LARRY McCRAY: Ambassador of the Blues

With a New CD that Expands the Boundaries of the Blues Beyond Genre and a December 27th Concert to Benefit Major Chords for Minors, Saginaw's Premier Showman Shines in the International Spotlight at the Peak of His Game

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, National Music, Artist Feature,   From Issue 801   By: Robert E Martin

04th December, 2014     0

The musical powerhouse known as Larry McCray has stood on the frontlines of the contemporary American Blues scene for nearly three decades now.  Possessing an unmistakably biting and simultaneously distinct and cascading tone to his fluid guitar playing and an expressive and full baritone voice, this year alone McCray has performed at over 56 Blues festivals throughout the world and is constantly expanding his formidable reputation to wider international acclaim.

Apart from a relentless touring schedule, McCray has released eight albums of original music, beginning with his major label debut Ambition in 1990; and has just released a new CD entitled The Gibson Sessions, which features McCray performing his own translations of Rock ‘n Roll classics such as Bob Seger’s Night Moves, The Rolling Stone’s Wild Horses, and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Born on the Bayou, which also features guest performances by Dickey Betts, Derek Trucks, David Hidalgo and Jimmy Herring.

The second youngest of nine siblings, Larry grew up living on a farm and learned guitar from his sister, Clara. His family moved to Saginaw in 1972 and McCray says that he took his formative influences from the ‘three Kings’ (BB., Freddie and Albert King). In the late 1980s he made his first public debut jamming at the 1st annual Review Music Awards Ceremony and later formed a hot-rockin’ blues band that featured his brother Carl on bass and brother Steve on drums.  While doing his stint on the General Motors assembly line, McCray recorded his 1991 debut album Ambition for Point Blank Records and was soon touring with the likes of Albert Collins.

Focused and remarkably modest given his success, it is through his relentless touring schedule and focus upon his craft that continues to feed and foster consistently growing acclaim for his talents; and in many ways, the world is decidedly catching up with the musical creative force that flows from McCray’s vision.  Just recently he was rated in the 2014 International Blues Matters Writer’s Poll as the Number #1 Blues Guitarist of 2014, beating out the likes of Eric Johnson, Derek Trucks, Joe Bonamassa, Eric Clapton & Poppa Chubby.

Local fans can prepare themselves for a festive tour-d’force when Larry returns to the Saginaw stage on Saturday, December 27th for the Larry McCray Christmas Party – a special holiday performance that will take place at The Red Room in the Dow Event Center to help assist Saginaw’s Major Chords for Minors.  The show will also feature performances by Frankenmuth’s Greta Van Fleet and Civil Disobedience. Doors open at 6 PM and tickets are only $15.00 and available at The Dow Event Center or Ticketmaster by phoning 800-745-3000.

In looking back over the arc of his nearly 30-year musical career, recently I caught up with McCray to discuss both his thoughts and feelings about both the progression of his music and his direction for the future. Has his attitude towards music changed much since the days when he would regularly fill the local clubs with appreciative fans clamoring for more?

“My attitude and approach to music is still basically the same as when I started performing professionally 30 years ago,” reflects Larry. “I know the same things  now that I did back then. The challenge hasn’t changed either, as the problem with advancing even further is still a matter of convincing the ‘powers-that-be’ of one’s marketability.”

Ironically, even though the Blues is perhaps the only one truly original ‘American’ genre of music indigenous to the United States – the country in which it was born – it still retains a fairly narrow and defined market in terms of audience popularity & support. And given this situation, Larry is fairly philosophical.

“It takes time for anything to evolve and specific timing for an artist to become fashionable,” states Larry. “The last times the Blues was fashionable in terms of mass popularity was when Stevie Ray Vaughn and Robert Cray were at the top of their game.  And then you also had another wave with Jonny Lang and Kenny Shepherd, just as you did with Buddy Guy.  Every time that swing & shift in terms of popular attention happens, the artist at the top of the curve tends to be the one that hits.”

“Right now we’ve got Joe Bonamassa at the top of his game,” continues Larry. “I’ve known Joe since he was a kid and he’s still young – in his early 30s, and definitely has a big future. What I admire about Joe is that he does a lot of independent things and takes charge of his own career. He doesn’t wait for opportunities to be offered to him. Right now he’s developed his own Blues Cruise and has that going, which I think is great.”

Even though Larry may not have hit the pinnacle of popular musical stardom associated with many of his contemporaries, his passion for the music that he creates coupled with a strong sense of personal integrity about the many years he has toured and dues he has paid carving his distinct musical vision has also paid-off by positioning Larry as seasoned statesman for this distinct and unique  American form of music.

It also helps that the Blues genre has permeated the culture more, as genres have blended and cross-pollinated over the decades. “That factor makes it easier,” admits Larry, “but it’s the industry guards that set up boundaries and tell you what you can’t or should not do that still shapes too much of popular music.”

And while the Internet may have done a lot to bypass that stigma, it’s still about whether an artist can stay steadfast to what he  believes and can accept whatever the repercussions may be for non-conformity. “It’s always been about that,” Larry states.  “It’s great to run with the pack if that’s what your intentions and needs are; but if you don’t believe in or support the pack, then you need to stand on your own ground and do what you got to do. That’s always been my own personal philosophy. At least I can say after all these years that people are still listening,” laughs Larry.

When I point this out the recent honors he received from the UK Writer’s poll, McCray says he was coming back from a tour in South America with a stop-over in Atlanta when his manager Paul Koch phoned with the news.  “Back in 2000 I won a thing called the Orville Award that was a poll conducted by magazines throughout the world, but you have keep all that in proper perspective.”

Having also just returned from tours in Poland, the UK, and his first performance ever in Macedonia, McCray’s reach is expanding constantly and his experience and creative output have indeed converged to poise him to be in a unique position as an elder statesman of the Blues, especially with the loss this year of such legendary bluesmen as Johnny Winter and the recent collapse of B.B. King, who is now 90 years old, during a performance in New York. 

Undeniably, Larry has established a sound for himself that is distinct and truly his own.

“The hardest thing to realize when you hit middle-age (McCray is now 54) is that you don’t see yourself as the young upstart on the young punk, but start to see an end of the road,” he reflects.  “I have more young people telling me how I influenced what they do – and some of these young players are pretty damn good – so you feel good about things like that. I still have a lot of fun playing and want to get more accomplished. It’s just the business of show business that sometimes really weighs on you.”

With his new release The Gibson Sessions, McCray also takes a turn in a new direction by re-working classic chestnuts from the Rock ‘n Roll Songbook such as The Rolling Stones ‘Wild Horses’ and The Doobie Brothers ‘Listen to the Music’ with his own distinct translations and musical interpretations.

When asked about his preference for Gibson guitars as his instrument employed  for shaping his sound, Larry says that Gibson has always been his guitar of choice. “I got to where I could afford to buy any guitar that I wanted and that is what I chose,” he explains. “I like that Gibson sound. I used to play Fender Strats and Ibanez guitars before that. Hell, I once traded a Fender Tele for an Ibanez because I didn’t know any better; but I was looking for a sound and when I saw Gary Moore in 1990, he was playing a Gibson; and that was the first time I was ever on a big stage. When I saw him and the gear he was using, I knew I wanted that Humbucker sound. I picked up a Flying V in 1990 that I still have and I haven’t looked back since. I probably own 30 Gibsons now.”

Larry says that the idea for laying down this latest collection of cover songs for his newest release actually sprang from his Manager, who viewed it as a way to break Larry’s solid reputation as a Blues artist into other more popular Rock and AOR markets with translations of familiar songs appealing to wider radio audiences and hence more airplay through the rendering of familiar songs & material.

“Initially I didn’t want to tackle this project because I didn’t envision myself doing all these different peoples’ music,” confesses McCray. “I knew the songs would have to be altered to such a degree to fit me and wasn’t sure it would be acceptable to the public – kind of like, ‘Who the hell does he think he is?  But you do your best to make the song your own and hope you don’t get bashed for it. That’s always the case. You put it out there and its up to the people to accept it, not up to you as an individual, no matter what you think of your music, work, or project – if people say it’s crap, then it’s crap. It’s always up to the people.”

“With that being said, it’s always a touchy subject for me to do other peoples’ music,” he continues. “A lot of these songs I tackled had high range voices and I’m a baritone, so it was very different. I had to seek hard within myself to even have a vision of myself doing a lot of this music. But after that being said, I did find a way to take a perspective on each of the songs, only then had to look forward into how I would rhythmically alter the tracks to suit me and not make them unrecognizable.”

“A lot of it does work well. When you’re listening to music and if you start playing air guitar, certain things about songs hit you in different ways and you start thinking about something you might add to make it cool – so you can add nuances in here and there that doesn’t change the total outcome of the song, but are little ways that make the song your own.  In that sense this was a fun project.”

Larry has developed relationships with each of the guest artists featured on his new release, especially Dickey Betts. “Individually I already had a social rapport with all of them and toured with Dickey three times,” relates Larry. “He came to Frankenmuth a few years back and played a festival there and after that I met up with him on tour. I also met the Allman Brothers back in 1992 when Albert Collins was still alive and I was touring with him and the Kinsey Report on the Point Blank Tour. I’d never been to an Allman Brothers Concert, but after that I saw them perform probably 50 times or more.”

Does the constant pace of the road ever get on Larry’s nerves?  This year alone he has performed at over 56 festivals worldwide.  “Sometimes it does. I’m doing well right now, but it’s always hard to start back when you take a break from the road. You do learn how to handle it and there are certain things you do to make it easier, such as take it easy on yourself. If you take every opportunity to rest whenever you can and basically don’t overdo yourself, it’s all manageable. Another important thing is to not change your schedule. If you arrive during the daylight hours it’s important to tool around and take care of errands and sleep at night; and if you get home at a decent hour, then go to bed and stay within your schedule wherever you are.”

Although his latest release is self-produced and Larry is still determined to re-work some of the mixes, when asked if there are any producers he would like to work with in the future, he notes how he would like to work with Quincy Jones, who handled Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ album.

“When I listen to mixes like that I don’t understand why people who work sound and do it every day have such different mixes. Why doesn’t everybody have the same clarity? All it needs is to be balanced and it can be frustrating. You can play a good session and if you don’t record it right, the work is gone.  The same is true with performing live. You play well live and if you don’t have the right sound reinforcement, things don’t sound the way they are supposed to. And if things don’t sound right, you kill the performance. That’s the most important thing involved with a concert. The music is first and nothing should be more important than the sound.”

After all this time Larry has decidedly developed his own signature sound. Whenever Larry plays a solo, you can tell where the notes are emanating from. In his own mind, what does Larry feel distinguishes his own particular sound?

“I think it’s my vibrato and the tone that I use,” he reflects. “It’s half way between classic Blues but has a little sting of rock guitar. My vision early on was to make the Blues something that was strong and crispy and that can stand up in today’s market. A lot of people always viewed the Blues as being either weak or nostalgic sounding, but whatever their interpretations of it are, the point is to feel something when playing it. The passion of the music is more important than any particular brand or style that you use – it’s how you showcase the passion inside your playing.”

“In terms of vocals, gospel music was very important to me,” continues McCray. “Vocals inspire my guitar. Everyone’s voice is limited to some degree, but what you can’t reach with your voice the instrument then becomes an extension of your expression; so I try to vocalize my instrumentation and make my instrument sound vocal. That I believe is another distinguishing factor to my music and my sound.”

In terms of feeling a responsibility to carry the music forward as some of the legends and greats of the Blues scene are dying off or retiring, McCray says that he’s been out there long enough to the point where, whether he likes it or not, he has become an elder statesman of sorts.

“I think the music is in a good spot and for me personally, I’m at the height of my game. Right now is the best its ever gonna be for me, so I’m trying to make hay while the sun is shining.  Whether or not its time for my ship to rise higher the cards need to unfold and I need to stay focused on my mission and be ready to seize the moment.”

“Right now I’m almost at the age where Buddy Guy was when his career started to rise, and it takes a lot longer to develop a Blues career because it’s a much smaller and somewhat underground audience, yet it’s the only true American music and the only one born in this country.  In Europe they’re hungry for American artists because they want the authenticity, and I love traveling and love visiting Japan and anywhere in South America – Chile, Argentina, Brazil – you name it.  I went to Macio in Brazil, which is one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Every day stages are set up with music on 10 miles of beachfront.”

While Larry’s brother Steve is still playing drums with him, brother Carl has also started performing once again. “My immediate goal is to keep touring. I’ve had some real good luck in Scandinavia and the UK and went to Macedonia last year for the first time; and as I said earlier, things are looking really good in Brazil and Argentina. I’m thinking about maybe living somewhere for an extended period and go down there for six months out of the year. It’s good to be missed in your familiar markets. I play Chicago to the East Coast all the time, but when you have different options and don’t have to make the same touring hub all the time, it strengthens your position in the market.”

Another pivotal goal of McCray’s is to start giving back more to the local community, which is why he is doing this upcoming show for Major Keys for Minors.

The purpose of Major Chords for Minors is to provide opportunity for youth to explore and cultivate their musical talent through private music instruction, as well as create employment opportunity within the city of Saginaw.  As music programs have been cut from standard public school curriculum, their importance within the community becomes even more important, which is why McCray is getting behind this concert.

“I’ve always aspired to have a school and teach and am planning on involving myself more with that, so I can involve myself more with kids and the educational side of music,” he concludes.

“As an experienced road musician I think I have a lot to offer in terms of improvisational techniques and giving back to kids in that way. It’s not always about giving money, but giving what you have to give. If you have money, fine; but whatever you have to give, whether its knowledge, experience, or time – then its important to give that.”

“I feel that I have information and knowledge about both music and the business of music that I would like to pass on to somebody else.”

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