Sometimes, the passing of the years has a way of putting old cliches to rest.
That has certainly been the case for Robert Cray. It’s now been 20 years since Cray was rather simplistically, and misleadingly, touted by much of the music press as “the great black hope for the blues.”
For cliche-peddling critics who don’t think hard enough about such things, that was probably a tempting moniker to bestow on Cray in the mid-1980s, since he was a young black guitarist in a genre that was mostly dominated by older black blues masters and younger white guitar-slingers.
Since Cray is now 52, he now almost qualifies as one of the “older black players.” But more to the point, the “great black hope” mantle was not only facile, it was false — because Cray has never been a straight-blues artist. While he is a big fan of the feral, deep-blues rumblings of Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters, his music is actually more indebted to the silky, soul-man testifying of Sam Cooke, Al Green, Marvin Gaye and other great classic-soul singers. And his guitar style is more influenced by the crisp, urban-blues fretwork of B.B. King, T-Bone Walker and Bobby “Blue” Bland.
“Yeah, I got interested in blues guitar pretty early,” says Cray, who brings his band to the Orange Peel March 29. “But I also just couldn’t let go of all that great soul music I heard when I was growing up, all those guys who were influenced by gospel.
“Those so-called boundaries don’t seem to matter as much to the audience as they used to. And I don’t think they ever meant very much to the artists themselves. We played a folk festival last year, and we’ve also played jazz festivals, and rock festivals. That’s the way the music world is now.”
Further distinguishing himself from classic blues artists, Cray often writes songs about more topical, contemporary issues — or he sings about old mojos in new ways. From the beginning, on breakthrough mid-’80s discs like False Accusations and Strong Persuader, Cray articulated the theme of betrayal — one of the idiom’s staples — in a language that perhaps cut deeper than previous generations.
And that’s a good thing — because, at some point, someone had to come along with a new vocabulary for conveying that kind of heartache in a way that didn’t evoke “another mule kickin’ in my stall.”
“Yeah, my wife and I were just talking about that last week,” says Cray with a laugh. “I love those old blues songs, but you really can’t write that way any more. You can’t write about being mad at your woman because she didn’t do the dishes or clean the house.”
More pointedly, Cray’s last two albums have featured a few songs about the human cost of the war in Iraq, one of which was written by his keyboard player, Jim Pugh. Cray wrote the title track of his latest disc, Twenty (Sanctuary) — a song about an “innocent young guy, who, after 9/11, decides he wants to do the right thing, and avenge the events of 9/11, but he ends up guarding an oil pipeline in Iraq,” describes Cray. “He witnesses all kinds of horror, and the killing of his buddies and innocent Iraqi civilians, and he ends up losing his life, at the very young age of 20.”
Cray and his band mates are opposed to the war in Iraq, but Cray is no knee-jerk peacenik. His father was a career military man who fought in Vietnam, and Cray says he respects the sacrifices soldiers have made — “but this is just the wrong war,” he says. “These songs are our way of voicing our disapproval of this war” — which Cray refers to in the song as “the rich man’s war.
The singer’s wife is a filmmaker, and she shot a video for the song, “and we’re trying to get it out — we’ve submitted it to film festivals, and local TV stations, and sent one to Congress,” says Cray. “We’ve also been able to work with the group that is doing the Eyes Wide Open exhibit, which goes around the country, setting up empty boots to represent all the dead soldiers. Seeing all those empty boots really drives home the extent of the losses.”
On Twenty, Cray’s sound is, as always, stylistically expansive. A couple of tracks, “Two Steps From the End” and “My Last Regret,” synergize blues and jazz, and the requisite cheating song, “Poor Johnny” — no blues/R&B album would be complete without one — grooves to a reggae-fied lilt. “It Doesn’t Show” is straight-no-chaser blues, while “Does It Really Matter” churns to a tough rocking-blues rhythm.
“I’ve always been interested in the shared roots of jazz and blues,” says Cray of “Two Steps” and “My Last Regret.” “I love the way those two can come together and sort of show that they came from the same place.”
Looking back, Cray guesses that, of all the blues artists he was turned on to as a youngster, Howlin’ Wolf perhaps made the deepest impression. “Out of all the Chicago blues guys, Wolf is the one whose music probably had the deepest roots in the Mississippi Delta,” he says. “His voice was almost scary, and Hubert [Sumlin, Wolf’s guitarist] had such a great, swampy feel to his guitar.”
Indeed, one listen to Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightnin'” and you know immediately where John Fogerty got that swampy, chooglin’ groove.
Although his days of being anointed as the “savior” of the blues are long gone, Cray still laments that so many young black people reject the blues and classic soul — usually in favor of hip-hop and modern R&B artists whose music is slick, mechanical, and, all too often, soulless — which is probably the worst indictment one can make of something that allegedly aspires to be “soul music.”
“Yeah, that still bothers me,” says Cray. “A lot of young black people unfortunately still view this stuff as their parents’ music. Kids understandably want their own music, but I think the classic stuff has a lot more soul than most of what kids listen to today.”
[Writer and critic Kevin Ransom first interviewed Robert Cray in 1991.]
The Robert Cray Band plays the Orange Peel (101 Biltmore Ave.) on Wednesday, March 29. 8:30 p.m. $30. 225-5851.