Vintage Guitar first interviewed guitarist Robert Cray in 1997, and since then he has maintained a consistent pace in recording and performing. His albums in the interim include Take Your Shoes Off (1999), Shoulda Been Home (2001), and Time Will Tell (2003). An archival live collaboration by Cray and Albert Collins, In Concert, was also released in ’99.
Originally hyped as a blues guitarist, the hardtail-Strat aficionado has moved beyond I/IV/V. We recently asked him about the guitarist-to-vocalist transition description that had once been applied to George Benson, and while their vocal styles might be different, Cray agrees with the comparison.
“That’s fair,” he replied. “I’m mellowing with age! I pay more attention to what I’m singing these days, and I hope it means I’m singing better. It also may have been because of the lack of lots of guitar solos, which were more prominent in the early days. When we did Take Your Shoes Off, the vocals were intentionally up-front.”
Part of the buzz surrounding the release of Cray’s latest album, Twenty, is that his band was about to do its 1,000th live gig, but other than the duet effort with Collins, Cray’s band hasn’t released a live album
“We still haven’t settled into trying to accomplish that,” Cray said with a laugh. “There’s been some talk recently that it’s something we would look into.”
It almost goes without saying, however, that the 2004 Crossroad Festival, staged and hosted by Eric Clapton, was one of the more memorable live performances for Cray in recent times.
“Crossroads was a really great thing to be a part of,” he enthused. “We were able to do a band performance, and I was able to join the blues segment of the program. We were backed by Jimmie Vaughan’s band – with Jimmie – and there was Eric, Buddy Guy, Hubert Sumlin, and Robert Randolph. What was so great about that segment is that everybody knows one another, so Eric came in at the last minute with a piece of paper, and we put together a song list, then went out and did it, without any rehearsal – and I love that!”
Cray’s live gear these days includes two Matchless Clubman 35 heads and open-back 4×10 cabinets. He used to use a Fender Bassman between the two Matchless amps, but now relies on a Fender Vibro-King for the in-between position. “Normally, I run the two Matchless amps together because I use a stereo vibrato with the two cabinets.”
His concert guitars are examples of his Fender Stratocaster signature model, and Cray confirmed that “Within the last year,” the company had begun making a version of the Strat at its factory in Ensenda, Mexico.
Twenty is slated for release on May 24, and was co-produced by Cray with his keyboard player, Jim Pugh. The disc continues his propensity to write and perform songs that don’t conform to the classic interpretation of blues music.
“We got into the idea of making a record by just bringing our songs in,” Cray emphasized, and he agrees that the songwriting on Twenty comes off as more reflective, but not necessarily moody.
“We don’t have a ‘concept,’ and we never have,” he clarified. “We just bring in what we’ve got and work with it. When I sit down to write a song, I never tell myself what kind of song I’m going to write. It may be a blues thing, it may be an R&B thing, but the songs we’re writing these days are personal songs, about what goes on in peoples’ lives.”
What’s more, Twenty has a more spartan sound, devoid of horn or string arrangements.
“We had the horns from Sly & the Family Stone, Cynthia and Jerry, on Time Will Tell, and the Turtle Island String Quartet on a couple of songs. But this one is different. We didn’t even schedule a rehearsal before we went into the studio. Everybody made demos, and we mailed them to one another. Then we went into the studio, wrote out the charts, and started recording. We wanted to try to capture what we are – a band. We tried to keep it loose and fresh, playing together in one big room, and a couple of these songs are first takes.”
Twenty is a sophisticated-but-mixed effort that contains straight-ahead rockers like “That Ain’t Love,” a quasi-reggae/ska tune called “Poor Johnny,” and a potentially controversial title track, which is an observation on the Iraqi conflict. Cray averred that “Twenty” could indeed be interpreted as a protest song.
Some of the songs are intriguing in more than one facet. “My Last Regret” sounds like it would be at home in a smoke-filled jazz club. Written by Pugh, the song has lyrics that could be interpreted as bitter, but Cray says it’s actually a pun-loaded paean about giving up smoking.
“He hasn’t smoked in ages,” Cray said of Pugh. “But if you substitute ‘cigarette’ for ‘regret’, that’s what he’s writing about, ‘No more suffering, no more sorrow, I want to see your ashes all over the ground.’ It sounds kind of like something that Billie Holliday would have done.”
Instruments used by Cray on Twenty included Cray signature model Stratocasters and a Gibson LeGrand jazz box on “Two Steps From The End” and “My Last Regret.” He also played a Gibson Hummingbird acoustic on more than one track. Amps included a Magnatone 280 and a 260 (“With that pitch-shifting vibrato.”), a Fender Vibro-King, Fender Super Reverb, and “a really old Fender Deluxe on some solos – and I really cranked it.”
The Robert Cray Band plans to tour to support Twenty, and longtime fans of the hardtail-Strat hero will most likely find the album to be another innovative step in the illustrious career of a veteran who has always looked forward, not back.
Photo: Jane Richey/Rosebud.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s July ’05 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.