On the phone, Robert Cray comes across as a thoughtful man. Each question posed during the interview with the musician was met, at first, with silence: Not the kind of silence one offers when they are stumped, and not the kind of silence that illustrates disinterest, but the kind that comes before a well articulated answer.
He is thought of as a blues musician, but purists and critics are quick to point out that he often veers from their tracks. He agrees.
“What makes our sound is the fact that we’ve listened to a lot of different kinds of music,” said Cray. “That is the basis of our sound. It’s not locked into blues. It’s not locked into R&B. It’s not locked into rock and it’s not locked into gospel. But it’s all of those things.”
Like Bobby “Blue” Bland, B.B. King and Eric Clapton before him – he cites them all as influences – Cray prefers to incorporate more modern sounds than the old train rhythms or 12-bar blues will allow.
You are just as likely to find Memphis soul, complicated political messages, or even Caribbean rhythms on one of his records as you are likely to find a blues classic. (And Cray’s version of “Cry for Me Baby” stands strong next to versions done by Junior Wells or Elmore James.)
That is because Cray is a triple threat. He is able to write songs, play guitar and sing with equal verve.
“Primarily, I think I am a guitar player,” said Cray. “But I (also) like to write songs and sing… I think that performing the songs that we’ve written is the most fun.”
His love of music comes from his upbringing. His parents were music lovers and their stereo was always on. Cray “absorbed” the sounds around him: Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson stick out in his mind but pop and Motown also filled his ears as a kid growing up in the sixties.
“The blues music was at home,” said Cray. “But I don’t think I was able to get into it until my latter days in high school.”
When it did hit him, Cray said it was the emotion of the players that stood out.
“I got into the fact that people were really emoting when they were singing - people like Elmore James and Muddy Waters. You could hear the lonesomeness in their voices,” Cray said.
Emoting loneliness is also one of Cray’s skills. Mood is an element of music that keeps him inspired to this day. One gets this sense listening to the names of his favorite artists as he scans the bedroom shelves in his Los Angeles home… Thelonious Monk, Toots and the Maytals, Ray Charles, Elmore James, Dinah Washington, Clifford Brown, Don Covey and Ike and Tina.
“It’s not so much particular songs,” Cray said. “It’s the vibe from the people who are making the music.”
When he is listening to records, Cray says his main interest is in figuring out “where in the hell the guy got the emotion from.” That question seems heavier when it’s put in the context of his 25-year -plus career.
Keeping things fresh is, admittedly, a struggle. To that end, Cray and his band don’t use a set list of songs. They prefer to wing it in front of audiences. Cray also said that he tries to keep himself in the moment by not over practicing.
“I try to stay away from playing the same solos all of the time, and try different ways of singing songs,” he said. “Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.”