Back in the early 1980s, blues music was languishing behind the dance-pop, hip-hop and hard rock taking the MTV world by storm. But handsome, honey-voiced guitar slinger Robert Cray made one of the first forays into that celebrity stratosphere with his 1985 hit “Smokin’ Gun.”

Close to 30 years later, Cray is still one of the most visible ambassadors for traditional blues, even as he incorporates soul, R&B, jazz and even Latin influences into his well-oiled live show. And you can’t deny the man’s laundry list of accomplishments: five Grammy awards, a spot in the Blues Hall of Fame, multiple tours with guitar demi-god Eric Clapton, recording sessions with pioneers like John Lee Hooker, and even an uncredited appearance in cult film National Lampoon’s Animal House.

Drift caught up with Cray to talk about The Beatles, political inspiration and his love of live performance.

Drift: You just played the Grammy Foundation’s 14th Annual Music Preservation Project Celebration of the Live Music Experience the other night, correct? How was that experience, performing with legends like Mavis Staples, Trombone Shorty, and Jonny Lang?

Robert Cray: It was pretty cool — a lot of great names onstage, a great house band, and for a great cause.

Drift: Going back a bit farther, how did you first get turned on to the blues?

RC: I started playing guitar in the mid ‘60s because of The Beatles. When they hit, everybody got a guitar, and I followed suit. So I played and listened to everything that was on the radio until my high school days, when I had a couple of other guitar-playing friends that were listening to people like Buddy Guy and Magic Sam. So I jumped into that crowd, and then we went into intense research mode, buying books and records and having all these dreams about being blues guys [laughs]. It was a great fantasy, because we were about 16, still in high school. And then for some strange reason, our senior class voted to have Albert Collins play our graduation party. That pretty much cemented the whole thing.

Drift: How important was it to you to meet men like Collins, along with other legends like John Lee Hooker, who you recorded and toured with later on?

RC: It was important to me because it was like that fantasy coming true after worshipping these guys as teenagers. We picked up on their character — John Lee Hooker stuttered, but he was just the sweetest guy in the world, you know? All these people that we were idolizing were just amazing guys. It was a fantastic experience.

Drift: You toured with Collins and recorded with Hooker before finding success with your own band. Is that a common blueprint for blues success, serving as a sideman for many years before breaking out on your own?

RC: You do have to put down your roots, and it’s important to do your homework. You learn from the elders; that’s all a part of the preservation.

Drift: Once you did start to make a name for yourself as a bandleader in the early ‘80s, did you have to adjust your focus away from just straight blues to appeal to a broader audience?

RC: Well, you know, we’re not particularly a straight-ahead blues band, and other influences are just natural to us. I started playing in the ‘60s and my ears were open to a lot of different styles of music. I’m a blues fanatic, but I’m also big into soul and jazz and all the other things that come with it. So we just take things on a song-to-song basis.

Drift: As far as songwriting inspiration goes, has it changed a lot in the last 35-plus years that you’ve been writing your own material?

RC: The inspiration comes from all different sources. Some old personal things, some things I see go on with friends, some of it is political, some is made up… In that sense, nothing’s changed — it’s just about finding different stories with each new album.

Drift: How political do you get, especially in these ultra-polarized times that we live in?

RC: It gives me a lot of inspiration, the way everything is politically charged like you said. We’ll probably see some more of that on our next recording, which we’re going to do next month. Then we’ll look at a September release.

Drift: You’ve earned a lot of credit over the years not just for being a great guitar player but also a great singer. Is that a skill that came naturally to you when you were younger, or have you had to work on it over the years?

RC: I’m still working on it [laughs]. It’s an ongoing process, which is the way it should be. When I first started, I wasn’t a lead singer, and I kind of got elected after a while. I was in a couple of bands where we had the lead singers leave, so I was forced into those situations. I enjoy it now, but in those earlier days I was too shy to be a front person.

Drift: Did your experience with legendary characters like John Lee Hooker and Albert Collins give you a little taste of the charisma needed to lead a band?

RC: Well, those are two giant personalities: Albert Collins taking the floor, walking into the crowd, and John Lee Hooker owning it. That’s not really my kind of personality, although I enjoyed watching them do what they did. I think what’s most important is they would give you the respect, and they would encourage you to be a leader. That was very important to us.

Drift: A lot of blues artists say they prefer going out on the road and performing live to recording in the studio. What’s your take?

RC: I definitely prefer live. The studio is great, but you do your recording and it’s done; you leave it there. Then after that you go out on the road the songs change, which is what should happen. What’s exciting about the road is where those songs go when you’re out playing them differently every night. When we do record, we do very few takes, trying to keep that somewhat live feel. The studio is fun, but it’s a cage — you gotta get out and play live.

Drift: What’s your take on the future of the blues? Last month I interviewed your good friend Keb’ Mo’ about his new record label that’s recruiting African-American talent to keep the art form alive.

RC: He probably talked about Gary Clarke Jr., didn’t he? Kevin’s the one who turned me on to him; we were out together touring and he showed he a YouTube video of this young guy owning the blues. And on top of that, making the music fresh with his generation is always what changes. Back in the ‘80s, when we first came on the scene, we were adding some different flavor to the blues to keeping it going; it was a natural thing back then, and it’s a natural thing for Gary, too. It’s great to see.


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