about? "It

was just something that we fell into," he recalls.

"I do remember we toured for some time with Albert Collins, and

it was Albert who pretty much would try to help us to keep our heads

on straight out on the road. He would always ask us, `Have you called

your parents?’ — to let them know that we were okay. Because we

were young, in our early 20s, and we were just runnin’ the road, you

know? He would tell us: `Think about your folks, because you know

your folks are thinking about you.’"

— Richard J. Skelly

Robert Cray Band, Appel Farm Arts & Music Festival ,

457 Shirley Road, Elmer, 800-394-1211. Also featured are Lucinda


Dar Williams, BeauSoleil, Ron Sexsmith, Sarah Harmer, Phil Roy, Oscar

Lopez, and Erin McKeown. Crafts fair showcasing 50 artists, and


village with its own complement of performers and hands-on arts and

crafts activities. Host is Gene Shay. $34; $30

seniors & students; children under 12 free. Saturday, June 2, 11:30

a.m. to 8 p.m.

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