“First and foremost, the stories are where my heart lies,” says Robert Cray. “In the blues guitar thing, most of the time, you carve out the section for the solo and that’s really what the song is based on. And I love that, there’s a time for that, but then I have to get back into the meat and bones of storytelling.”
With his seventeenth studio album, In My Soul, the five-time Grammy winner (and 15-time nominee) reasserts his position as one of his generation’s great musical storytellers—this time steeped in the down-home sound and rich emotion of Southern Soul, yet never straying far from his incomparable guitar mastery. Produced by Steve Jordan, whose long list of credits includes extensive work with Keith Richards and John Mayer, the album blends funky originals with surprising covers, and captures a new configuration of the Robert Cray Band: long-time bass player Richard Cousins is joined by keyboardist Dover Weinberg (returning to the group, with which he played in the 1970s and ’80s) as well as new drummer Les Falconer.
Robert Cray is widely recognized as one of the greatest guitarists of our time. The New Yorker recently called him “one of the most reliable pleasures of soul and blues for over three decades now.“ He has written or performed with everyone from Eric Clapton to Stevie Ray Vaughan, from Bonnie Raitt to John Lee Hooker, and in 2011, he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.
But when it comes time for a new recording, Cray remains as open as ever to pure creativity. “In my recollection, we have never sat down and decided what kind of record we’re going to make,” he says. “This time, I knew we were going to do an R&B thing, because that’s what we’ve done whenever we work with Steve, but we didn’t have a concept—that develops because of the songs and the people who play on it.”
The first song they worked on for In My Soul was a Booker T & the MGs-style instrumental, written by Cousins and Hendrix Ackle; making no secret of the inspiration, they gave it the winking title “Hip Tight Onions” (as in the MGs three biggest hits—”Hip Hug-Her,” “Time is Tight,” and “Green Onions”). “That really helped set the tone,” says Cray. “We ran that song for a bit, continuously playing that groove, and we got a feel for each other, and for Steve, and for a new tune. And from there, we fell into this real funk feel.”
Jordan, whom Cray describes as “almost a fifth member of the band,” proposed a couple of covers—Otis Redding’s “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” and “Your Good Thing (Is About to End),” initially recorded in 1966 by Stax artist Mable John but later turned into a hit for Lou Rawls. “When I think of Robert Cray, I think of a great singer,” says the producer. “Most people gravitate to his guitar playing because he’s such a gunslinger, but I don’t. He’s got so much soul it’s ridiculous. ‘Good Thing’ just sounded like Robert to me—it has a touch of jazz and that strong, Chicago-based R&B in the Lou Rawls version. With the Otis tune, I just thought, ‘Robert can eat this up,’ and not a lot of people can do justice to that vocal.”
Cray countered with the idea of doing a song that would ultimately give the album its title, “Deep in My Soul” by the late Bobby “Blue” Bland. “I didn’t want to change it—just do it pretty straight up as a tribute to Bobby, who was one of my real heroes,” says Cray.
The bulk of In My Soul, though, is made up of original material, composed by various members of the band. The album opens with the hard-charging “You Move Me,” instantly identifiable as classic Cray, with his signature slicing guitar leads woven throughout. “I Guess I’ll Never Know,” co-written by drummer Falconer with Jeff Paris and Rick Whitfield, adds a slipperier groove to the mix, in the style of Willie Mitchell’s productions for Hi Records. Bonus track “Pillow,” available on a limited edition CD version of the album, began as a melodic snippet written by the late session guitarist Jerry Friedman, which Cray extended (complete with a sitar-like guitar effect) into what Steve Jordan calls “a ’70s-Blaxploitation movie kind of vibe—it’s Robert as Shaft!”
“All the originals that came in were really good, and that’s not always the case,” says the producer. “It sure made my job easier—I just had to make sure the arrangements and sound and groove were right.”
Perhaps most notable is “What Would You Say?,” an aching tune that finds Cray longing for a better world. “It’s just a response to all that’s going on—wars, disease, or just someone standing outside the supermarket asking for food or for a job. That’s all part of everyday life, and I just had to talk about it.”
In My Soul includes plenty of Cray’s blazing guitar work, which Rolling Stone recently said “introduced a new generation of mainstream rock fans to the language and form of the blues.” But he maintains that he’s most excited about the way in which this project presents the complete Robert Cray Band.
“I like that I got to play as part of a unit, as a quartet,” he says. “That, to me, is just as much fun as playing a solo. There are lots of different grooves and styles on this record, and we had to give each song its own identity. That’s where we’re at as a band—the most important part is to lay down a groove that’s going to carry the story. The solos are just icing on the cake.”
This year marks four decades since the inception of the Robert Cray Band and with In My Soul, he is celebrating in style. He notes, with pride and with some amusement, that he continues to see new, younger faces in his audience. “There’s a younger generation now whose parents turned them on to our music,” he says. “It reminds me of when I was young and going to see Buddy Guy, Albert Collins, all the blues I could. It is kind of funny to be in the position of being the older generation now. But I’m just going to continue to do what we do. I can only do what I know, and we’ll see what happens.”