Blues Route: Larry McCray
photo credit: Arnie Goodman
“I think there’s something to be said about people who were raised in the rural South and came through the same period I did. We’re the last generation who really had a dose of the old-school blues,” observes Larry McCray. The 62-year-old guitarist and singer, who was born in rural Arkansas, recalls, “Music is something we did for family entertainment because there was nothing else to do there besides work, farm and go into the woods to shoot guns.”
In 1972, at age 12, McCray relocated to Saginaw, Mich., and moved in with his sister, following the well-trodden path of Southern Blacks embarking on the Great Migration. McCray notes, “B.B. King, Albert King, Freddie King, Luther Allison— that style of music emerged from the post-war blues, which was born from the Delta. I feel blessed that I was able to get a firsthand dose of that. Modern blues is a whole different thing. It’s often nothing but rock-androll guitar with a blues lyric, but for somebody to really understand the blues—and to know the difference—they need to have had a firsthand experience and a deeper connection than what we have available today.”
McCray drew on those origins as he honed his electricguitar chops as a teenager and, by the time he was 17, he was making the rounds on the local blues circuit with his brothers Carl and Steve on bass and drums.
“We did that until I was almost 30, at which point we came to a separation because we all had different musical tastes. I loved R&B and soul, but I could be more expressive with blues music, while my brothers wanted to play more funk and soul.”
McCray’s debut solo album Ambition was released in 1990, the initial offering from Virgin’s blues label, Point Blank Records. It was well-received by aficionados of the genre but McCray could never quite cross over and reach a more mainstream audience.
He acknowledges his frustration at that time, but also explains, “I used to dream of meeting B.B. King and Albert King and Albert Collins. They were all my heroes. I eventually had a good personal rapport with all three of them and I could see how they struggled in their careers at times and how tough it was for them to make money. So I came to think, ‘Well, if the greatest ones of this genre have to suffer, who am I to think that things might be better for me?’ And it really made me realize that music had nothing to do with the music business.”
McCray released eight additional records between 1993 and 2015, wining him the support of his peers and a passionate core fanbase, even if he slightly recalibrated his sound at times to chase the broader recognition that he felt had eluded him.
“Luther Allison and Albert King told me to stay steadfast because I would try to catch the tail end of the new curve that was popular at the time,” McCray reveals. “When Robert Cray came out, he had his own style, which I called cowboy blues because he would take the chords that most people use for country and he would turn them into something bluesy. But if you’re chasing what made that other person find success, you’re always going to be a day late and a dollar short.”
The mid-2010s was a particularly difficult period for McCray, who discovered that he had advanced-stage prostate cancer—it took him a few years of treatment before he received a clean bill of health. During this stretch, he also experienced marital troubles, which resulted in a divorce.
Still, he had his friends and boosters, a list that included Joe Walsh, George Thorogood, Jorma Kaukonen and Warren Haynes. (McCray recorded a number of Haynes originals on his early albums, including the first studio version of “Soulshine.”)
Ultimately, Joe Bonamassa helped revitalize McCray’s career. One of McCray’s fans told him that Bonamassa had been playing his music on SiriusXM. McCray reached out through a fellow musician, which, ultimately, led Bonamassa to produce McCray’s new record, Blues Without You and issue it on his Keeping the Blues Alive Records label.
The album presents 11 of McCray’s originals and spotlights his stirring vocals and fiery guitar work. It opens with a nod to McCray’s roots via the song “Arkansas” and also features guest turns by Bonamassa, Haynes, Joanna Connor and Reese Wynans.
Bonamassa has said, “Larry McCray is a legend. We have known that for 30 years. He is the last of the great blues shouters from the rust belt. In the spirit of B.B. King, Luther Allison and Little Milton, Larry is among the greats. It’s now up to the world to rediscover him. He has been here all along.”
This fall, McCray will continue to perform shows in support of the record, leading up to a run of dates on the Allman Family Revival tour in November and December. He is looking forward to reconnecting with Devon Allman, whose father holds a special place in his heart. “Being a Black artist, I was originally very leery about meeting Gregg Allman because the Allman Brothers looked like rebels and roughnecks,” McCray remembers. “Then, I realized I was judging them based on what they looked like, which is something people had been doing to do me all my life. It turned out that Gregg was the sweetest guy in the world. A lot of times, I would just show up to say hi and he would invite me to come up onstage. Devon is another sweet guy— I’ve done a number of dates with him since the release of the record—and this will bring me a lot of joy because it’s full circle.”
McCray brings things full circle in another context while discussing his origins and aptitude. “I’ve always seen myself as a guitarist, not as a virtuoso. I see myself as an accomplished blues musician,” he offers. “However, I think I express myself differently from a lot of other people when I’m playing the blues guitar because of my exposure as a young person. People ask, ‘Can anybody play the blues?’ Yes. Anybody can play the blues, but not everybody can take it all the way back to where it needs to be taken.”