Blues singer, songwriter, and guitarist Larry McCray lost two brothers in the past two years, and a sister in 2000. But through the blues, he has found a means of dealing with his loss.
"There is something missing there, and I got to figure out a way to express what I feel about it," McCray said about the deaths of his brothers. The loss of his sister became the inspiration for his work "Picture on the Wall."
The blues have also provided the Michigan-based McCray with an avenue for dealing with other aspects of life, from family to money, he said.
"There are at least 500 shades of the blues," McCray said, echoing Gil Scott-Heron. He works with many of those shades in songs such as "Blues Is My Business," "Feel So Damn Good (I'll Be Glad When I Got the Blues)," "Soul Shine," and "Don't Need No Woman Like That."
McCray said he found his first commercial success with 1993's Delta Hurricane, tapping into the then-popular big-band blues sound. The album features "Soul Shine," a song that has become one of McCray's most popular pieces. It is also part of his set list for the IH Mississippi Valley Blues Festival.
"You got to let your soul shine," McCray said of the song. "Life throws a lot of adversities and difficult things in front of us sometimes, but we have to muster the strength to continue on, to overcome whatever that difficulty is. And that is what soul shine is - the power to continue, to move on." These days, McCray is often asked to play "Soul Shine" at funerals.
While working on Delta Hurricane in the late '80s, McCray was offered the song by Warren Haynes, a member of the Allman Brothers Band. Although "Soul Shine" has been recorded by many artists, McCray was the first.
His treatment features a heavy guitar sound that creates a tension with the hopeful lyrics, and it's structured as a call and response between his voice and the instrument. Growing up in Michigan, far from the centers of blues music, McCray was exposed to heavy metal and hard rock, both of which were more popular around Saginaw than the blues.
"I think it kinda changed my tone from the blues masters who used the clean," McCray said. "I kind of use a dirtier tone."
The "dirtier tone" reveals itself in several segments of "Soul Shine" when McCray weaves together quick notes without clear articulation. He achieves a sound closer to Jimi Hendrix (similar to a slowed down "Red House") than B.B. King.
Still, the slow, deep blues of "Soul Shine" are evocative of the "three Kings" - B.B., Albert, and Freddie. "Those were a lot of the people that when I was a little kid, I thought they walked on water," McCray said.
McCray's late sister, Clara, taught him the basics of the guitar through the works of Jimmy Reed and Freddie King and then left him to explore the other sounds he encountered. She is the most direct influence on his music, he said.
McCray's forthcoming seventh album deals with the loss of Clara and his two brothers, the growth and change in his own family, and aging. (He is 49.) "I think that being a blues artist, you try to write about the truth," he said. "And I think you can only write about what you live and what you know."
McCray said that musically, he's exploring sounds outside of the blues, including R&B, funk, soul, and reggae. "I love rhythm. I am a rhythm person first," he said.
But emotion is still paramount. "I will never be a virtuoso on my instrument, but I think that my virtuosity is to be able to convey emotion on my instrument," McCray said. "It's not all about technique, but it is about making people feel what you feel in blues music. ... I would rather hear someone that plays with a lot of emotion than a lot of technique."
McCray is familiar with the Quad Cities region from having played the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival in 1992, as well as from several visits to RIBCO over the years. But he said those gigs might have been long enough ago to merit a re-introduction. "I hope I can reach them through their soul, I hope they feel the soul of my music," McCray said.