Today’s music is often a slap in the face to real musicians. And Larry McCray is a real musician. The blues guitarist has pledged to take on, single-handedly if need be, the burden and the spirit of continuing musical culture.
It’s easy to believe that McCray is a cat that could do it too.
If it came down to brawn, McCray has, at 5-foot-11 and 260 pounds, the stature to pull off this Atlas-like effort. But McCray is all about the soul. In a song called “Soul-Shine” McCray explains his mission: “Soul shine, it’s better than sunshine, it’s better than moonshine, and it’s damn sure better than rain.”
McCray lives in Davison, 90 minutes north of Detroit. Arriving home in his newly repaired van, McCray appears satisfied that he will make it to a gig in Chicago, where he is hugely popular. McCray and his band (members include bassist Johnny B. Gayden and Larry’s drummer/brother Steve McCray) have been selling out three-night stands at the Kingston Mines, a leading Chicago blues club, on a regular basis. Yet not many in these parts know who he is.
But Larry McCray is respected far and wide. His good friend Warren Haynes gave Larry an open invitation to join him in the Allman Brothers Band any time he chooses. B.B. King personally requested that McCray provide the musical entertainment for the King’s 75th birthday party.
McCray is also huge in Europe’s blues circles. He tells of when his brother demanded that they leave immediately after playing a blues festival in Paris. It was a close call. Upon returning home, the band learned that the factory next to the hotel in which they had been staying had been bombed by French Labor dissidents earlier that day.
McCray, after all, has chosen a career that rises and falls with close calls.
He’s a creator, a songwriter, who stays wonderfully within the traditions of the blues. What would Bukka White sound like if he were born into today’s musical world? Listen to McCray’s “Delta Hurricane.” What would Albert King sound like if he were coming up today? Dig McCray’s “Love Gone Bad.” The singer/songwriter understands that no musician is complete until they are more than a sum of their influences.
Still, McCray adds his own twist. It’s a searing and confident sound that never seems to get lost (aside from the occasional and forgivable run-of-the-mill lyrical phrase). His sound can leave you hanging like Wile E. Coyote from a desert cliff, and still make you want to dance. He rocks, in a bluesy yet tasteful way.
And because everyone in the blues world is a critic, McCray takes his fair share of knocks. But he values his soul shine. What’s inside, he says, can’t be changed for anyone.
“When you have the blues tag on your back, people automatically assume they know what you’re gonna do before you do it,” McCray explains. “It’s a challenge to take the blues and do something new with it.”
A quick glance around McCray’s two-story home reveals his passions. Every room has a guitar. Next to the TV, there’s a guitar. Next to the dinner table, there’s a guitar. Next to the bed, there’s a guitar. Next to the toilet …
The basement’s window shades are decorated with guitars. A portion of his expansive amplifier collection lines the basement’s east wall. Other walls are adorned with guitar-related posters, pictures, postcards and neon signs.
More telling than what is in the basement is what is not in the basement. Aside from the guitar paraphernalia, a pool table, a card table and a few light bulbs dangling from the ceiling, there is, strangely, nothing. No cardboard boxes overflowing with Christmas decorations, no spilling-over laundry baskets, no dryers or washing machines. There’s not even an old couch or TV. Only a space in which Larry and his band set up and rock out. Here, drunken all-night jam sessions often careen into the wee hours.
Larry explains the sparseness. “Um, yeah, you know there’s a lotta room, we can get quite a few people down in here.”
And then there is the man himself. McCray reeks of career musician. Rarely seen in a shirt that’s not guitar-themed, McCray is, as are many artists, a bit disconnected. He rarely can tell you when and where his next gig will be. During conversation, he sometimes rolls his eyes and you can see that his mind has drifted. It’s as if he’s listening to something else entirely, something musical. Something reserved for the stage. And his live shows go great lengths to solidify McCray’s cred.
After his set at the recent Taylor Blues Fest, the shocked crowd was buzzing in that loud yet completely silent way. Mouths agape, they had nothing to say. The show was that good. One plucky guy broke the momentary silence. He shouted, as if speaking for the entire throng, “Fuck, that was the best money I ever spent! Period!”
According to McCray, the band’s “No. 1 draft choice” is bassist Johnny B. Gayden. Gayden is officially atop the blues food chain. He played with Albert Collins, Robert Cray and Johnny Copeland on the Grammy-winning Showdown and has enjoyed long stints with Son Seals and Collins, among others. Nonetheless, Gayden drives four hours from his home on the Michigan/Indiana border to play with McCray.
Of getting Johnny to sign on, McCray beams: “It was great ’cause I remember for a long time every record that came out of Chicago had Johnny B. on the bass, and every club I went to I heard people playin’ Johnny’s shit.”
Like his older brother, Steve was inspired by sister Clara, who was the family’s musical mentor. The brothers fit well together, a testament to the proficiency of this musical clan.
And there is his fan base. As noted earlier, much of it lives elsewhere. McCray says that “most of them are blues aficionados. It’s the people who have a serious appreciation of tradition and a vision for what the blues can become.”
This sometimes difficult-to-get-along-with crowd suits the band just fine. McCray draws a comparison: “If the wrong person got ahold of our music it would be like giving a diamond to a pig. That pig would only roll it around in shit and then push it down in the mud. But if you give that same diamond to a swan …”
The best and most satisfying way to receive that diamond is live. The band’s recordings (1990’s Ambition, 1993’s Delta Hurricane, 1998’s Born to Play it Cool and last year’s Believe It) only hint at the energy it delivers in concert. Plans are in the works to record a live CD, but trouble with schedules have put the project on hold. Now the best chance to catch the band is on Mondays at Rube’s Booze and Blues club in Flint.
In a business sometimes built upon close calls — much like the band’s Paris hotel experience — McCray explains he is “really just looking for that one song that will put us over the top.” On a good night, jam sessions can be great for creativity. Or, maybe, watching the building next door explode.
And make sure to visit www.larrymccray.com.
Larry McCray performs every Monday at Rube’s Booze and Blues Club (1117 N. Chevrolet Ave., Flint). For information call 810-767-9873.Adam Stanfel is an editorial intern for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org