Timeless Blues By
Time Will Tell
Robert Cray has
blues in his blood, but he refuses to allow the genre limitations to restrict
his craft. As his latest album Time Will Tell (Cray's first on Sanctuary
records) attests, Cray has infused the blues with soul, R & B, rock, jazz
and Eastern sounds. The legendary guitar player is often credited with single-handedly
revitalizing the blues for a new generation of listeners in the 1980s, and he
is continuing to refine and expand his musical talents.
In a recent interview from his California home, Cray recalled some of his musical influences. "In the early days," he said, "I listened to a lot of different music. My parents had a great record collection." Among the albums in heavy rotation were titles by Sarah Vaughan, Sonny Stitt, and Ray Charles. Cray's mother particularly liked such male singers as Bobby Bland and Sam Cooke. It was the Fab Four, however, that really sparked Cray's musical imagination. "I switched over to guitar from piano because of The Beatles," he said. That band's influence can still be heard in recent Cray tunes. The late '60s introduced Cray to the blues: B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush. Imitating those music giants, Cray learned to play guitar like he was ringing a bell. The blues eventually led him back to the old albums he had heard on his parents' record player. With friends, Cray said, he then "played everything I could from Hendrix to everything else under the sun."
What sets Cray apart from the Stevie Ray Vaughans and the Eric Claptons is his willingness to explore new sounds, and his open embrace of various pop styles. While still classified under the blanket term "The Blues," Cray's music can variably be termed fusion, soul, R & B or even gospel. Cray and his band thrive on their eclectic and somewhat ambiguous sound. "For us it's always been that people put us in the blues bag," said Cray. "We're more all over the place. I like that. We listen to a lot of things." If any generic label helps Cray gain a wider audience, then he's cool with that. Moreover, he said, if such a definition gets listeners to seek out older blues artists then it's even better.
During his twenty-year career, Cray has been aided not only by some stellar guest stars, but also by band mates that are some of the best musicians in the biz. His current group is made up of Karl Sevareid on bass, drummer Kevin Hayes, and, as with Cray's past few albums, keyboardist/composer Jim Pugh. Pugh has been a collaborator and close friend of Cray's for over ten years, and their work together has spawned some of Cray's best tracks (including several on Time Will Tell). Pugh and Cray also worked together as co-producers on the album.
Time Will Tell indeed tells us that Cray's not even close to finishing his long career, and that there are still new musical styles for him to incorporate. Take the track "Up in the Sky." A traditional rock rhythm section, as well as Pugh's indispensable keyboards, back Cray's lead sitar ("It's actually a modified guitar that's meant to sound like a sitar," noted Cray), adding a Beatles-esque beauty to the mix. Although it was Cray's talent behind the instrument, he was quick to reveal, "The idea came from Jim Pugh." The layered sound of "Up in the Sky" is further augmented by the strains of the Turtle Island String Quartet. Likewise, on "Your Pal," a horn section made up of Jerry Martin and Cynthia Robinson (both Sly and the Family Stone veterans) adds a funky feel to the blues-pop gumbo on hand. Veteran percussionist Luis Conte also contributes a little extra Latin flavor to nearly half the songs on the disc. Such stylistic leaps of faith should help expose Cray to a wider, more mainstream audience. However, he maintains enough of a rootsy edge to keep blues fans satisfied. The album's sparse closing track, the heart-breaking ballad "Time For Two" features some fine Hendrix-inspired guitar licks.
Time Will Tell also marks a change in Cray's lyrical content. While there are still a number of musings on heartbreak and other personal matters, the album has its fair share of overtly political tracks. "Survivor" deals with personal perseverance, while also questioning the U.S.'s motives for the recent war in Iraq. The Cray-penned song ends with the ominous sound of marching soldiers. It's a bold way to open a new album, especially for Cray, the son of a military man. Similarly, the organ-driven Pugh composition "Distant Shore" deals with issues of the cyclical nature of war, and the mutual devastation it causes.
Is Cray worried about a Dixie Chicks-style backlash for such a blatantly political stance? After all, an artist changing his style is one thing; a celebrity announcing his views on a controversial topic can be a virtual powder keg. In fact, he actually wrote "Survivor" before the Dixie Chicks fallout, and that he felt strongly about his words. Furthermore, he added, the song began as a more personal statement than a condemnation of war. "I sat down to write 'Survivor' just talking about the idea of being glad to be here today. Alive after party days," Cray recalled. The song's anti-war sentiment ("You take a little schoolboy and teach him who to hate/then you send him to the desert for the oil near Kuwait") only appears near the end of the tune. "The last verse just led intoIraq, weapons of mass destruction," said Cray. "That verse just came out." The marching sounds were added almost as an afterthought: While listening to the playback, Cray said he thought that adding the sound effect would act as a "defiant statement."
"Distant Shore" is another matter. Cray remembered, "Unbeknownst to me, Jim was working on 'Distant Shore'." The fact that it was another song dealing with the war in Iraq (this time more overtly) was just a coincidence. The song is as catchy an anti-war song gets, complete with a Who-like synthesizer opening and a full-on psychedelic organ freak-out.
Not all of Time Will Tell is as dark and foreboding as "Distant Shore." Two songs by drummer Kevin Hayes and his sister Bonnie ("Back Door Slam" and "What You Need") feature some witty words about the game of love. "Kevin brings in songs every so often," said Cray, "and having us all contribute stuff gave (the album) a great flavor."Citing the fact that there are now more clubs, labels, fests, and publications geared towards a blues-loving audience, Cray is confident about where the genre stands today. "The state of blues is cool, in a lot of ways it's better than it's always been," opined Cray. The artist lamented only the lack of blues-oriented radio stations.
After working with such diverse legends as Albert Collins, Johnny Copeland, Clapton, Boz Scaggs and the Memphis Horns, it's exciting to imagine with whom Cray will play next. Collaborations are never planned, said Cray, "things like that just kind of happen." Soon, Cray will appear on a song Keb Mo wrote with Robben Ford (both of who Cray lovingly refers to as "monsters" of music). One thing's for sure: He doesn't plan on taking a break anytime soon. After an extensive cross-country tour with John Hiatt (they play L.A.'s Greek Theatre on September 28), The Robert Cray Band will then take on Europe in the fall, and possibly Australia next February.
Time has told that Robert Cray is on the cutting edge of music, whether he's pegged as a blues man, a musical innovator or simply a brilliant guitar player. Cray sums up his feeling on the new album with "Personally, I feel it's one of the best things we've done. And I hope our fans agree when they hear the record." Cray needn't worry: Time Will Tell is but the latest feather in his cap.
Time Will Tell