Interview: Larry McCray – ROCK AND BLUES MUSE

Photo: Larry McCray by Arnie Goodman

By Martine Ehrenclou

Larry McCray is a blues legend, an award-winning guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter. And one of the most humble people you’d ever meet. McCray has what many artists want—a big, soulful voice and blistering, tasteful guitar chops that rival many of the blues greats. His 1991 debut album Ambition followed with Delta Hurricane two years later, and many others after that. He’s performed with BB King, Buddy Guy, Albert King, Albert Collins, John Mayall, Johnny Winter, Robert Cray, Jimmie Vaughan, Luther Allison, Keb’ Mo’, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Gregg Allman, Joe Walsh, Dickey Betts, and many more. He has nine albums to his name and earned the awards Orville H. Gibson Male Blues Guitarist of the Year, Top Guitarist prize in the International Blues Matters 2014 writer’s poll and the “Sunshine” Sonny Payne Award for Blues Excellence in 2015.

Not without major challenges, the Arkansas-born and Michigan-based Larry McCray has overcome cancer, divorce, career setbacks, and raised his son after his ex-wife was himself sentenced to prison for fraud. His 30-year manager Paul Koch died in a car accident.

But now, with his new critically acclaimed album Blues Without You, produced by Joe Bonamassa and Josh Smith and released on Bonamassa’s Keeping The Blues Alive Records, Larry is breaking new ground, gaining recognition he has long deserved. His new album is certainly his best and a blockbuster blues album of 2022. It features McCray’s tasteful solos, all with space between the notes, and soulful, powerful vocals. With guest spots by Joe Bonamassa, Warren Haynes, Joanna Connor and Reese Wynans, it’s his first album in seven years.

Martin:
I’m excited to talk with you about what’s happening in your music career. Congratulations on Blues Without You. I love the album.

Larry:
Thank you so much. It really was a heartfelt project and it was fun. Everything was done in such a quick time and once it started happening it just kind of snowballed. The album was cut in seven days.

Martin:
How did you and Joe Bonamassa originally connect?

Larry:
Some friends of mine had been telling me for a long time that Joe Bonamassa would play my music on his program. They would say, “Joe said something good about you today. Joe says this.” They would always tell me that I should reach out to him and try to contact him. Larry Mitchell (musician) who was friends with Joe, gave me his number and I texted him. I got a text back within 30 minutes. That’s when we first started communicating, which was almost two years before my manager Paul Koch passed. We talked on the phone and he said, “Hey, let’s make a great record.”

Then after Paul passed away, I’d worked with him for 30-something years, it was like, “Let’s do it right now. Let’s go.” And Joe came to my house and spent three days here in Michigan. About four weeks later I was in LA making a record.

Martin:
Did you have songs that you’d written already?

Larry:
Yes. Peggy and I, my girlfriend, we had 25 songs together. When Josh got here, they (Joe and Josh) thought that they were going to have to write all the songs. It wasn’t the case at all.

Larry McCray photo

Martin:
You said four weeks later, you were in the studio with Joe and Josh. Joanna Connor came in as did Warren Haynes.

Larry:
Warren Haynes and I have been friends for a long time, over 30 years. He and Paul Koch were good friends. When he found out that Paul had died and that I was kind of alone facing the situation, trying to figure out which way to go, he assured me that whatever it took to get the project going and to get me with new management, to get my situation rolling, that he would be there for me.

Joe picked the song “Down To The Bottom,” and Warren came in and played on it.

Joanna Connor, she was out in California visiting with her son and she found out that I was in the studio. She said, “I’m in California the same time as you are in the studio. I’m going to stop by and say hi.” When she stopped by, Joe put a guitar in her hands. It was kind of funny how it happened but everything just kind of fell in place.

Martin:
Maybe with the best things, that’s the way it’s supposed to happen, you know?

Larry:
Sometimes it is. That’s when it just happens naturally. We couldn’t have made it happen that good even if we tried.

Martin:
You’re doing a lot of touring now, off to Europe shortly. Tell me what you love most about performing live.

Larry:
What I love most about performing live is if I’m able to reach that audience and get them where I’d like to have them, then I know that my message will be received. That’s all I have really ever cared about. Only thing that I have ever wanted to achieve was to be able to feel like that I was worthy or qualified for what I was asking for. And all that was just to be recognized in the business as being a quality performer. That’s what my goal was. And I feel that if you are a quality performer, everything else that goes along with that will fall into place.

But I never could get recognized for 30-something years in the business. I was like in a Blues training camp or Blues spring training.

But now everything is good. The performances have been really good and I did get some standing ovations in some of these places I’ve been playing. It’s just been such a long time coming. And I think finally after all these years that the people are accepting. I got involved with Northstar Artists, which is Kevin Daly and John Lochen. They flew out to New Jersey to meet me and come to one of the gigs to hear what we were doing and everything I was doing with Devon Allman. And they were blown away. It’s just great for me to get those kind of people to see the value in it. I felt really good about that.

Martin:
You performed with Devon Allman recently.

Larry:
Devon is a sweet kid. He’s a gentleman and a hard worker. And just to hang around him, I get reminiscent of his father. Some of the things that he sings, some of his mannerisms, really remind me of his dad. And that’s kind of fun to be around because I had some of the best times in my career playing with Gregg Allman at his concerts. I was very lucky and blessed to be able to do so. It’s really nice to be around his kid because like I said, he reminded me of those days.

Martin:
Tell me about playing with Gregg Allman.

Larry:
I met Gregg Allman in ’92. He was one of the nicest guys I ever met. And the same with Dickey Betts. I really dug him. He was really cool with me. Gregg had more of a wall of protection around him. He had his people and he did his battles with his rehabs. They didn’t want him to be around drinking and stuff like that. It was harder to be around him. But Dickey on the other hand, was like, “Hey, come over here and talk to Dickey.” I went to go see him a couple of weeks ago when I was in Sarasota when I was playing there at beginning of April. When I was there, I got a chance to meet his son Duane on the Allman Betts Revival. I played a couple of nights in that show also. I toured with Dickey. It might have been more with Gregg Allman, Gregg Allman and Friends. We did one tour to the East Coast, one that took us through Texas and the Midwest. It’s been so long ago, I can’t remember all the places. It was very much a good thing. I remember playing Ole Miss with Gregg and the brothers.

After sharing more about touring with Gregg Allman and Friends, I asked Larry about playing with Keb’ Mo’. He said that he’d met Keb’ Mo’ in ’91 and that they’d played blues festivals together. In March of this year, on the Joe Bonamassa cruise, he and Keb’ talked about doing an album together. This is when Larry grew excited, a certain lightness in his voice. He said, “At least I’ll do some writing with him. That’s my biggest thing right now, what I love to do. I love to write and create music.”

Martin:
You light up when you talk about writing music.

Larry:
I’m working on something called “Happy Man.” I’ve been fooling with this just a couple of days. I thought about Bobby McFerrin when I come up with it. You know “Don’t Worry Be Happy”?

Larry treated me to playing acoustic guitar and singing on the phone, some bits and pieces of the new song. In between singing and playing his guitar, he explained his songwriting, and how he starts with a melody or something he’s thinking about and how he tries to make the song conversational. He writes down his thoughts and groups words together. Enthusiastic about sharing his process, he sang a few pieces of songs to me on the phone. It was a true delight and his voice sounded just as good as you’d imagine.

Larry:
It’s a simple formula, but sometimes it takes a minute to get it just the way you want it. But that’s the beauty of it. You write, you got what you got tonight, and then if you ain’t got it all, you let it rest and come back to it. And you continue to do that until you get it the way you want it.

Martin:
You sound so excited talking about songwriting.

Larry:
Oh, I am. That’s part of the joy of music nowadays for me, trying to create. I love it.

For more information on Larry McCray see his website Here.

Listen to “Breaking News” by Larry McCray Here

Listen “Blues Without You (For Paul)

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