If you want to understand singer/guitarist Larry McCray's songwriting process, see how he dissects "Breaking News," from his comeback album, produced by blues guitar titan-of-industry Joe Bonamassa and Josh Smith.
The track explores the dire straits of the world, made even more stressful because of how modern news constantly screams for our attention. But for McCray, the bleakness is nothing new."I have always said that politics haven't changed through my whole life, and I don't think they ever will," he says. "It's the same when it was Vietnam, Desert Storm. Life is human beings. We always have the same criteria. We'll forever need food and sustenance. We'll forever need a place to stay. We will forever need association. We will forever need what we need to be strong, healthy individuals. So the same thing they were talking about back then, is the same thing we're talking about today."
It might seem depressing from a geopolitical perspective—which it is—but also from a songwriting one. If things never change, how do you find something different to say? For McCray, it's a matter of finding new angles on those same issues. "You can write about the same things over and over again, but you have to change the theme, or the way that you speak about it," he says. "Okay, we did 'Breaking News.' Now, how else can we approach it and still get the message out? That's the challenge."
The songwriting has never been an issue for McCray. For McCray, the problem was that his career could never hit the next rung of commercial success. He came out hot in the '90s, but never became the household blues name that many of his contemporaries, including Bonamassa, almost 20 years his junior, did.
The prolonged stall destroyed McCray's self-confidence. "You try anything long enough, and you keep being told no, or rejected or overlooked or whatever the case may be, you start to wonder yourself, doubt yourself, 'Well, maybe I don't have the goods,'" he says. "Or maybe I'm not good enough or I don't have something, whatever that missing element is that people are looking for, people in a position of power are looking for to engage with you. If you can't come up with it, then I guess you don't get the opportunity."
Bonamassa gave him an opportunity, seeking him out in his Michigan home and convincing McCray to write and record another album, Blues Without You, released by KTBA Records via www.ktbarecords.com, a classic-sounding collection of tracks that, of course, show off McCray's legendary guitar chops, but that also spotlight his soulful voice. Paired with guest stars, as well as a star producer, this could be the album that gets McCray's name into the mainstream blues pantheon.
Regardless of what comes out of the album's release, though, the process has helped rebuild McCray's confidence. "I've always thought that I was a pretty good blues musician," he says. "I never felt myself as being limited. And to have the opportunities, what I'm getting right now, is very, very rewarding because right now people aren't judging; they're just listening to the music. And that's all I ever wanted. Just give me a chance to be heard, and then if you don't like it, then that's fair enough."
In this interview, McCray talks about his approach to songwriting with collaborators, and gets into the details of how he develops and revises his lyrics. He also discusses how self-care, brought upon by the pandemic, helped him with his songwriting. And his takeaway from his career, to this point in time, is that he wants balance more than fame. "I'm old enough, and I've had enough tries and failures to where the important thing to me in life right now, is just still be involved with music," he says. "But I want to have a good quality of life, too, where that I can enjoy my family and people who are close to me. And the most important thing, I think, is without love, what does it matter?"
Working Mojo: How did you write the songs for Blues Without You? Were they songs you had sitting around?
Larry McCray: I wrote them the last [year or so]. Being off with the pandemic—I had been on the road for 30 some years, I never had a break, where I could take that kind of real time off and just relax a little bit. So the pandemic, although it was a negative situation, was very helpful and positive in my maintenance program. It saved my life [laughs].
WM: Do you mean the process of just getting off the road was helpful?
McCray: Yes. Just having a break and not having to be out on the road all the time, like I was for 30 some years.
WM: Did you have a writing routine where you would write every day during the pandemic? Or was it just when you felt like it?
McCray: It was just something to do. It was just something I did on my leisure. I've always liked to think of myself as a songwriter. I've always wanted to be a songwriter. But songwriting is something that if you don't have the time, to sit there and brainstorm and figure things out as you go, it's kind of hard to complete anything.
WM: Given the rigors of touring for 30 years, did you feel like you didn't really have the time to dedicate to songwriting before?
McCray: Exactly. I had no time for songwriting, because I'm out there hustling, trying to maintain myself and make a living.
WM: So looking ahead, as the world hopefully opens up, variants aside, are you thinking about how you're going to give yourself the time and space for songwriting?
McCray: For sure. And I continued on, even though we've started to hustle a little bit again. But what the pandemic did also was helped me figure out a different way of trying to write then I had done before. So I think I found a little bit more of a working combination more so than what I had ever had before.
WM: Can you tell me about the new system?
McCray: It's not really a method to the madness. It's just that things clicked for me. I was talking with Keb' Mo' about songwriting and stuff like that, and I think the most important element is to try to keep it conversational. Try to keep it conversational, and explicit, you know, straight to the point.
WM: How does it work writing with your partner, Peggy Smith? Does she come in with lyrics?
McCray: Well it has happened two ways. First, is say the song, "Good Die Young." That was something that she had written; those are Peggy's lyrics. And she had those already. She said, 'Hey, I got this thing right here that I want you to look at.' So when she gave them to me, I had already been fooling around with that melody [sings the melody]. And so I didn't know what it was. But when I read what she had, I was able to envision that going right on the line of what I had, and it kind of just worked just like that.
Now, another thing that we did that we didn't have the lyrics for, like "Don't Put Your Dreams to Bed." That was something that was inspired by the music first. And so I [came] up with that change, I kept playing those changes, playing those chords. And so she was like, 'Okay, this sounds like to me that this should be "Don't Put Your Dreams to Bed".' I'm like, 'Huh?' And so as it was, she explained to me, her concept and her theory.
That's what happens. She has a concept and a theory and then I try to bring it in line musically. So it's kind of inspirational and we just kind of found a system that works for us.
WM: Have you written match with other people before?
McCray: There's a couple of writers on there, this time, that I had written with before. And that's Charlie Walmsley. He did, "Mr. Easy" and "Arkansas." And we had written together before; we used to be in a band together. I also wrote a song with a guy by the name of Jimmy Jabara, which was "Blues Without You," which was for my deceased manager, [Paul Koch], that I've worked with for 30 some years.
WM: I wanted to ask you about "Don't Put Your Dreams to Bed," because in the video about the making of the album, it looks like you and your brother are really going over the background vocals, and intricately constructing the song. And I was wondering if that was typical.
McCray: Well, my brother, at the time, was not available to record when I went out to record other things, and because we've been playing together for our whole careers, it was important for me that he'd be part of this album. So at a later date, we went to a studio in Detroit. So that was the reason for it being on a separate occasion.
I really rely on him a lot for, you know, sometimes placement, and different things, or timing things that can be more effective sometimes from his viewpoint, maybe than mine. So I had a little help with a couple of things, but it was mostly my vision, especially musically. I had a lot of help with lyrics, but that was all my music.
WM: Some of the songs, like "Arkansas" with the horns, and "Down to the Bottom" with the violins, were very produced. Was that you or were those things Josh and Joe brought in?
McCray: That was all Josh and Joe, the additions. Everybody had a part in making the complete situation. I think with all the collaborative help, it turned out to be the best that it could have been. It might have not been quite the way it turned out, with me only, so I was glad to have the help.
WM: You have some very interesting guests like, Warren Haynes, on "Down to the Bottom." Were you a fan of his?
McCray: Well, Warren and I have been friends for 30 some years. I knew him before he got into the Allman Brothers Band, and we have always been friends. I don't know how many times I sat in with the Allman Brothers. And then I used to follow the Mule around as well. I used to open some of the shows and participate in some of the shows in the earlier days with the Mule.
So when my management dies, which was also a very close friend of his, he knew that I was in a bad shape and he had told me that whatever it took for me to get back up and on my feet, that he was gonna be there for me. So once I got things figured out, how I was going to have a record budget, the next best thing he could do would be play on my track, and he did.
WM: How did you pick that track for him?
McCray: Actually, I didn't. Joe picked that track for him. And that particular song is a song that I wrote all on my own I had no help with the arrangement, or anything with that song. That song was 100% me, down to the bottom.
WM: And he's playing the slide on it?
Blues corn hole
WM: Gov't Mule and the Allmans are much more jammy and I think of your playing as much tighter. Do you do enjoy that sort of free-flowing type of guitar playing?
McCray: I do. It's just that people have always expected me...I was billed and marketed as one thing and so I have tried I had to hold true to that, although I have lots of other musical aspirations. I listen to some of everything. I'm a big country music fan. I love jazz music. I love rock. I love music.
WM: Would you want to ever do a rock album or a country album?
McCray: Well, if I had strong material, I'd love to give it a try.
WM: Do you think that's a problem of the blues? Because I spoke to Bernard Allison a couple of weeks ago. And he was saying that his father, Luther, really emphasized to not get pigeonholed by the blues, because I think Luther felt that he had gotten trapped by the blues, and it was harder to explore other styles. Do you think that's a blues problem or music problem?
McCray: It's an industry problem. I think that being a black artist, it's much harder to change over to get out of your corn hole and to cross over into other things, opposed to other people from other genres of music, crossing over into the blues.
It's much more widely accepted the other way then for blues artists to cross over into other markets. You see rock and rollers, you see country, you see all types of artists, at their leisure, do a blues record, but I think it's also because I don't really feel that blues artists are taken seriously most of the time.
WM: Taken seriously, in what way?
McCray: Just in terms of a musical contribution of what we bring to the board as musicians.
WM: Did you feel like it was easier working with Joe and Josh, who came from a blues background? Do you think that they understood what goes into it being a blues artist?
McCray: Well, I think that that made it easier for me, just because I had a personal rapport with them. I've known both of them since they were very young. I'm 20 years older than them guys. And so they both told me that, because that I was a nice guy, and were accommodating to them when they were young, that they feel comfortable with throwing a little bit of help back my way, in the later years.
I've been out of the focus in terms of mainstream in my genre for a long time. But it was all because I couldn't make any headway in the situation.
I've had a very controversial career. And I made a lot of friends and I met a lot of people in the business, but it just took a long time before anyone would reach out and give me a hand up. And so I know right now, that had it not been for Joe, that I wouldn't have the resurgence or the jump start that I'm getting right now.
WM: The album emphasizes your vocals, which are fantastic. Do you feel like in the past, your guitar playing was more emphasized?
McCray: I feel that it was more pressure in the past to try to be something maybe that wasn't natural for me, but that I had a little bit of ability to adapt and to serve that situation. I come through from the last of the generation of the... I toured with Gary Moore, I toured a lot with Warren Haynes. I know Jack Pearson. I know a lot of great guitar players. And for my age and my generation and my genre, it was always important to be a strong guitarist.
I loved Albert Collins' music, B.B. King, Luther Allison, Freddie King, that kind of thing. And I got a chance to rub elbows with a lot of that. And I think that's what kind of was expected of me. I think now that at my age, I don't have to so much be that, but people now are a little bit more willing to give me a chance to be a songwriter, to check out the songs, that it don't have to be just blaring guitar in your face all the time.
WM: Speaking of great guitarists, were you a Stevie Ray Vaughn fan, too?
McCray: I was.
WM: How was it recording with Vaughan's keyboardist, Reese Wynans, in the band?
McCray: It was very rewarding. He's a gentleman. And nobody's got better road stories than Reese. He's just a kind person, a very good player. And you know, to play with that aura and the spirit all of what [he's experienced].
I think that every time you make a connection with somebody, you are also connected with their whole career. It's something about the karma and the spirit of the musicians themselves that infiltrates into the music. And so I feel that having these individuals on the project connected me with a lot more spirits.
WM: Why did you decide to cover Albert King's "Roadhouse Blues"?
McCray: Because I'm a big fan of Albert King and I think that's a song that I enjoy playing. I just wanted to play me some slow blues. And in a style where I feel that I could do pretty well.
The only thing about that tune, if you notice, that on that particular song, it was not played as a song [with] the band, 'OK, 1-2-3, let's go.' I was just goofing around in the studio. And then the bass player caught on, the drums caught on, and everybody kind of came in and jammed and so when it was all done, I'm like, 'Okay, we got it now. Let's cut it.' [And everyone said], 'Nope. No. That's it. That's that.' And I was like, "Nooo!' [laughs].
WM: I wouldn't have guessed that. It sounded so well put together. Are there things in it that you dislike?
McCray: No...I'm a perfectionist. And at some point, I want to do a record whether I feel that I got everything, all my i's dotted and all my t's crossed. But by the same token, I don't want to polish it up so much that it loses its feel. So things like that, if I had my way I probably would have cut it again and did a real polished, strong version of that.
But sometimes the intangibles are more important than the things that we can't see or the things that we do notice, and from that standpoint, 'No man, the feel is right, the feel is right,' that's what Joe said. I don't argue about everything. I want to be happy and make good music. That's all I want.
Toilet paper blues
WM: Where did the music for "Breaking News" come from? Because it's a little bit funky.
McCray: Stylistically, I always hoped to play funky blues, but well-arranged blues. That to me was reminiscent of something like Les McCann. I don't know if you remember "Compared to What," a song that he put out years and years ago. But you know, that was what it reminded me of, something that he did but the main thing was the message and the beat. It was mostly inspired by the pandemic. You know," The price of bread keep rising."
The original lyric was "Toilet paper can't be found / The only cities that are growing / Are the California shanty towns." And Joe didn't didn't like toilet paper, so we said groceries [laughs]. But I mean I thought toilet paper was much more effective and straight to the point.
Before I recorded it, every time I played it, and when I would get the first verse out, it's like people's ears would perk right up. And I knew I had them listening, you know, [sings] "Price of bread is rising / Toilet paper can't be found / The only cities that are growing / Are the California shanty towns. [Speaking] Nation is in turmoil / Fighting from the left and the right / Future keep on getting dark and I can't go to sleep at night." Why? Breaking news got me fucked up, you know?
WM: The creative process is about making concessions, but is that hard, when you have a lyric that you like and someone wants to change it?
McCray: That was very hard for me to drop because I thought that we had nailed it. I felt that that was it. What do you think? When you heard that [toilet paper line], that kind struck a nerve, did it or did it not?
WM: Yeah, definitely. To my ears, too. It goes back to what you were saying about what you and Keb' Mo' talked about, about being direct and straightforward.
McCray: And conversational.
WM: Yeah, because that's like what people say. So yeah, if it had been me producing, I would have said, 'Oh, that's a great line.' But so what happens with the line? Do you just defer to Joe because he's producing? Or did he make an argument? How did you decide to let it go?
McCray: Well, I mean, I'm not a controversial person anyway, so I always tried to be compliant, at least be willing to meet halfway, if there's a situation or problem. So if it was up to me, I would have kept it the same way. But by the same token, it was not a big enough issue to make a point out of and then to make it be a stumbling block. You know, 'No, man, I want that lyric! No, no!' It just wasn't important enough.
We found a word that we both were willing to agree upon, but I think on that particular one, I took the concession, which is okay, too.
Interview edited for brevity and clarity.