Larry McCray

Redemption Blues
Larry McCray
Larry McCray: Peggy Smith.

Hunter S. Thompson once wrote, “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs.”

After 40 years playing the blues, Larry McCray has lived it. And while his star is rising late thanks to a bump from Joe Bonamassa, his artistry is worth the wait. His new release is Blues Without You.

You’ve been under the radar for years.
I’m blessed that someone finally put me back around where people could see me. The music business is just like everything else – the parameters are imbalanced. But you can’t hate the player, you hate the game. So, you have to find ways to overcome obstacles. Unfortunately, it takes some of us longer because we have less resources and opportunities. I’ve been on the road for 40 years, and this is the first break I’ve had in my whole career.

How did you meet Joe Bonamassa?
The first time was in 2001, in Nashville. I was playing upstairs at B.B. King’s club, Eric Gales was playing downstairs in the basement, and Joe was there, too. After my gig, I went down and joined them.

What brought Joe and me together this time was him giving my music a spin on his XM Radio show, “Different Shades of Blue.” I kept hearing, “Joe said this” and “Joe said that.” I thought, “Yeah, right.” I never believed it – didn’t see how somebody who plays as well as he does could appreciate anything I do. So, I called him and said, “This is Larry McCray, just checking in to see if there’s any possibility of us working together.”

I’ve played music for a long time and seen a lot of people pass me by. I couldn’t convince anyone powerful enough to give me an opportunity.

Did you write with Joe?
I’d had two years off to write, and me and my girlfriend had been writing together. Josh Smith and Joe came in expecting me not to have anything, but I had songs. They had a hand in the arrangements and improved the songs; “Breaking News” was originally in F but we changed it to C, added an interlude from the IV, and added a cowbell groove. That was Joe and Josh. I didn’t envision that, but everything they put their hand on was an improvement.

What’s your go-to gear?
I use a ’71 Fender Deluxe Reverb. I’ve used a Red Bear, Randall, Sound City, then came back around to my Deluxe Reverb. I’m a blues person, and it’s hard to beat a Fender sound. For solos, it’s a Fulltone OCD and a Rocktron Austin Gold Overdrive. I regulate the drive for clarity and push it just enough so when it gets a little muddy, I pull it back.

You were playing Soldanos and Flying Vs in the late ’90s.
I used a Soldano Hot Rod 50, and still do (laughs). That thing was so damn powerful it was hard to open up for a sweet tonal range and not cut anybody’s wig off (laughs). It’s more a big-stage amplifier and I was playing a lot of clubs. Now, when I go out on a big stage, I mic my Deluxe and make sure they put it in the monitors.

What about guitars?
I’ve been playing a Flying V with Burstbucker pickups and block inlays like a Les Paul Custom. I also have a ’67 V with Gibson ’57 pickups, and a USA Flying V with Devil Wound pickups and a coil tap. My red Les Paul Deluxe has mini-humbuckers, and my black Custom has three pickups. My main guitar for the album was my Les Paul Deluxe and Joe’s vintage Flying V. For the album, I played through Joe’s Dumble amps.

How do you process seeing so many guitarists pass you by?
It’s easy to look for excuses and blame somebody else, but I accept all responsibility. Was it painful? Of course it was. For a long time, I felt like I was never going to get an opportunity. I’ve seen artist after artist who used to open shows for me go on to successful careers. Those things were hard to accept. I worked harder than most, but there’s only so much you can do. It’s got me scratching my head, saying, “Why now?” I’ve been doing the same thing for 40 years. I don’t understand it, but I’m not going to question it. I’m trying my best to roll with it. I’m puzzled, but in a good way.

This article originally appeared in VG’s June 2022 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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