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Robert Cray’s breakout success is behind him, but the blues never left

Robert Cray has five upcoming shows in New England.Turner Cray Inc.

Way back in the 1980s, after the Blues Brothers sparked a new interest in blues and soul, Robert Cray emerged as king of the crossover, with eight Top 40 singles on the rock charts and three songs on the Hot 100 between 1986 and 1992. As hip-hop grew and rock radio faded, the spotlight shrank from the genre. While Cray has never replicated the success of his breakout album, 1986′s “Strong Persuader,” he has never stopped recording or touring across America and the globe.

At 70, Cray, a five-time Grammy winner, still boasts a rich soulful voice and blends funky and biting guitar riffs with shimmering solos. He’ll be appearing at the Payomet Performing Arts Center in North Truro on Aug. 29, the Lowell Summer Music Series on Aug. 31, Jimmy’s Jazz and Blues Club in Portsmouth, N.H., on Sept. 1-2, and the Rhythm and Roots Festival in Charlestown, R.I., on Sept. 3.


Ahead of those shows, Cray spoke by phone recently about touring, keeping his live shows fresh, writing political songs, and ending his friendship with Eric Clapton.

Q. You’re on the road, traveling by bus, for months. Do you still enjoy it?

A. I have the travel bug and like always being on the move. The world is my circuit.

If there’s time I go out on foot and take in some sights, check out the local cuisine — I like thinking about what we’re going to eat, what’s the cool place in town. And then afterwards I get to go home.

But the most fun part is being onstage. I love seeing the people’s faces. I can tell whether people are longtime fans or couples or guitar players, and see what they’ve come to the show for.

Q. You change the setlists around frequently, which must keep things fresh. How do you choose the songs?


A. The book is getting big. We do some of the favorites and mix those up and change the list every night. I used to not do a setlist at all but I lost the guys [in the band] on that idea after a bit.

After soundcheck I go down the master list like I’m reading a menu — I taste that first dish and see how it goes with that other one. I think about my voice and maybe not have two songs with really high singing in a row. Then I’ll put in a song we haven’t done for a while, or maybe throw one in we haven’t even rehearsed for a while to wake everybody in the band up.

Somebody might call out a song and I’ll say, ‘Let’s play that,’ but sometimes I say, ‘Nah, I’m not doing that.’ Sometimes you have to get away from songs but if you leave them alone for a few years you can come back to them and feel like you have a fresh approach.

Q. How have you evolved as a songwriter over the years?

A. In the past I always thought the blues songs had to be totally serious. Now I just write how I feel in the moment. I learned you can write any kind of thing, some serious, some fun, some silly, There’s a little bit of everything.

Q. Over the last 20 years you’ve written deep bluesy ballads like “Times Makes Two” and funky songs like “Back Door Slam,” “Hot,” and “Honey Bad,” but it feels like you’ve also increasingly tackled serious subjects. Was that a conscious decision?


A. When you’re out on the road, there’s a lot of time to ponder what you see going on around the world. You question things and you get other perspectives from people you meet, and we talk on the long rides on the bus. It makes you want to speak out and be the voice for those who can’t say anything.

Q. Which of those are you most proud of?

A. “Twenty” was about soldiers going to do what they signed up for or maybe what they didn’t sign up for, like the war in Iraq, which had nothing to do with the weapons of mass destruction.

“Survivor” dealt with a lot of the same ideas. It was really heartening to get a lot of response from military people saying the song was a voice they couldn’t use.

Right now I’m sitting by the TV waiting for Donald Trump to get indicted and keeping my fingers crossed. “This Man” and “Just How Low” were reactions to him.

“I’m Done Crying” is about being left out of the economy and losing your job and having everything taken away but holding onto your dignity.

Q. Speaking of politics. You ended your longtime friendship with Eric Clapton and canceled plans to open for him on tour after he and Van Morrison released an anti-vaccination song likening mandates to slavery, and then after Clapton posed for a photo op with Texas Governor Greg Abbott. Did you hear back from him after that?


A. I did hear back a while ago about trying to bury the hatchet, but I just ignored it. He wanted us to just not have any more conversations about it. I’m not going to stay silent. I stand by what I said, just like he’s standing by what he said.

Q. Your last album was “That’s What I Heard” from 2020. Any plans for a new one?

A. We’re talking about possibly going into the studio in the latter part of the year. But I’ll have to put myself in that mode. When I’m on the road that’s my main concern so I don’t have any new songs yet. I’ll write when I know I have a deadline. That’s me, “Last Minute Bob.”

But I keep myself open to ideas when they come, whether it’s in the shower or cooking — sometimes at a soundcheck we’ll be jamming and I’ll say, “Hey, there’s a song in there somewhere.”

Q. You’re becoming an elder statesman of the blues, but your sound has always been a mix of blues and soul. Was that conscious?

A. It just happened because of all the different styles of music I was listening to growing up. I’m a huge fan of soul, especially the music coming out of Memphis. I was as enamored of Otis Redding as I was of Otis Rush. You hear somebody pouring it all into a song, how can that be denied?


Q. The audience for the blues has gotten smaller. Do you feel like it will survive?

A. The music is not in any jeopardy. It’s going to be around, but it’ll be different — we made it different and the people coming up after us have their influences. But the roots are always there.

This interview has been edited and condensed. Stuart Miller can be reached at


At Payomet Performing Arts Center, North Truro, Aug. 29 at 7 p.m.; Lowell Summer Music Series at Boarding House Park, Aug. 31 at 7:30 p.m.; Jimmy’s Jazz and Blues Club, Portsmouth, N.H., Sept. 1-2 at 7:30 p.m.; Rhythm and Roots Festival, Charlestown, R.I., Sept. 3. Ticket information at