In guitar circles, Chris Cain is known as one of the greatest blues guitar players. Earlier this year, Cain released Raisin’ Cain. I had the distinct privilege of having a conversation with Chris shortly after its release. Like his music, Chris is authentic, gracious, and ready to play some live music again.
So, you’re in California, correct?
Yes. I was born in San Jose and right now I’m living in Copperopolis, CA. I’ve been in California all my life.
Your father was from Memphis, so what brought your family to California?
My dad grew up on Beale Street. He’s from Alexandria, LA, and then as a kid, he moved to Memphis and he was living on Beale Street above the Busy Bee Cab Company. Then when he went into the Navy and went to California, where he met my mom. That’s where I came along. He told me all about Beale Street and stuff, so when I finally went to play the Memphis in May festival, I got to see everything he had been telling me about in my life – and it was amazing. I found out I had relatives there. My great aunt was Ethel Venson who founded the Cotton Makers Jubilee – a people of color carnival that she did. There’s a sign about it on Beale Street but I didn’t know I had relatives there. I met her one night after a show I played there. I was just weeping. I’ve really had great times in Memphis.
What are some of your musical influences?
You know, I was lucky that my father would take me to shows. I mean, we saw B.B. King way before “The Thrill is Gone”, at these little clubs like the Swahili Room and things like that, you know, when I was very little. He would just take me to see these guys, and just kind of sit me in front of the band (and then he wouldn’t say hey, like this or anything. But you know, just rubbed off on me). But I was really lucky because I got to meet a lot of people that I really idolized thanks to my Papa.
A lot of the younger generation of Blues artists didn’t get to experience that. What was that like having that be a part of your upbringing?
Oh man, you know, I thank my lucky stars every day because I got to see B.B. every year. He would come to San Jose Civic Auditorium and my parents never missed a B.B. King or Ray Charles concert when they came. I saw him so many times and I just remember like, man! He used to play a lot of guitar. I kind of forgot. As you know, in his later years, he was more like just telling stories and playing a little bit. But man, he used to play a lot of guitar. I remember the time I saw him at Winterland with Freddie King. They were both playing! B.B. was playing with so much emotion. He had tears streaming down his cheek. It’s etched in my soul. I’ll never forget it.
The last year has been challenging for everyone with Covid-19. Obviously, you haven’t been able to play any gigs. How has that affected what you’re doing?
It has been a challenge. When Covid first started, I had been on the road for almost two years nonstop. I was having a great time, and when it first hit, it was like a non-scheduled vacation. It was great for two or three weeks – I wasn’t doing anything, just sitting in the garden. Then I turned on the television and began to see everything that was happening. After a while, I started to miss my friends. And just to keep my mind occupied, I would be sitting with a Johnnie Walker bottle watching old baseball games. Then my girlfriend told me, “You might want to be alive when your record comes out, you know?” I was trying to deal with what to do with the whole day, and I just chose to do a lot of writing. I would come to my music room and make music. I’ve been trying to keep my mind occupied. It’s like idle hands Devil’s workshop, you know?
How do you keep the creative juices flowing, in a good way?
I try to do things that are more normal, and not watch TV. If I had young kids, I don’t even know what I’d say to them. Hopefully, it will get back to some kind of normal soon. I don’t think it’ll ever be completely normal again. You know, I’m trying to just keep my chops up, in the event that we do start playing again.
Regarding your new release, Raisin’ Cain, was that recorded prior to Covid, or after it started?
Yes, it was like a month before it started. We recorded it at “Greaseland”, Kid Anderson’s studio. That place is a gas, man, because it’s like “Make-a-Wish” meets Muscle Shoals or something. He’s got a ton of old gear. For a guitar player or any musician, it’s like fun land. We went there and recorded it in two days. This was the first record in a while that I got to use my actual live band. I was really happy about that because a lot of times, the producer chooses the musicians playing on the record. It’s great to have my guys on this, and they played their butts off on that thing! I was going to release it on my own label, but then it got picked up by Alligator Records.
How did that come about?
Tommy Castro (blues artist) heard it, and he and Kid wanted to pitch it to Bruce Iglauer. They were kind of campaigning for me to be on the label, something I didn’t know. Then Alligator wanted to hear the record. One thing led to another, and then next thing you know, I was on the label. I had sent Bruce a record when I was making my first album back in 1986. I sent him a demo and he wasn’t interested. But all these years later, it has come full circle and I mean they’ve been so great man. I mean, I’ve never experienced anything like this, and I’m 65 years old. All these great things are happening, and people want to talk about the record. It’s like it’s your birthday every day. I really appreciate it. I can’t say enough about Tommy and Kid. They have been great pals.
If this would have happened when I was younger, I probably wouldn’t even have remembered it. I was like three wild Comanchies you know! It’s unbelievable to me. It took them three weeks to decide on the cover. I’ve never had anybody care like that before. It’s like a gift that dropped out of the sky… I cherish every moment at this point in my life. I feel like everyone is rooting for me. It’s been great for me. Man, what I’ve experienced in the last two months, if that would happen for a few years, it would be beautiful. Man, I got no complaints.
What was it like working with Kid in the studio?
Kid, you know it’s like he’s just a full-blown genius. This guy can do anything in the studio. He has great bedside manner. You know some people tend to get tensed up when they see the red light go on, but he has a way of distracting you from getting knotted up. The guys relaxed and had a good time when recording. He’s beautiful like that. He would stay after and add a lot of parts, and I loved what he did. I haven’t seen a lot of guitar players that are that selfless. I mean that. I think half the reason why this record came out the way it did was because we recorded it there. He just made it a blast to do.
You got your first guitar when you were eight. How did you get from that point to knowing that you wanted to be a full-time musician.?
I started off playing at my home for enjoyment, and I never really had a plan. I was like a sailboat. I would just go wherever the wind blew. I started playing a little more serious, and by the time I was seventeen I had already met Albert King and Freddie King. It really began to hit me, and I got my dad’s records, and eventually learned to play by ear. I was trying to copy my favorite guys. My dad was consciously taking me to see Jimi Hendrix and all kinds of different players.
Over time, I would get myself into musical situations, where I couldn’t hang. I would be with someone and they would pull out some sheet music and want me to sight read. I would be, like, I gotta go. I decided to go to college to learn to read music. I didn’t want to have anything musically that I couldn’t do. My parents were worried that going to college would mess up my playing, but I thought if I could add this sight reading to what I was already doing, that would be good. So that’s what I did.
While I was at college, I met all kinds of like-minded people. They would be in practice rooms playing all the time. I eventually met some Jazz players and that became my first band. In 1987, I borrowed money to make my first record. My thought was that if I had a record to give people that would help me get gigs and play around town. It seemed like things happened overnight, like a whirlwind. The next thing you know, I’m sitting at the W.C. Handy awards next to Little Milton. Nobody was saying no to anything. I was young, and didn’t really appreciate everything back then – I was raising a lot of hell.
You Raised Cain…
I’ve made records for Blind Pig and Pat Ford’s label Blue Rock It. I was able to put out releases about every seven years which really helped keep my name out there. That’s what got me to where I am today. I mean, there’s no rhyme or reason, but I’m really digging what’s happening right now.
As you know, artist – especially blues artists, have always made their living on the road…
Yeah, it’s just, the way it is. It’s always been that way.
Now that your record is out, do you plan on touring more or less at this point in your career?
I would like to tour a lot. I haven’t been on the road in the states in a long, long time. I would love to get back to the East Coast. I haven’t been there in about nine years. When it calms down, we can start touring, and play for people when it’s a joy. I just love to play. I feel like the guitar has kept me feeling younger than I am. Like my daddy used to tell me, “If you don’t feel it, don’t do it. But if you feel it, do it.” So, I always approached it like that, and I always played with emotion and stuff even as a kid. If you like to play for people, it’s a wonderful thing.
Earlier on I was getting tired of touring, but now I really love the band I have. They’ve made it fun again. I started counting the number of days I had a good gig. I lost count after 100. Every gig is good for me now. That’s the beauty of it for me now. If people are listening and they feel something, it’s like medicine.
The music industry has changed a lot over the past 10 years. With the growth of the internet, do you see that affecting you as an artist (or as a music fan)?
You know, it can be a beautiful thing. I mean, there’s crummy stuff about it too, because people can do mean things on there and stuff like that. That’s not good. When I first got my first computer a friend of mine brought me one and said you got to have one of these. I remember seeing B.B. King on his birthday at Monterey Jazz Festival playing with T-bone Walker. I wanted to see it again, to see if it’s as great as I remember it being. So, I looked it up and there it was – I watched it and it was as great as I remembered it.
I just saw a young girl this morning playing tenor saxophone by herself, and I mean she was playing.
It was beautiful stuff and it’s inspiring for me, so I got my saxophone. I’ve been practicing my music every day because there’s nothing else to do. It’s great to see all these guys with tutorials on there to show you stuff.
Hopefully, due to technology, you will have more people wanting to see you than ever before when you go back on the road…
If nothing else, if I never played again – it’s already been a beautiful journey. I’ve really had a ton of fun and done things that I never would have, unless I joined the Navy or something like that.
As far as the songwriting and creating process, is there a way that you go about writing songs – Do you write the music first, or the lyrics, or just whatever hits you?
It’s changed. When I first started writing songs, I would record or demo the music first, and just sit with it until I figured out the lyrics. After my first three records, I started writing out verses, almost like poems. I would write with just pen and paper – no instrument. I would have a cadence, but no music at all. I would have envelopes full of lyrics, and I’d eventually figure out some music for the lyrics. If I had an idea, I’ll go make a quick demo. Sometimes when you get an idea, it’s like catching lightning in a bottle, and you just want to get it down as soon as you can. I don’t want to wait, you may not remember it. I’m like N.A.T.O. – I’m ready to fly. I’ll drop everything and go make a demo.
With the new record, I felt like there was really some meat on there with songs. I don’t generally think of myself as a “songwriter” but I feel like I’ve improved. I feel really encouraged – it’s the most fun thing I’ve ever done.
As far as Raisin’ Cain goes, do you have a favorite song on the project?
I do have a favorite. I think my favorite tune would be “I Believe I Got off Cheap” because it’s like it was inspired by Albert (King). We were friends, and after we played together, he would come see me anytime I would play in Memphis It was amazing for me. When I wrote this, I was thinking about Albert and trying to write a funny song. Now when I got to the part of watching Doctor Phil and drinking Tanqueray, I was laughing to myself. I was having a blast. Now that they are playing it on the radio, I can’t even describe how happy that makes me.
My favorite song on the record is “Down on The Ground”. It’s one of those songs you can just sit back, relax, and let the music take you away. How did that song come about?
Oh, thank you. That means the world to me. When I wrote that intro to that song, I was trying to get a feel similar to Billy Preston on his Gospel records. He could do that kind of stuff in his sleep. I was really going for that feeling I get when he plays his stuff. That was the mood. When people hear this, they may think it’s about being homeless or a situation like that, but I wasn’t thinking that when I wrote it. I was just going for a “church” feel and a good story.
Anytime there’s a song that can give you some hope or inspiration, that’s a good thing…
Ah, yeah. The tune on the record, “Space Force”, was a tribute to Billy Preston as well. Not one of his songs, but a song in the style of Billy Preston. That song was so fun to play with my band. There’s a lot of Joy on that record. Normally, if you can get one of those moments on a record that’s beautiful. There’s about five moments on this new record like that and I think that’s what makes it so great. What a wonderful experience.
What advice have you been given in the past that has stuck with you the most?
The main thing that I think I learned from watching other folks and doing this a while is that It’s not that hard to be nice. Nobody’s that busy. If anybody wants to know anything, I’ll show them what I know. I don’t know a lot, but it’s not like any of its top secret.