Guitarist Larry McCray has always said a lot with his blend of blues and rock. But in recent years, thanks to a health scare and the wisdom gained from growing older, he's learned that saying a lot and playing a lot don't necessarily mean the same thing.
Though primarily known as a blues player in the mold of the three Kings (Freddie, B.B. and Albert) McCray has always had a bit of a rock n' roller in him. And on his 2015 release, The Gibson Sessions, he got a little help from some of his friends in expressing it.
Derek Trucks, Jimmy Herring, David Hidalgo and Dickey Betts each take a turn playing with McCray on tunes such as "Listen to the Music" by the Doobie Brothers, "Can't You See" by the Marshall Tucker Band, Uriah Heep's "Stealin'" and Gregg Allman's "I'm No Angel."
McCray will perform songs from The Gibson Sessions as well as many of his own tunes from his eight previous, more traditional blues albums on Friday, March 31 at C2G in Fort Wayne.
"I do have my rock side," McCray said in a recent phone interview. "For people from my generation, the blues was always something that took a back seat to other music, and I think it was because it wasn't a modern element to it. It was something that was still rustic or old times gone past, but it's modern as well. That's what I'm always trying to remind people of - that the music didn't get outdated. You progress right along with everything else, right along with time. I'm somewhere in the middle, not trying to be one way or the other, just trying to come up with something fun, something that people can hold onto."
McCray was born in 1960 on a farm in Magnolia, Arkansas. He learned guitar from his older sister Clara. When he was 12, his family moved to Saginaw, Michigan, and at a young age began playing the club circuit with his brothers Steve on drums and Carl on bass (Steve is still in his band). After high school he got a job on the assembly line at General Motors.
The blues kept tugging at his heart, and shortly before he was to become vested he quit the day job and made his night job his main gig.
That often meant playing a show, packing up and then driving 10 hours to the play the next one and the next one. The constant playing got him noticed and got him his chops. He also met and became friends with the likes of Albert King, Albert Collins and Gary Moore. But things change. The great blues icons suddenly weren't around.
"Some people ain't there no more," he said. "People are dying off. That's one of the major changes. The loss of camaraderie. Everything changes with time. As far as what I can see, it's just working harder and harder. The blues is not growing, I don't think, in terms of audience or in terms of media exposure. It just kind of sits there. You always have to work hard to keep it in the forefront and [stay] visible and audible in the business - to be heard and seen. This business is getting tougher and tougher. It ain't easy."
Even more difficult for McCray than dealing with the changes in the business and the loss of friends was learning a few years ago that he had prostate cancer. Stage four prostate cancer.
"I didn't even know I was sick," he said. And though he's in remission now, the ordeal of cancer has changed the way McCray sees not only life but music.
"That's the only thing that throws me a little bit," he said. "I've been out there a long time, and I've been trying for a long time to get my word out, and that's all well and good, but when your health is threatened, it really prioritizes everything and lets you know what's important and what's not. And although career is very important, it don't take the place of life. I have a new lease on life and a new appreciation for that plus a new appreciation for career as well because new opportunities are still there - they ain't gone yet. There's a lot to be thankful for."
McCray said that one of the main differences in the way he approaches his playing these days is in the amount of emotion he puts into it. It's a lesson he thinks younger players should try to learn.
"There's a lot of technicians out there," he said, "guys that can play a million notes, and that's one of my criticisms in terms of where the music is headed."
It's got nothing to do with the level of technique the younger players have, he said, but with the heart and soul of the music. It's what the blues is based on.
"I'd like to see more people try a little harder to speak emotionally, put something back, you know. Don't just wail all the time. I think when you're young you think that speed is the most important element to being a good musician, but as you mature and get old you find out that it's not. It has to have substance as well."
McCray is still writing songs and hopes to get back into the studio soon. Prior to The Gibson Sessions his last release was 2007's Larry McCray. Part of the difficulty lies in keeping the music fresh. Not much has changed with the basic blues structure, he said. The blues is an expression of life, a testament to normal everyday struggles.
"That's one of the beauties of it, the simplicity and the primary force of the music to bring something out from the inside to help you learn how to speak what's inside your soul. It's easy to sit up and talk, but, hopefully, when people see you, they feel some truth in what you say or what you claim you believe in."