American blues guitarist Chris Cain had the best music education anyone could ask for. As a young kid in San Jose, Chris’s father would take him to see the greats… Ray Charles, BB King, James Brown. He was never lectured or forced to like the blues, jazz or soul, his dad would merely sit him down in front of these legends and let the music seep into his soul. Chris took that inspiration and go to work in his bedroom, trying to mimic those tunes on his guitar. He spent every waking hour he wasn’t at school inside his bedroom playing his instrument. It’s a pastime he’d be happily still doing if it wasn’t for the fact that he got so good at it that other people wanted to see him play too. Since releasing his debut album Late Night City Blues in 1987, Cain hasn’t stopped recording and performing his heartwarming brand of blues and roots all over the world. The acclaimed guitarist has toured Australia many times and looks forward to returning in May for another extensive tour.
Chris was in Copperopolis, California packing his bags in preparation for the trip when AM’s Greg Phillips gave him a call to chat about his career and the upcoming Australian tour.
Chris, tell me about some of the important gigs that your dad took you to when you were young. Which ones made the most impact on you?
We would see Ray Charles and BB King every time they would come to the Civic Auditorium in San Jose, which was maybe once a year. I got to see BB many times. My dad was beautiful, one time at Christmas he asked me to put my suit on. I asked him where we were going and he didn’t tell me. He took me to see James Brown just when Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag came out. It was jam packed with people, the walls were sweatin’ but dad would take me to see all kinds of things … a folk rock festival with Jimi Hendrix. He wasn’t trying to push anything on me, he’d just sit me in front of these things and not really say anything and just see if I liked it or not. I always enjoyed every one of these trips, it was beautiful … my dad was just great like that. It was great because way before The Thrill Is Gone or anything like that, people didn’t know what BB King was playing, there was no internet or anything like that and we’d see him at these little clubs like the Swahili Room but dad would always know where he was playing.
Did you get to meet BB King?
I did, I got to meet him and got to open a show once and he was very nice to me. As a kid I just thought he was the greatest thing because he looked good, always sounded great and to me just a great person. To hear him play was always exciting.
I wanted to mention a few other names of guys that you met … Albert King?
Albert King .. that was something I still can’t believe to this day. I opened a show for him one time and the people that ran the club were talking with him, trying to get him to let me play and he said no! You know I loved him and didn’t want him to be mad at me or anything. We did our set and I could smell his pipe smoke… he was standing right there while we were playing, he’s watching me. He’s goin’ aha, aha … so he let me get up and play. It was a great night, my mother and father were there and it was very beautiful. After that every time I would go to Memphis for something, he would always come to my gigs. He brought Otis Clay to my gigs, he was just beautiful to me. I know with those guys sometimes and the little guitar players .. you wanna crush them like bugs but for some reason he was very nice to me and they were some of my fondest memories. I went to his funeral and I couldn’t listen to his records for about two and half years after that because it was so devastating for me.
You also met the third King, Freddie King …
Yeah, I met him but he was different to the other fellas, he just wanted to talk about women, you know gals and I was just a kid. I loved his stuff so much and any chance I had I wanted to see as much as I could see, it was exciting stuff to me … still is!
Do you fear for the future of the blues as a genre with many of the older guys gone now? Do you see enough younger artists coming up and playing the blues?
Oh yeah, there are guys here in the town that I live in, young characters that play their butts off. I didn’t really think there was that much interest with people in their 20s as there is with old characters like me but there are some guys I get together with, you know you could wake them up in the middle of the night to go play guitar and they will. I totally relate to that because I was a nut about the whole thing too. They work hard at playing and knowing the history of music, It’s a great thing. These young characters are going to do great stuff.
You played saxophone too. Many guitar players say they are influenced by sax lines. What is it about the sax that influences so many guitar players?
Definitely. The way the guitar is laid out, it’s kind of like these little boxes, you get locked in it. When you listen to a saxophone player, they play none of that, they play changes and play differently. When you play guitar you find these little phrases and bend the thing and it will fit but saxophone players can play over the changes and really detail each chord change. They way they do it and the way they phrase it, to me it sounds beautiful. I was always drawn to saxophone playing. At first I was just trying to learn patterns from Charlie Parker, that kind of thing. Eventually I got an alto sax and just started playing for my own entertainment really. That’s how I got to do what I am doing now, sitting in my room with my guitar and listening to records and thinking if I could just learn to play this solo, it would be so great. After school I would come home and play my records, I ruined all my records I played them so much but I do the same thing today. I just love to play the guitar. The chase never ends. Saxophone players though, are what drove me to listen to a lot of jazz and some elements of that began to creep into my thing sometimes.
How many guitars do you generally take on the road?
I only take one really. I guess I have been lucky. Sometimes locally I will take a second guitar in case something happens but when I go on the road I’ll use the one guitar. I have a 335 that I got in about 1989. Herb Ellis, the jazz guitar player and another jazz player Terry Holmes spoke to Gibson and got a 335 for me. They sent it to my house and my mother said, what did you tell these people you were going to do? I said mum, I didn’t tell them I was going to do anything. So they sent it to my house and it’s like a 1980s reissue of a ’58 dot neck and I named it Melba. I have been playing that since 1989 with a MusicMan RG112 amplifier from the 70s that I got when I was making my first album, Late Night City Blues. My amplifier blew up at the session so I went to the nearest music store and asked what they had with tubes and that’s what they had for $500 and that has been the amp I have been using since 1987 when I put my first band together. It’s really a durable amp and it just happened to sound great with that guitar, they paired up really well together. I’ve never really had to think about another amplifier, I’ve always been satisfied with that and it’s been great… 50 watts of pure hell. It’s like a little lunchbox, I take it everywhere for work.
I know you are not a pedals guy but have you ever fooled around with fx pedals?
In about 1969 I borrowed a wah wah pedal from a friend of mine and I really dug that. After a while of using it, what I seemed to really like was the most was to put it all the way down so it was super trebley like a razor blade kind of tone. I liked that even more than moving it up and down but really I have just always had a cord and the guitar. Sometimes I hear guys and they can do such beautiful things with that stuff but I’d probably just trip over it all and fall into the front row!
What about picks and cables, the accessories, are you fussy about those things?
Not really. There used to be some cords that weren’t that good but nowadays you can get really good cords very cheaply, so I just use some kind of a straight cord. Picks … I use Fender heavies. I don’t really use capo or anything but I like a heavy pick. I don’t use any reverb on my amp. Some guys say that’s crazy. I don’t know why, it’s not that I don’t like the sound of it but in the last 20 years I’ve always unhooked the reverb in my amplifier… I dunno?
What about acoustic guitar? Do you pick up an acoustic very often at home?
I have a Martin, a little Auditorium model that’s really beautiful. Right now I am in the midst of trying to do something besides playing the blues in open E on acoustic guitar. For most of my life that is all I have been able to muster out of one of those things. I’ve been listening to my Beatle records. With a Beatles song you can just get an acoustic guitar and you can pick it up and sing the tune. I am experimenting, trying to write some songs on acoustic guitar that have melodies and you don’t have to have solo things on it … just a song. I am always trying things I have no business doing! When the acoustic guys are writing they are thinking of a melody and with blues tunes a lot of the time, there is no melody. So it is something I haven’t done. To me that’s a real song, it has a melody, so I am going to get the acoustic guitar out and see if I can write 4 or 5 songs in that vein.
And record them?
Yeah, just here in my little laboratory. I have a little home set up so I can make demos if I need for the band and a lot of the time.
You are coming back to Australia this month. Are you bringing a band or using an Australian band for this tour?
I will be playing with Australian fellas again and you know it is beautiful because from the first time I went to Australia I met so many great guys. I stayed in people’s homes and I got to have a taste of everyday life in Australia. I went everywhere from Broken Hill to you name it. I went on a tour with Mark Williams and it was awesome. I got to meet Jeff Lang and guys from Kevin Borich’s band, Chris Finnen … amazing guitarists and singers. Every guy I saw in Australia could just get up on an acoustic guitar in a hotel full of guys who were plowed and just rock the thing! Everyone could sing like a bird and play so beautifully. I can’t believe I have been goin’ there for like 20 years but it’s my favourite place to go and I know so many people there. It has turned out to be a beautiful gift that dropped off into my lap.
You have released a bunch of albums but the last one you released was self-titled. Why a self-titled album so far down the track?
That wasn’t supposed to be an album. My father had passed away years ago but I was sitting there one day and thinking of the kind of blues tunes that he liked … Guitar Sam, Ray Charles, all these guys, so I started trying make this pack of tunes. It was like a love letter to my dad really is what it was. I was just doing it for myself really and had about eight tunes and recorded them at the house. Kid Anderson came by, he was a guest at this weekly thing that I do and he said what is that? He said well you should record that. I ended up recording it and it became an album and the fact that people have dug it means a lot to me because it was just a thing for my dad. I had a beautiful time recording it and when it was done and I heard it, I wept because I was hoping to get some of those flavours on this thing. To hear it coming out of the speakers and capturing some of those feelings, it was a beautiful thing for me.
What are you most proud of on your music career?
I think just the fact that … I can’t believe that people have been following me for 30 years. I have a hard head and I don’t know any better and I just love to play. Anyone who will let me play I just love to do it. It’s a beautiful thing to do and if people take the time to listen to what I am playing, its beautiful for me. It’s been beyond my wildest dreams. I was just going to be in my room all the time playing my guitar and I never thought I’d be travelling around the country or the world and playing for people. It wasn’t my plan.
May Tour Dates
Thu 9 The Gov Adelaide w/Lazy Eye – www.thegov.com.au
Fri 10 Thornbury Theatre, Melbourne w/Phil Para – www.thethornburytheatre.com
Sat 11 Fyrefly St. Kilda w Phil Para – www.fyreflystkilda.com.au/shows
Thu 16 Blues on Broadbeach – www.bluesonbroadbeach.com
Fri 17 Blues on Broadbeach – www.bluesonbroadbeach.com
Sat 18 Republic Bar Hobart w/Pete Cornelious – www.republicbar.com
Sun 19 Bridge Hotel Forth w/Pete Cornelious – www.facebook.com/pg/forthpub
Wed 22 Heritage Hotel Bulli w /Simon Kinney-Lewis – www.heritagehotel.com.au
Thu 23 Brass Monkey Cronulla w/Simon Kinney-Lewis –www.brassmonkey.com.au
Fri 24 Club York Sydney w/Simon Kinney-Lewis – www.clubyork.com.au
Sat 25 Southern Cross Club Canberra w/Simon Kinney-Lewis – www.cscc.com.au
Sun 26 Lizotte’s Newcastle w/Simon Kinney-Lewis – www.lizottes.com.au