By Steve Wildsmith (firstname.lastname@example.org)
He’s cool, calm and collected, but even master guitarist Robert Cray has his moments of fanboy glee.
Take, for instance, the 2010 Crossroads Guitar Festival, a benefit concert to assist the Crossroads Centre drug treatment program. Cray was there, along with a number of other blues and rock titans. Being a part of it, he told The Daily Times this week, was surreal.
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“I’m recalling that last jam at Crossroads, where it was B.B. King sitting down, and Eric Clapton next to him, and I’m standing next to Eric, and next to me, sitting down, is Jimmie Vaughan — and my band is the backup,” Cray said. “Then, after that, all the other guitar players joined us on stage, so 20 more of them. People have sent me photos of the scene backstage after it was over, and it was unreal.
“Those are pretty cool experiences, and I’ve had the opportunity to have done a lot of those situations. You just try as hard as you can, because if you get caught up in it and lose your focus, you might not get invited back! It’s a funny thing, because you can get lost in it. Even I get starstruck. Walking by and meeting Jeff Beck? Your jaw just drops to the floor. But you’ve got to try and hold it together no matter what.”
A native of Georgia, Cray started playing guitar in his early teens, and by the time he was 20, he had decided to pursue a life of music. In 1974, he decided to form a musical unit with his friend Richard Cousins; although they parted ways in 1991 and reunited before the recording of 2009’s “This Time.”
It didn’t take Cousins long, however, to get back that old magic — after all, as much of a guitar monster as Cray was when they first started playing together, Cousins had to be able to hold his own in order to get recruited into the backing band of blues legend Albert Collins. The two young men played with Collins for a few years before striking out on their own, launching the Robert Cray Band in 1980.
Mercury Records signed the band a couple of years later, and in 1986, Cray’s breakthrough album was released — “Strong Persuader,” which featured the hit “Smoking Gun.” It reached No. 13 on the Billboard 200 chart, the first blues album to do so since 1972, and went on to sell more than a million copies.
He’s gone on to release more than a dozen records since and has a new one on the horizon — “Nothin’ But Love,” due Aug. 28. It’s a smooth shot of blues with the traditional R&B and rock flourishes that Cray traffics in so deftly, and Cray’s voice, rich as drizzled icing over devil’s food cake, is as strong as it’s ever been. For the songs, he said, he had a bumper crop from which to choose.
“We do have the luxury of having a lot of songwriters in the organization,” he said. “Everybody was trying to bring in the best they had for the record, and being in the studio this last go-around and working with Kevin Shirley, who has a reputation for being a big rock producer, was a great experience. After the first song, we were sitting there watching the man work, and he had some great ideas as to the arrangements, some stuff that old guys like us thought we had under control. It was a whole new world for us.”
It’s too soon to tell whether the new record will bring further accolades. Without a doubt, it’ll earn critical raves, not that Cray aspires to either one — not the positive press, and certainly not the hardware, although he’s not doing shabby so far, with five Grammy wins and a 2011 induction into the Blues Hall of Fame.
“The Blues Hall of Fame was an honor; I kind of questioned my being inducted when I think about how young I am, comparatively,” he said. “It feels kind of funny but great at the same time that they deem myself and the band worthy of the award.”
Not that he aims to line a mantle or trophy shelf with awards given for his music. Those things could be distractions, but Cray’s too cool to let them get in the way of what he does.
“I’m not working for the awards and those kinds of things,” he said. “I’m having fun. That’s what it’s all about. It’s an opportunity to play in different venues all around the world and play what I want to play. Going back to ‘Strong Persuader,’ that got us out there in front of a lot more people, and for a band that just wanted to get more gigs at clubs, that’s pretty good.”