Divorce, illness, failure ... how musician Larry McCray beat his own blues

He wowed the blues scene with his holler – but bad decisions and worse luck sent him into a rut. Now, with a loving relationship and Joe Bonamassa championing him, he says he’s grabbing a second chance

‘As long as people have problems, the blues can never die,” wrote BB King. By that logic, Larry McCray has endured the kind of struggles that bluesmen have lamented for decades. A promising career slumped at the turn of the century. In 2013, he was diagnosed with cancer. His marriage fell apart and he was divorced a year later. His ex-wife was then sentenced to 18 months in prison for fraud, leaving him to raise their teenage son alone. But at the age of 61, with his first new songs in 15 years, the US musician says he’s ready for the recognition he has always dreamed of.

McCray’s sound is a tussle between the Delta blues – the raw acoustic music that originated from the Mississippi Delta in the early 1900s – and the later Chicago blues that brought heavily amplified electric guitars into the mix. While Hammond organs and brass swirl around, McCray’s licks crackle under his own booming vocals. Like Chicago legend Howlin’ Wolf, McCray is a blues shouter: one who can sing without vocal amplification. His first albums – 1990’s Ambition and 1993’s Delta Hurricane – wowed the blues scene with their fusion of rock and soul, and he has toured non-stop since, with the likes of Albert King, Buddy Guy, Jimmie Vaughan and BB King himself.

McCray speaks from his home in a rural part of Bay City – a city in central Michigan that borders Lake Huron – and appears on our video call with a guitar strapped to his chest, over a T-shirt emblazoned with the words: “I ♥ the funking blues!” Born in Magnolia, Arkansas, he speaks with a deep southern accent, and is impeccably polite. Visible over McCray’s right shoulder is a chopping board-sized royal blue plaque. “This is from the Detroit Blues Society. They gave me a lifetime achievement award,” he says, pride flickering in his eyes. “I was also awarded the Sonny Payne award for blues excellence, and they gave me the key to the city in my home town. I have a lot of small accolades!”

In the years leading up to the Covid-19 pandemic, McCray had been at a low ebb. “The pandemic saved my life,” he says. “It gave me time to rest my body, gather my thoughts and write some songs. It was the first time I’d had a break since the late 80s. I had to be out there working and hustling all the time to maintain a living.” That flush of 90s success had soured after McCray made “bad decisions in bad situations”; he took out his inability to match his peers’ successes on himself, and lived to excess. “I was self-abusive; I’m not one to make excuses. [The lack of success] was frustrating because I could’ve played the guitar standing on my head and it wouldn’t have been enough.”

This left him second-guessing. “It kept me chasing my tail all the time. When Robert Cray had success, I cut similar music. When Stevie Ray Vaughan had success, I put out a record like that. When Jonny Lang came out, when Kenny Wayne Shepherd came out, when Joan Osborne came out. Most of these people used to open shows for me.”

He cut out some bad habits – “I’m not into all the drinking, smoking, chasing women and having a wild time any more” – but by the time of the pandemic, McCray thought his career was over. “I love music and I play all the time for myself, but I had accepted that people didn’t want what I had to offer. I had to find peace and happiness in my life.”

Having prostate cancer also complicated things. “I’m better now, but that cancer felt like I’d consumed lit charcoal straight from a barbecue. I could sleep for 16 hours and wake up feeling like I hadn’t been to bed in a week. I gained a lot of weight because of complications with the surgery. The day I came home from the hospital, my stitches ruptured and I had a hole that was about 2in deep. It took a long time to heal.”

His fortunes finally changed with a phone call from Joe Bonamassa, who asked if they could make an album together. Bonamassa is one of blues-rock’s biggest draws – still only 44, a record-breaking 25 of his albums have hit No 1 on the Billboard blues albums chart – and McCray’s new album, Blues Without You, is the latest release on Bonamassa’s label, Keeping the Blues Alive. Bonamassa has called McCray a “legend” and “the last of the great blues shouters”, and said that “it’s now up to the world to rediscover him”. How did that make McCray feel? “It was overwhelming. The only thing I can do is sing his praises for being a big enough man to want to see someone like me do better.”

The album was recorded in Los Angeles, produced by Bonamassa and fellow blues player Josh Smith. McCray tells me that he has known Bonamassa and Smith since they were children, and that the scale of the opportunity was nerve-racking. “I know the levels that Joe and Josh play at. When all the focus was on me, it was kind of frightening at times. When great things are said, people expect greatness.” The result of the sessions is a 12-track album with Arkansas its lead single – McCray’s piquant ode to growing up there in the 1960s.

In it, McCray sings about “feeding hogs and bailing straws” – remembering his work as a farmhand during his youth. “I’m a country boy by nature, so I’m used to doing things with my hands. I’m comfortable being in a blue-collar situation.” Before he went full-time with music, McCray worked on an assembly line at a General Motors factory. This industrial sector of the US – often referred to as the Rust Belt – has experienced steep decline over the past half-century. McCray says he cut his teeth performing his music across the region. “The steel mills we had down here, that’s what America was built on. All these places, Pennsylvania, Indiana, that’s where my music was popular, but everybody left. In Bay City and Saginaw there used to be 17 General Motors factories, and now it’s down to a couple.”

One of nine siblings, McCray was introduced to the guitar by his sister Clara, but it wasn’t the only instrument he was interested in. At 12, he moved to Michigan and took up the saxophone. “I played in the school band from seventh to 12th grade, but I loved the guitar. My aspiration when I started playing was to get blues music the same respect that heavy metal and other genres did. We didn’t have music teachers, so I wanted to go to the Berklee College of Music in Los Angeles, but we couldn’t afford it.”

He talks about the changing perceptions and attitudes towards the blues. “When I started out in the 70s, blues music wasn’t accepted. Everybody was trying to get away from it. People called it slave music. If you wanted to clear a club in the 70s, all you had to do was put a slide on your finger and start playing.”

Larry McCray on stage in New Orleans in 1996.
Larry McCray on stage in New Orleans in 1996. Photograph: David Redfern/Redferns

McCray comes across as a supremely gentle and modest man, whose love of the blues is perhaps only equalled by his fondness for people. He’s keen to talk about his son, 21-year-old Bleau McCray-Morel, who he says is a “wonderful singer and guitar player – he’s got all the goods”. McCray hopes that his son’s experience in the industry is a little more straightforward. “I’m hoping that I can open some doors for him so that he doesn’t have to beat his head against the wall the same way his old man did. You pass on what you have, and I’d like to create some opportunities for him to be heard.”

His partner, Peggy Smith, is also a collaborator, assisting with lyrics and arrangements. They met at one of McCray’s gigs. “As life would have it, Peggy’s husband passed, I divorced, and something brought us together,” McCray says. “When she feeds me words, I figure out the melody. She’s a bit brighter than me in her approach to poetry but being southern-raised I know so many old sayings and metaphors. We blend both and it’s a good mix. It means a lot to me that we can do it together – maybe it’ll give us an even stronger bond.”

I ask him if his relationship with Peggy is one the best things to come out of his career. “For sure. All this has given me new life in the business. I spun all my cards the first time, so this is a second chance for me. But life is not guaranteed either. I’m just hoping that I live long enough to enjoy this.”

Blues Without You is out now on Keeping the Blues Alive Records.


Chris Lord

The GuardianTramp

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