Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Blues Without Corn Pone

Blues fans are a proud and ornery breed, so there are bound to be dissenters--lowdown diehards who find Robert Cray's Strong Persuader (Mercury) short on grit or abandon or boogie or shuffle or purity or poverty. And it's just as certain they'll be swamped in a chorus of yeas because by any disinterested standard Strong Persuader is the best blues record in many, many years, so fervently crafted that it may even get what it deserves and become the first album to break out of the genre's sales ghetto since B.B. King was a hot item.

Actually, there's one instructive exception of sorts: Z.Z. Hill's Down Home. Cut for the late r&b journeyman in 1981 by Mississippi's Malaco label, Down Home occupied the uncharted and commercially unpromising territory between soul and blues and eventually went gold behind a string of hits that barely creased Northern radio. Hill was a bluesy veteran who turned a Bobby Bland rasp into a virtual trademark when he landed at Malaco, where a predominantly black songwriting stable obsessed with the perils of monogamy took him in hand and white producers added soul bottom and goodly dollops of sweetening. In short, he was a hack who hit the jackpot. Cray is no hack--he's one of a kind on a circuit with small tolerance for deviants. yet Hill's new Greatest Hits is almost as memorable song for song as Strong Persuader itself, and that's a test that draws the two artists together. At 33, Cray is a distinctive, multithreat talent: fearless formal innovator, brainy bandleader, terse yet fluent guitarist, and the most authoritative singer to emerge from blues since Bland and King. He can also be a hell of a composer--Eric Clapton's cover of "Bad Influence" will surface soon, and there'll be others. Yet what's always put Cray over the top, and what makes Strong Persuader the great record it is, is the songwriting of his support team: keyb man Peter Boe, coproducer Bruce Bomberg a/k/a D. Amy, and, especially, coproducer Dennis Walker.

Bromberg and Walker, who produced Ted Hawkins for Rounder and have a gutty new album on their Hightone label from San Francisco bluesman Joe Louis Walker, are de facto heirs of Alligator's Bruce Iglauer, who by dint of tireless belief made a going concern of Chicago blues in the '70s. Iglauer insists on good songs, too, but because he's no writer himself that often means well-chosen covers, and lately his fondness for boogie (as well as the size and racial makeup of the contemporary blues audience) has induced him to go for career-strength work from the houserockin' likes of Johnny Winter and Lonnie Mack.In contrast, Bromberg and Walker are after what can only be called poetry, and syncretic poetry at that. Not only do their songs occupy uncharted territory on the blues side of soul--cold-eyed, full of feeling yet chary of soul's redemptive promise--but they're also more country than Hill's Malaco vehicles, proof of a quixotic quest for new and better cheating songs. Boe's "Still Around," in which Cray is blue because his woman didn't move out last night, finds a fresh wrinkle if not angle, and Walker's "Right Next Door" turns the remorseful lust of "Porch Light," which kicked off Cray's superb False Accusations last year, into a moral identity. Through thin apartment walls a "strong persuader" listens to the confession of the woman he's just chalked up. Then he listens to her husband walk out. He feels bad about it. He does nothing. In the silence he "can hear their breaking hearts."

It's impossible to capture all the doomed, detached self-assurance of this song on paper, because the lyrical concept is inseparable from Cray's contained vocal style, which roots out rasp the way Hill cultivated it, and always holds some of its evident power in reserve, ready for an extremity that never arises even though you know damn well it's around the corner. Cray's sexual roles range from the good-time man of "Nothing but a Woman" to the cuckold-turned-predator of "New Blood" to the suspicious schmuck of Walker's outrageous "I Guess I Showed Her," who beats the woman he caught "having lunch with some new guy" by moving into a motel, abandoning her to the house, the car, and no him. But the strong persuader subsumes all his other personas and embodies his artistic stance.

You might say Strong Persuader was an array of perfectly realized gems like Randy Newman's 12 Songs except that bluesmen aren't permitted set pieces--they're supposed to convey feeling, authenticity, you know the lingo. And Cray does this, but never manipulatively, never to convince us that there's no difference between Cray the man and Cray the singer. Not that he puts feelings in quotation marks--simulating them, paying tribute to them. Say rather that he knows conveying them isn't his lot, so he creates them instead. Truth be told, this is what most performing artists do, as their best audiences understand. But with Muddy Waters or George Jones or Wilson Pickett or Albert Collins or Buddy Guy the distance between man and singer seems familiar, part of common experience; the average fan can imagine traversing a similar gap using introspection and recollection. Like any young bluesman, Cray has a lot further to go, because he's compelled to work through layers of learned tradition, and smart enough to confirm with every bar that the formal bounds of his tradition can just as well embrace soul and hard country, which in 1986 are historical as surely as blues is. So the situations he enacts seem both brand new and weighed down with cultural baggage, just like the expressive means he's put together so self-consciously. Cray's admirers (and Cray himself) may well be unaware of this process. But something like it is the source of the honesty and impact that draws listeners to the feelings he creates.

Of course, honesty and impact in themselves never broke anybody out of a sales ghetto, and Cray, who appreciates the loyalty but not the narrow-mindedness of the contemporary blues audience, does want out. Though he and his producers signed with Mercury on the understanding that the label wouldn't tamper, that didn't mean they weren't ready to tinker. As a result, the best blues album in many, many years isn't very traditional-sounding: hooky Stax-Volt with guitar solos is the idea. At the Bottom Line last Friday, Cray and his band came on like Booker T. and the M.G.'s with the races and guitar-organ roles reversed, and though I'm informed they rely on blues chords (minor ones to be sure), I hear echoes of Steely Dan and the white album in their soulish structures, especially live. The new record bolsters its minimal instrumentation with a resonant, AOR-ready mix (plus the Memphis Horns here and there), and tempos are up a few crucial beats per minute, much to the relief of drummer David Olson, who ain't no Al Jackson Jr. and sounded pretty clunky trying to extract the funk from the ruminative pace Cray formerly favored. The plan is to sell Cray to white rock fans, and initially it's working--"Smoking Gun" is picking up adds like a lead cut should, and the video, a montage of live clips dating back to distant 1982, has somehow snuck into medium rotation on MTV. Cray's rap as bluesman to stars like Clapton is expected to grease the wheels a bit, and so are his good looks, but in the end I get the feeling Mercury is banking on the sheer quality of the product as well. Though this sort of faith in aesthetic achievement is enough to make any critic nervous, I must admit it's touching.

One thing's certain--Mercury's not going to do a Z.Z. on Cray, promoting him with every black secondary in the Confederate States of America. A Georgian-born army brat who got his shit together in Seattle, Cray is less Southern-sounding than any black blues singer in history. For all his command of tradition there's no corn pone in the man, no appeal to the old ways, and soul diehards are going to have to learn to like it. In the same spirit, he seems disinclined to deliver the boogie release that white blues and rock fans seek in lieu of soul redemption. I expected him to open up some at the Bottom Line, and it's possible he and his band haven't grooved the new material on stage quite yet, but though Cray's guitar was right there whether he was chopping out a rhythm part or ripping off one of his viciously syncretic solos, he refused to go over the top even on the 12-bar blowouts and the utterly gripping "Porch Light," which remained a power-packed miracle of concentration as the band stretched it out. The casual parting line from Richard Cousins, Cray's invaluable bassist for 12 years, epitomized the evening's zero bullshit quotient: "It's been fun, but we gotta run."

In short, Cray is intent on getting over the hard way--which his tradition has taught him is also the only way. That's why he hasn't just come up with the best blues album in many, many years. He's come up with the only kind of modern that counts in a soft, escapist time.

Village Voice, Dec. 2, 1986