BLUES WITH A BULLET
... and Robert Cray holds the smoking gun
BY MIKAL GILMORE
PHOTOGRAPHS BY BRIAN SMALE
Robert Cray sits at a dinette table aboard his tour bus, sipping from a bottle of beer and studying the storm that is hurling rain and lightning across the night sky of Memphis. The young blues singer-guitarist and the other four members of the Robert Cray Band are on the road promoting their hit album Strong
Persuader, and in half an hour or so, they are slated to take the stage at the Mid South Coliseum, where they are opening for Huey Lewis and the News. For the moment, though, Cray seems content just to roost in this dimly lighted compartment, watching the Southern monsoon blow across the parking lot and talking about some of the many blues artists - such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James, John Lee Hooker, Otis Rush, B.B. King and Bobby "Blue” Bland — who have influenced his style over the years.
The Robert Cray Band (from left): Richard Cousins, Cray, David Olson and Peter Boe
After a bit, the talk turns to Robert Johnson - the legendary Delta musician who recorded a handful of haunting blues songs in the mid-1950s before he was murdered by a jealous husband at the age of twenty-seven. Cray grows excited and, in a rare impetuous moment, leans forward as he begins to rap out an odd cross-beat on the tabletop, then launches into Johnson s "Kindhearted Woman Blues” "I love my baby” he sings, "my baby don’t love me/I love my baby, ooh, my baby don’t love me/l really love that woman, can’t stand to leave her be.” In the darkness, the wind howling against the window, the voice sounds uncannily like Johnson s: high, ghostly, full of unfathomable despair.
Cray breaks off, then laughs shyly at his own impulsiveness and falls silent. Lightning flashes outside, illuminating the cabin and the singer’s thoughtful, handsome features. "You know,” he says after a moment, "I hear a lot about people calling me die next big hope for blues music. That’s a heavy burden for anybody to try to bear. All I ever wanted was to sit in a bus, cruising down the road, I had no idea this record was going to go the way it has. No idea at all. I would have been happy if it was Number 101 on the charts. Now I’ve got to be thinking about this stuff every day.”
Actually things are even a little more overpowering than Cray lets on. It all began late last year, when the video for Cray’s then-current single, "Smoking Gun” a song about sexual jealousy that erupts into murder -began winning an. audience on (of all places) MTV; in February the single itself crossed over to radio and entered the pop charts, where it resided in the Top 40 for several months. Meanwhile, the band’s fourth album. Strong Persuader, climbed to Number 13 in Billboard magazine’s Top 200 — making it the highest-charting blues LP since Bobby "Blue” Bland’s Call on Me/ That’s the Way Love Is hit Number II in 1963. (The rise of Strong Persuader also kicked two of Cray’s earlier albums, Bad Influence and False Accusations, into the lower half of die Top 200.)
In addition, Cray has recently become something of a cause celebre among other pop artists. Keith Richards recruited him as a guitarist for Chuck Berry’s backup band for the filming of Taylor Hackford’s forthcoming documentary on Berry. Tina Turner engaged him for her recent HBO special (Cray’s solo on the Sam Cooke classic "A Change Is Gonna Come” provided the show with its most affecting moment) and for her European tour this summer. Eric Clapton enlisted him as die opening act for Clapton’s April tour, which closed in New York at Madison Square Garden. And Clapton, Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe have all cited Cray as one of their favorite songwriters, and as proof Clapton covered Cray’s song "Bad Influence.”
In short, Robert Cray - a smart, unassuming bandleader from the Pacific Northwest — is fast emerging as just the sort of artist that many of us thought we would never see again: a bona fide hero of the blues whose appeal is strong enough to attract pop listeners. In feet, before the season is out, chances are Cray will stand as one of die most successful blues entertainers in pop history.
For anybody who esteems the blues, this is, of course, a heartening development. Yet it also raises a couple of questions — namely, why and why now, in an era when the blues form has been so transmogrified in both black and white pop that one rarely hears an undisguised blue note anymore? Actually, say some critics, the blues have little to do with Cray’s rise. Instead, they argue, his success can be attributed to something as simple as his sweet-yet-steely good looks (he has been mentioned as the lead in a proposed film biography of Robert Johnson) or to his good fortune in hitting die marketplace at a time when the pop audience is turning to nostalgia and roots revivalism.
Well, maybe. But there’s also something rather extraordinary that goes on in Cray’s music. In contrast with many bluesmen — who put their meaning and emotion primarily in the force of their musical expression - Cray plays down such classic blues traits as roaring guitars and exclamatory vocals and, through a tightly controlled, soulful style, gives equal weight to the narrative content of his songs, turning up painful revelations about modem heartbreak with a rare colloquial intelligence. At its best, Cray’s music is good enough to outdistance its influences — in the case of Strong Persuader, in fact, good enough to make the blues seem like they’re his, and his alone, to define for these uneasy rimes.
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