Larry McCray: The Soul That Shines
by Aaron Porter
If there is one thing that people can always agree on, it is that life ain’t always easy. That can be said for Larry McCray and his hard fought career. Larry however would never complain or regret because he knows he’s lived a good life, a rich life. After nearly 40 years in the business the world is finally starting to catch up with Larry’s way of thinking. His red hot, powerful Blues guitar mixed with his honest, soulful vocals have carried McCray to great heights. No heights greater than when he chose to create his own label Magnolia Records to escape the confines of traditional Blues label politics. Speaking with Larry painted a picture of a man at peace, full of joy, with a great deal of love for his music, family, and fellow man. Ladies and gentlemen, the soul that shines, Larry McCray.
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Bluesletter: You lived in Arkansas until you were 13 correct?
Larry McCray: Twelve. I left just after I turned 12.
BL: And you started playing music when you were 11?
LM: It was actually the year I moved to Michigan, so 12 – 13.
BL: Did living in Michigan have an influence on your music?
LM: I think it gave me interest outside of the Blues because I grew up in a slightly mixed environment, I was exposed to white music and black music and some of the things I learned from my white friends infiltrated into my music.
BL: You started a band early on with your family; do you still have opportunities to play with them frequently? Are they still an influence on your music?
LM: Well, first question, yea, I do play with them every night, my other brother Carl and my nephew Tony are still out doing things. We do all get together sometimes. My brother Steve and I work together every day. When we do get together it’s special. Sometime here in the future though, we might start doing things differently. At least I’m hoping so. As far as being an influence on the music, you never lose that connection, we all come from the same roots, so you know the same thing that was sticking out in my mind was sticking out in their minds also.
BL: Your brother Steve has been drumming for you since the early days, how important or special has it been to you to have him by your side?
LM: Well, we fight like cats and dogs sometimes, but then again when it comes down to the music, I don’t think anyone knows my music as well as he does in terms of being a drummer. We get things going on we don’t have to talk about, he just knows what to do automatically. There’s a certain rhythm can spark a change on a groove, you don’t want to have to constantly be telling them do this and do that. It really makes a big difference when you play with people that are compatible with your music, otherwise you’re not playing, you’re thinking about it. You don’t want to think about it when you’re playing, you just want it to come forth.
BL: You stated in the past that you felt, and I’m kind of paraphrasing here, that you felt the bureaucracy of a record label limits an artist’s freedom.
LM: Yeah, it does!
BL: Have you had any difficulty avoiding those same pitfalls with your own label, Magnolia Records?
LM: Well no, of course you can put out just about anything you want on your own, the only thing that you lack is the financial umbrella of the company. It’s a catch 22 in terms of that but you have to find some sort of medium where you are satisfied with your production side of it as well as the artistic control of it.
BL: Would you say that financial umbrella is the biggest obstacle facing Magnolia Records?
LM: Yea, most definitely, because if I can do what I’m hoping to which is to bring someone on board that is into music and shares my vision, I’d be happy to give up part of the company in order to have that stability. By the same token though, what it would mean to me is someone took a stand for the music, many people do not have the balls to do it.[pullquote] I’ve always believed that good music is good music. I don’t see why something with a country influence, a reggae influence, Blues influence, a rock influence can’t be on the same project as long as it is representative of the artist.[/pullquote] Being an artist you don’t always find a way to make whatever flavor you want to be playing to make it sound like you.
BL: You made a statement that the music business is 90% show and 10% go. Do you believe that still to be true?
LM: I’m not try to knock nobody but look at what’s her name… uhm, Lady Gaga, where’s her musical talent at. You know what I’m talking about, what are they tryin to sell us? By that token there’s a lot of things, a lot of plastic situations as far as I’m concerned, and all that really means for me is that I concentrate harder on my sound because if people like my sound that’s what matters, because I’m not out there trying to win any beauty contests. Not that I would have the balls to try anyway, but it’s not my focus. If you look at 90% of what’s at the Grammys, what’s at the Grammys? Even my daddy used to say it, “ Dag nabbit all of these hob nobs, nobody is playin any music!” There is a small group of people out there who are still playing music and they are very well supported in the underground but it’s small time. It’s not reaching big numbers of people.
BL: Do you think because of that essential disparity that the Blues will always endure but never necessarily become mainstream?
LM: Well, you don’t never know, it could and it could not, the odds are against it saying it won’t succeed on a big scale but every now and then you get a Stevie Ray Vaughan, or Robert Cray or Johnny Lang where people focus a lot of attention on the music, and when that band is gone, it’s back to the way it was. I don’t feel like I’ve had that upswing yet, guys who have opened for me have, and so sometimes it gets you to thinking as an artist what’s wrong with my pen that it don’t write no hits? But I’m going to stick to my guns, because you know, I love what I’m doin and you never know what might catch on. All I want to do is find my little heaven, my spot.
BL: What do you feel is the most important aspect of your music?
LM: The sincerity of the music, and the feel of it. There are people who criticize us and say we don’t play Blues, or straight Blues or what ever, but I don’t think you can deny the feeling of the music, if the music feels good then it doesn’t matter if it’s a funky tune, or slow, or what ever, I feel like we are always true to the feelings in our hearts.
BL: I caught your song “Soul Shine” on Youtube and man, I gotta tell you, it was really moving.
LM: Well, thank you. That’s one of those songs that doesn’t take any explaining, it just listen to it and it tells you what it’s trying to say.
BL: Do you have a song that is closest to your heart or most meaningful?
LM: Most meaningful, well, in terms of a signature song I think most people know us for that (“Soul Shine”) song, definitely, it’s a Warren Haynes song, but he does credit me as being the first one to publish it, and it was always my question to him; why he never released that song himself.
BL: Your debut album Ambition was recorded in a friend’s basement. How do you feel that album compared to your more recent ones?
LM: Well, the sad part about that album was that it was never supposed to have been an album. [pullquote]It was supposed to be our demo and they had made us all kinds of promises you know, that we would be taken to a proper studio and get a much better product.[/pullquote] The problem with them not coming through with their promises it was really disappointing to have to deal with a lower production and have everyone judge you accordingly. Fortunately enough a lot of people listened to it and could see beyond the production of it and saw something good enough to get us on the map. I was always thankful for that, but at the same time disappointed by the final outcome of it.
BL: You had mentioned in one of your previous interviews that you felt you were getting to the point that touring was a young mans game, but you still do it.
LM: (Laughs) Well, I don’t have much choice.
BL: True (laughs). What is the most difficult aspect of being part of a touring band?
LM: They toll it takes on your body, the inconvenience of the travel and it takes away you energy making it harder to take care of yourself. When it’s like that you don’t feel like working out or going to the gym. You end up subjecting yourself to bad eating habits. It just wears on you after so many years.
LM: You know, life don’t always come with a manuscript so you do what you have to with all the things you can’t control, and some things you just have to accept and deal with.
BL: Do you feel like the Blues community has lost some of its connectivity or togetherness?
LM: It’s always been ran by a number of people, and it’s always been if you don’t meet their standard or play “their” kind of Blues or what they want then you’re on the outside looking in. For that reason I’ve never changed my approach. I’ve never changed it. Instead I try to break down those walls, get them to listen to what we have to offer, and now I’m getting those opportunities I wish I would have had 20 years ago.
BL: I always wondered what the Blues community could do if they would come together and accept all the different types of Blues as Blues and work together to pave that road.
LM: You know the Blues police they don’t want it to progress and a lot of times if you have a more modern style then they don’t like you, they want you to play Muddy, Johnny Shines, and Robert Johnson, a lot of slide Blues is acceptable, when I was a young man in my 20’s if you went into a club and broke out the slide you’d have run everyone out. During that generation they didn’t want old school. Old school just got cool again recently. Derek Trucks, the Allmans promoted that sound when it came into the heyday of popularity, now everyone is trying to play the slide. You’ve got people who have a competition who defend certain things and if you’re not in with those people then you can be strongly opposed. I think it’s loosing it up more and more now and those people are beginning to see that it’s all in the same family just a different cousin.
BL: Do you have a favorite fan memory?
LM: There was one time when I was in France a guy came up to me and said, “Häagen-Dazs” and I said, “Yes sir, the ice-cream.” What he ended up telling me that when Häagen-Dazs first came to them, he was one of the guys who built the building and that the whole time they were working on the building they listened to Delta Hurricane back in 1991. He said after seeing the performance that he could see why they were playing it, because there’s energy in the music and it charged them up when they were working.
BL: What guitar are you playing these days?
LM: I’m playing a 335 black diamond hoe diamond cut. My Les Paul goldtop, and I’m playing my Flying V. And sometimes my 336, I got a 336 that’s slightly different it got a straight arrow headstock straight post and they were made with a router so it’s completely hollow body, it’s very thick and solid. Yea man it’s a monster.
BL: Do you have a venue that you’ve played that is your most memorable?
LM: I played a place down in Brazil a year ago where it was over 100 stages and over 1000 acts and they called it Around the Clock, and it was about 4 million people in downtown Sao Paulo. It was just wall-to-wall people. It was just the craziest party I’ve ever seen.
BL: Do you have any personal philosophies?
LM: You know some times you don’t get recognized for your contribution, but you can’t get hung up on that because hey you know you get all these experience that really enrich your life. It let’s you know that life is real and that even regular guys like you or me can do big things if you dream big enough and you work hard at it, you can do big things, a little luck doesn’t hurt either (laughs).
BL: Are you part of any organizations or charities?
LM: Not actively no, but every chance I get I support cancer and diabetes benefits. Those are my big ones.
BL: Do you have a favorite comic book super hero?
LM: If I had a choice who my favorite would be, well my top 2 would be Batman would be in there, Superman. Batman is a cool character he has that mystique and ready for any situation, and as far as superman, that x-ray vision could be good or bad (laughs).