Time still will tell
Modern bluesman Robert Cray began with Liverpool, and then he moved backward before moving forward
I asked bluesman extraordinaire Robert Cray who inspired him to pick up the guitar at the tender age of 12. “The Beatles,” he confessed without hesitating.
“They made the guitar popular in the ’60s. Everyone had a guitar,” he said in a telephone interview during a tour stop in Portland, Maine. “Playing the guitar and listening to music was everything. I wanted to play everything. I’d listen to the radio with my friends, and we’d ask each other, ‘Did you play that yet?’”
The Robert Cray Band, featuring keyboardist Jim Pugh, bassist Karl Sevareid and drummer Kevin Hayes, will headline this year’s final Raley Field concert on Sunday, October 5, with John Hiatt and the Blind Boys of Alabama.
“I wanted to be like George Harrison,” Cray said, with a smile that shined over phone wires clear across the continent. So, maybe it’s no surprise that the five-time Grammy winner’s July release, Time Will Tell, offers some electric sitar licks, considering George Harrison catapulted the Indian instrument into Western pop music almost 40 years ago.
Actually, on this latest band effort, it was Pugh’s idea to include the sitar in the psychedelic-tinged “Up in the Sky,” as well as strings on “Time Makes Two,” courtesy of the Turtle Island String Quartet.
“Jim’s good about stretching himself musically,” Cray praised. “I asked him to co-produce this CD. He was champing at the bit, so I let him go about the sitar and strings. I’ve always wanted to do something with strings, and the Turtle Island String Quartet came well-recommended. We both laughed when I confessed to being an electric sitar fan.
“It’s a big modified guitar on a wooden block that vibrates, so I didn’t have to learn anything new,” added Cray, whose instrument of choice is a Fender Stratocaster.
But Time Will Tell marks a move away from Cray’s trademark sound, which propelled his 1986 album Strong Persuader to the forefront with its gut-wrenching, love-gone-bad tales set to hypnotic, Memphis-based blues smoothly laced with soul guitar licks. This new CD also features horns by Sacramento residents Jerry Martini and Cynthia Robinson, both original members of Sly and the Family Stone. There’s even a calypso flavor in “Distant Shore.”
Gone are the woeful love songs, replaced by a couple of sweet ballads that spotlight Cray’s silky pipes, and songs about aging. (Cray turned 50 this summer.) Although Cray’s writing typically encompasses what he described as “everyday life, pulling pages from the past, things I read or even looking at people I know and making up things,” the war in Iraq sparked a strong reaction.
“Jim wrote ‘Distant Shore,’ and I wrote ‘Survivor,’” Cray recalled. “We were so pissed about the war and wrote those songs separately and unknowingly. We laughed about where our heads were going. Instead of love gone wrong, it was the war gone wrong.”
Even as his lyrical content expands, Cray’s stellar musicianship still shines and reflects his musical tastes. “I listen to a lot of different blues,” he said, “like Howlin’ Wolf, Otis Redding, jazz, bebop, soul, Thelonious Monk, Billie Holiday, Ziggy [Marley] and Jimi [Hendrix]—a big, wide variety. My parents listened to gospel on Sundays. But my mom was into Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Sarah Vaughan and Miles Davis. She bought me my first guitar.
“You know,” Cray continued, “on my way to get coffee this morning, I saw the same model guitar that my mom bought me used as prop in a clothing store. It was a Harmony electric guitar.”
Cray’s mom must be pretty pleased her son is included in the weeklong television series The Blues, airing now on PBS. “It’s about time,” Cray pronounced. “If it was sooner, more people could have been there, like John Lee Hooker. I was in this big concert about five hours long with everybody and their brother—Shemekia Copeland, Bobby Bland, Hubert Sumlin—who played with Howlin’ Wolf—Natalie Cole, the Neville Brothers, Dr. John and Keb’ Mo’. It was fantastic!”