Larry McCray - Blues Without You (2022) - Album Review

By Paul Rigg

A Man Reborn  

Larry McCray
made waves with his stunning guitar and baritone voice in the early 1990s with the albums Ambition and Delta Hurricane - and played or toured with B.B. King, Buddy Guy, the Allman Brothers, Albert King and John Mayall– but then all ‘went quiet.’ It is known he battled prostate cancer and passed through some difficult times, but fans will have to wait for the release of his autobiography to learn just how dark his life has been. Meanwhile clues and hints about that journey can be found in the lyrics of his remarkable comeback album: Blues Without You (25 March 2022; KTBA Records).

McCray says he wishes that he had made this album when he was younger, but of course he hadn’t had the necessary hard knocks at that time. Also Joe Bonamassa’s Keeping the Blues Alive project, which specializes in bringing unheralded or forgotten blues artists into the spotlight, was not available to him. Here however, Bonamassa and Josh Smith team up with McCray to produce an album that also features stars like Warren Haynes, Joanna Connor, and Reese Wynans; bassist Travis Carlton, drummer Lemar Carter, background vocalists Jade MacRae and Dannielle DeAndrea; as well as a stellar horn section.


“I couldn’t be prouder of Larry and the record we made.
He is a true legend, the last of a generation and an artist without peer. We owed it to him to make the best record we possibly could,” says Josh Smith. “Larry McCray is the last of the great blues shouters from the rust belt,” Bonamassa adds. “In the spirit of BB King, Luther Allison and Little Milton, Larry is among the greats.”

McCray can play guitar riffs but he knows how to also give space, and both facets are on show on the outstanding single and bluesy album-opener Arkansas, on which he appears to play his Echopark Ghetto Bird. While McCray is now based in Michigan, his roots are in rural Arkansas, and he still clearly has great affection for that period. “Feeding hogs, bailing straw, amongst all the other chores that a kid of that generation had to perform, and still, we found a way to find the joy and make it seem as though it was no work at all,” he says.


The second single release is Breaking News, which is not quite as strong but nonetheless contains a great jazz-driven groove. Most people can probably relate to the feeling of being overwhelmed by news items featuring seemingly endless political travails and
social injustice; though perhaps it is on McCray’s more personally-oriented and heartfelt songs that his lyrics really hit home.

One such example is Down to the Bottom, featuring Warren Haynes on slide, where the impact of the song is strengthened by the growing crescendo of strings and background vocals. Another is Blues Without You (for Paul), which pays homage to his deceased manager Paul Koch and their decades-long friendship. McCray expresses his grief through the lyrics, the way he sings them, and the skilfull employment of baleful
horns, strings, and backing harmonies.


Another great track is the danceable blues and gospel number, Good Die Young, which again showcases  McCray’s incredibly rich voice. On Drinking Liquor and Chasin’ Women, on the other hand, McCray follows his guitar solo with a ‘battle’ with Joanna Connor, who helps set the track on fire. The same could be said for Mr. Easy, but this time it is Smokin’ Joe who steps up to fan the flame.

Bonamassa has stepped in to help raise McCray’s profile and has succeeded in doing so, because this is his best record to date. “Writing this album made me feel proud, as it allows others to see me as more than a blues musician,” concludes McCray. “I feel totally reborn, with a whole new career, and I'm optimistic about what the future holds.”