Sustaining qualities of the best blues musicians, beyond their music, are most often humility and graciousness. Chris Cain certainly has plenty of both. “I owe everything that’s good that’s happened to me to playing this piece of wood. And, more than anything, I owe that to my dad,” says Cain. The past year has proven to be a year of resurgence for Cain, who first burst on the scene thirty years ago with his debut, Late Night City Blues. With seven albums in the interim, Chris was not prepared for the overwhelming response he’s received for 2017’s self- titled effort. “This was done simply as a love letter to my late father. I never expected this kind of reaction. And, this past year, I can honestly say is the most fun I’ve ever had playing the guitar.”
Cain’s dad was the foundation for his jazz-inspired soulful guitar playing and powerfully deep vocals. You’ll hear B.B. King and Albert King in Cain’s playing because, through his dad, he started attending their concerts at the age of 3, met them, and, in the case of greats like Albert King and Albert Collins, shared the stage with them. “My dad was a truck driver but somehow he always knew where B.B. King and some of his other favorites were playing. We’d always go there – we never missed a B.B. King or Johnny Otis show. Man, not just the music but the way these guys would dress…so sharp…it would make them look like they were 18 feet tall.”
Cain goes on to describe his dad. “My dad had the largest record collection and the biggest hi-fi in the neighborhood. I can remember him mowing the lawn with Muddy Waters blasting through those speakers. It was cool. He loved the three Kings but loved piano players too. Ray Charles, Lloyd Glenn, Otis Spann, and Charles Brown. You know I went through my Beatles phase and all but what I remember most was all of the great music my parents would play at our house.”
Cain’s mom exposed him to Michael Bloomfield and Chris recalls watching a video as a teenager, reacting, “He looks like me. It could be me. This is entirely possibly. It was an affirmation, man. It was then that I decided that I’d keep trying to do this.” In a relative mode, Cain says, “I see that same kind of reaction in the 11-year-old kids I meet in Brazil who come up to me saying, “I have your Cuttin’ Loose record. I don’t know how to do anything else. The Blues cruises have been great. I’ve never seen people have so much fun. I’m still thrilled that people go out and want to listen to this music and my music.”
Cain, a native of San Jose, California is the third son of an African-American/Greek family headed by Georgia Can and the late Walter fields, who originally hailed from Memphis. His dad was a self-taught guitarist who never really had the time to devote nearly as much energy into playing as he did into listening. He gave Chris his first guitar at the age of eight and Chris was playing professionally in clubs before he was eighteen.
Cain went on to study music at San Jose City College and began teaching jazz improvisation there, soon after. Over the next twenty years Cain took up playing the piano, bass guitar, clarinet, alto, and tenor saxophones. So, the combination of his upbringing, his studies. and teaching came together to form his fiery, emotional guitar style – one that clearly incorporates elements of B.B. King, the string bending of Albert King, and jazz elements found in that vintage Blue Note period from 1958-62. While there are other guitarists out there who can mimic the Kings – Duke Robillard for just about anyone and Monster Mike Welch for B.B., as just two examples; Cain stands alone in his natural ability to blend both Kings into his own singular approach.
Chris talked both about witnessing his guitar heroes and later about sharing the stage with them. “I remember seeing B.B. at Winterland. He always looked so good. He was playing and singing, and tears were coming down his cheeks. Those memories are etched in my soul. And Albert – oh, what bands he had in those days with James Washington on B3. My dad and I would never miss a show – bending those string and all that intensity while standing pretty still.” Cain later got to share the stage with Albert. “We opened for Albert at J.J.s and I’m playing my set. My parents were there, and it was indeed a special night. Then I started to smell the pipe and he invites me to come play with him. After I took my solo, he turned to the audience and said, “This is a nice young man.” Cain goes on, “In the eighties he would always come to my gigs in Memphis. Those hands of his were so big- just shaking his hand was like putting yours in a beanbag chair. And yet he was the real deal. I can remember his pouring oil into his truck. When he passed away, I was totally devastated. It took me about two years before I could even listen to his records again.”
Cain also described sharing the stage with Albert Collins. “it was at the Santa Rosa Blues Festival. I’d finished my set and was relaxed. I walk across the street and his bus door opens, ‘You ready, boy?’ So, he invites me to play. He gives me the solo and then keeps nodding for me to play more. I felt like I was up there for 3 months. Wow! What a force of nature with that thumb- so vibrant, full of energy and then 3 weeks later he was gone.”
We talked about his first musical break and getting his first record done. “A friend of my family, my mom’s, loaned me the money to make the record that Pat Ford released on Blue Rock’It, Late Night City Blues. I recall blowing fuses in my amp, buying a new one for $500 because I needed to get the record done. I’m still using that amp today. I was doing the recording just to get more jobs around town. If you took the club owners a tape, they might politely nod but if you took them an album that made you much bigger, more legitimate I suppose as if you were going places. So, I went in there and made the record the way I wanted to do it. Yet, today that record is still my favorite. I was me doing it my way.”
“I wasn’t prepared for what happened. Wow! It took off. One minute I’m in San Jose, the next minute I’m in Belgium. No one said ‘no’ to anything. Stuff that happened I couldn’t have even dreamed. We opened for the Neville Brothers at the Hard Rock n Dallas. But we did everything possible that you could do wrong. Stayed up too late…I really learned the hard way. Now I’m like Ward Cleaver.”
On the strength of that debut record Cain and his band were nominated for four W.C. Handy Awards (now Blues Music Awards), including “Best Instrumentalist – Guitar” and “Blues Band of the year.” Festival gigs and international touring followed. But Cain re-iterated the dizzy nature of those times, again saying “No one said no to anything.” Cain described this past year as being similar from an activity standpoint but was quick to add, “I’ve been playing 25-30 years and it’s just been the last 10-15 years that I’ve seen people’s faces in the room. I was in my own kind of bubble, but something happened where I felt connected to the people.”
Responding to what it takes to get a genuine blues sound, Cain commented, “For 15-20 years I would play the riffs I remembered. Now I make wiser choices on the guitar. I put my feeling and soul into what I play now. I don’t know how it happened, but it started to feel like I could fly or something. I can’t think when I’m playing but now I don’t – I just play what I’m feeling. I’m so lucky my father handed me that guitar. It’s been my best friend.”
While the guitar has been Cain’s calling card, his songwriting and especially his rich vocals complete his powerful blues package. Chris spoke about developing his vocal approach this way, “I would sing in my speaking voice. We’d jam for three days at my brother’s house and one time this guy, Curtis Salgado shows up – the whole party had a coronary. Nobody had ever heard somebody sing like that. Then a bit after that with Gary Smith in San Jose – Gary was the guy, a real influence – I remember drinking the Mickey Wide Mouths…guess I was a little drunk, really relaxed…I was doing ‘Tore Down” and this gutsy vocal just came out of me…. this big old noise…. I still have the tape. And I kept going back to it, listening to guys like Jimmy Witherspoon and Big Joe Turner. I wanted that baritone kind of sound. I knew I couldn’t do the falsetto thing like lots of good blues singers can. Now I just relax and let it go.”
Chris also plays other instruments, professing a real love for the piano and sax. “At home now, I normally play piano. I have a bunch of material I want to record. I’ve recorded a bunch of little demos to keep my brain sharp. I did get to play both piano and sax on this latest record and having Larry Taylor play bass on it was especially awesome. The piano feels natural. I find that the sax requires lots of concentration. I feel like I was just dabbling. Now I play certain notes …I just want to get the sound right before I record much more of it.”
Cain spoke about his fondness for alto saxophonists and the straight-ahead tenor guys. “Again, it was listening to my dad’s records and Lester Young and Charlie Parker made the big impressions. But, I just love the sound of Cannonball Adderley, Phil woods, David ‘Fathead’ Newman, Hank Crawford…. guys like that. Oh, and Art Pepper. He used to play all over the place around here after he made his comeback. I read his book. I understand why there is so much pain in his sound. You know I like Coltrane too (speaking of tenor saxophonists) but I always somehow gravitated to the straight-ahead guys. Those Blue Note guys were great from Stanley Turrentine to Hank Mobley and fellow like Red Prysock, Sal NIstico, Flip Phillips….Give me Zoot Sims and Al Cohn any time.”
Although Cain no longer teaches at the college, he still gives week-long guitar clinics in places like Argentina and New Zealand. “Teaching was another gift that came from nowhere that I owe to this piece of wood. I would do combo classes and clinics so that the class would learn a form like 12 bar blues and as the class would get into it, that’s where I’d go. When I began to travel a lot, I couldn’t keep my commitment to the college schedule, but this is some of the heaviest stuff I’ve ever done. After a week of these clinics, these students are like my kids. It’s hard to let go.”
“Now that many of the older guys are gone ….(laughing – “I guess I’m an older guy now”) but you know, the originators, it’s great to see guys that Ronnie Baker Brooks and Nick Moss mentoring these kids. We all need mentors. Ronnie Earl, from those early days in Belgium when he was leading roomful of Blues to even more now with his singular, spiritual style continues to be a major inspiration. He’s just such a gentle soul. That was so much fun a couple of years ago at The Pennsylvania Blues Festival seeing Ronnie and then having him come up and play in my set.”
Immediately realizing that my attempt to draw Chris into fashioning his “dream band” was futile, our conversation retreated full circle to more recent topics. “My dream band would be like 7000 people, but I do like what I have on this most recent album – keyboards, sax, drums, bass, and guitar. It worked for Howlin’ Wolf, didn’t it? I recently saw Jimmy Vaughan in Dallas and he gets a great sound from his band with his guitar sound and those horns.”
Noting that Chris will be featured in some major west coast blues festivals like the Doheny Blues Festival this summer as “Chris Cain and the All-stars,” the same lineup as the recent album, we began to talk a little about those players and recording at Kid Andersen’s Greaseland Studios. “Man, playing with Larry Taylor on bass is amazing. He brings so much energy whether I’m on guitar or piano. We did it live at Portland Waterfront Blues Festival and then for this album we brought in one of the best drummers and a great guy, Tony Braunagel, the great Jim Pugh on organ and Nancy Wright joined us on sax.”
“Greaseland is like a Make a Wish house for guitar players…so much vintage gear…guitars on the walls. I’d been there five or six times before I made the record there. And now it’s becoming like a West Coast Muscle Shoals. Actually, prior to this record I played with Little Charlie on a recording we did for June Core.” Asking him to describe the studio, Chris described how each musician is in a different room. “It’s his house. The drums are in the entry room, the bass and keyboards are in the kitchen. You go down the hallway and he puts the vocals in the laundry room. I’m playing my guitar in the men’s room and Kid is in the garage, tracking it all from there. He has a way of getting a great sound. I could gauge my performance just by the look on Kid’s face. He puts so much love into the recording. I cried my eyes out when I heard the sound.”
Visit Chris Cain’s website at: www.chriscainmusic.com
Interviewer Jim Hynes has been broadcasting and/or writing about blues, jazz, and roots music for over four decades. He’s interviewed well over 700 artists and currently writes for four other publications besides this one. His blues columns and interviews can be found in Elmore and Glide Magazines.