In conversation, Robert Cray is much like his music. He is focused, unassuming and impervious to overstatement.
So it was hardly surprising when the five-time Grammy winning guitarist described his 2011 induction into the Blues Hall of Fame (as part of a class that included such musical titans as John Hammond, J.B. Lenoir and Alberta Hunter) in highly modest terms.
“It was pretty cool.”
Pretty cool? That’s it? Well, one of Cray’s oldest pals isn’t afraid to speak up for the honor as well as for the sterling blues, soul and R&B the guitarist has fashioned since the late ‘70s.
“It was funny because a couple of nights ago we played a concert in Royal Oak, Michigan,” said Cray, 59. “The opener was Bobby Murray, who went to high school with both Richard Cousins (Cray’s longstanding bassist) and myself. We’ve been friends for over 40 years.
“At the end of the night, Bobby said, ‘You know, man, I always thought in the old days that you were a Hall of Famer. And now you really are a Hall of Famer. It just made me laugh.”
To his fans, Cray was Hall of Fame material long before the honor was bestowed on him last year. In fact, the guitarist was establishing his big league status over 25 years ago with a massively popular crossover album called Strong Persuader and concert performances that had him sharing stages with the likes of Eric Clapton, Tina Turner and Keith Richards.
While the blues may be what audiences most readily associate with Cray, it by no means dictates the stylistic path he has traveled. None of his recordings – from his 1980 debut Who’s Been Talkin’ through Strong Persuader in 1986 to the new Nothin’ But Love – have revolved around conventional 12 bar blues tunes. The latter recording, for example, weaves in elements of rhumba, swing, jazz, vintage soul and more.
“It’s the music we grew up listening to,” said Cray, who performs Tuesday at the Opera House. “It’s the music we still enjoy listening to now. That kind of sensibility tells why you don’t have to be in one particular niche all the time. In this band, you can do what feels natural.”
Of course, much of the expansive stylistic reach in Cray’s music is as much the result of his abilities as a vocalist as from his heralded guitarwork. His vocal tone is clean, exact and confidently emotive, echoing strong elements of soul and gospel.
“I’ve enjoyed listening to all the great R&B singers – Otis Redding, Jackie Wilson. The gospel and R&B singer O.V. Wright was one, too. Listen to them the same way you listen to the guitar players and you become aware of their unique abilities. You may be doing your own thing, but some of that stuff still pops into your head.”
The balance of blues and soul also played a pivotal role in the crossover success of Strong Persuader. The album reached No.13 on the Billboard album charts – not the blues charts, but the all-genre Billboard 200. That meant Cray was getting as much attention through radio and MTV exposure as many of the day’s synth-saturated pop stars.
“We’ve always been described as a blues band. But when I go back and listen to Strong Persuader, I don’t consider it a blues album, per se. It had lots of R&B and leaned towards the rock end some. That’s why a song like Smoking Gun (Strong Persuader’s breakthrough single) was able to crossover.
“It was just one of those instances of us putting an album together that coincided with the times. Strong Persuader came together when radio was accepting that kind of music with our kind of leanings.”
Timing remains on Cray’s side with Nothin’ But Love. In fact, two of the album’s strongest songs – I’m Done Cryin’ and Great Big Old House – reference the grim, topical realities of an even grimmer economy by using the displacement caused by unemployment and home foreclosures as a central theme.
“You know, as we get older, we all understand a lot about what is surrounding us and how people are living. We know people who have gone through these situations. We see the foreclosure signs on our streets. I see them even on my street. You read about it in the newspaper and you see it on television. And it’s a topic of conversation as we’re traveling around. So it was just a natural progression to talk about it in the music.”
But Cray isn’t into this or any other aspect of the blues on his own. His concerts and recordings are still credited to The Robert Cray Band – which, aside from bassist Cousins, includes drummer Tony Braunagel and longtime keyboardist Jim Pugh.
“It’s great to have people you can always rely on, not only for their playing abilities, but for their whole sense of being part of the band. Then there’s the songwriting, the traveling together, being friends – all of those things are important. I think that sets the stage for making good music.
“I mean, when we get onstage, it’s all about having fun. It’s all about taking chances. And you can only do that when you have people that you can really work with and that you know. So we just have a ball.”
The Robert Cray Band perform as 7:30 p.m. Dec. 11 at the Lexington Opera House, 401 West Short. Tickets are $44.50. Call (859) 233-3535 or 1-800-745-3000.