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’  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
"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
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. Www.appelfarm.org. $34; $30
seniors & students; children under 12 free. Saturday, June 2, 11:30
a.m. to 8 p.m.
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.