INTERVIEWS

Cosmic Rock

On a chilled sunday afternoon we sit down with North Carolina bluesman Bert Wray. From his hippie rock background to the Bert Wray Blues, Bert has been around a long time. We caught up with Bert and had a good conversation about his history, influences and thoughts on many subjects. Dig on the story of Bert, from Sloppy Joe and the Random Rhythm Section to Popgun and The Bert Wray Blues band.

1.Hey Bert man good to speak with you today. How have you been and what’s going on bro?

I have been doing well, staying healthy, and exercising the creative mind! My band Bert Wray Blues just released our second album Hometown Hostage, a concept album about one’s relationship with their hometown. We just had smoking album release party at a venue called Crown Station, which is right between two light rail train stations. Charlotte has grown into a city where people can catch a train to your gig! Mind blowing.

2.Tell us a little about your background, did you grow up in North Carolina? How did you get into playing guitar and singing in bands?

I’m Charlotte born and bred. I never really made it out of here, thus the whole Hometown Hostage deal. Haha. I’m a product of the Charlotte Mecklenburg public schools. I’ve played nearly every venue there has been in this town over my years. There have been so many jobs and friends that came and went. But I feel lucky to be here and have those roots. It is humbling and grounding even if sometimes seemingly boring or limited. It’s not, really. There is great joy and meaning in working through your old problems and hang-ups in your hometown as well as in seeing old friends, teachers, rivals, whatever. Keeps you real.

Like most kids who learn an instrument, I talked my folks into buying me a guitar and lessons, but it didn’t take right away. The guitar was a budget acoustic with crazy action and no tone. The first teacher tried to get me to read music and play single note music and the next guy tried to teach me chords and songs like “Dust in the Wind.” I quit them both. The guitar gathered dust in the corner until a friend Mark Evangelist came over on day in high school and tuned it up. He played a little rock riff with bar-e chords and it really got me off. I asked him to show me those sliding chords. I had never been shown those type of chords and I recognized it as something I could do and understand. Funny thing though, my hands were too weak to fret the barre chords so I reverted to the open chord diagrams in the book my old teacher gave me. Eventually I got both chord styles down and viewed myself as a rhythm guy for a long time. The band thing happened almost immediately because Mark and I started our first band that same day. I became the singer because I could not play guitar. Haha.

Most of my early guitar heroes were local cats like Mark Evangelist or Gary White of the classic-era Fetchin’ Bones. He banged out open chords and simple Chuck Berry-meets-Neil Young leads on a Gretsch Country Gentleman hollowbody. I wanted to be like them. Later I got into blues and slide guitar.

3.Any classic records or concerts you saw back in the day that inspired you and in what way?

Concerts were such an important inspiration to my musical ambitions. It all began with seeing Elvis Presley in 1977 at the Charlotte Coliseum. Somehow, on my own, I became a huge Elvis freak an unusually young age. People thought it was funny, and for years everyone gave me Elvis stuff, records, tapes, memorabilia, you name it. I’d wanted to go see Elvis the year before but my parents thought the $15 tickets were outrageously expensive. Haha. Then when Elvis got so sick and media seized on his impending doom, my parents figured they better take me to see him in case he died. And he did die, of course, just a few months after this concert. I had the double album Aloha from Hawaii and figured the concert would be exactly like that, and indeed it was structured similarly with most of the same songs at the same moments. Even at 8 years of age, I was so pumped to see the King.

Locally, shows by Fetchin’ Bones at the Milestone in the 1980’s made me want to start a band. At Milestone Records on Morehead Street, Gary White’s second band The Skeeters rocked so hard I wanted to become more than a lead singer and be the guitar-wielding frontman. I used to go to the Milestone every weekend just to watch bands and imagine what I could do one day.

4.How did you form your first band and what was it like? I remember Sloppy Joe and the Random Rhythm Section, that was great. I borrowed the vinyl when it came out from guitarist Tim Murray and that was how I initially heard of you guys. Those were fun days. 

Back in high school I teamed up with another misfit from art class, Mark Evangelist, and we started a band. At first neither of us really knew how to write songs or put together a group. We began in an old detached garage in the woods with one warped-neck 12-string acoustic and a bucket and two drum sticks. I played bucket and sang while Mark raged on rhythm guitar. We banged out some punky acoustic thrashers, I farmed out the bucket banging to a girl from our school and began writing lyrics more deliberately. Eventually we were playing at The Church of Musical Awareness, the infamous reggae hotspot Lakeview Country Club, and the Milestone. We kept adding players until we were a band of 6! We called the group Sloppy Joe and the Random Rhythm Section.

5.What was the history during and after SJRR with your music?

Sloppy Joe released a 12-inch vinyl album on Mitch Cooper’s local record label, Third Lock Records. That really got me into recording and releasing albums. Mark Evangelist and I continued together after SLRRS with the reggae-rock band Selah which Mark still leads to this day as Selah Dubb. Originally we worked out of Boone NC and released 2 albums while I was in the band. After that, I got married and started a band with my wife called Popgun, which released an album and toured the east coast and United Kingdom! Playing two shows in London remains a major highlight in my career. In the early 2000s I reunited with the drummer from SJRRS in the band Blaring TVs who recorded a great disc. I kicked it solo for a while, recording 2 solo records, before forming Bert Wray Blues over 2 years ago. This move brought me full circle as I employed Mitch Cooper of Third Lock Records as my drummer. When it was time to release a record, we of course had to revive the old label!

 

6.What are some of your favorite films?

Easy Rider, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and most recently American Honey. The last one is a cool flick about magazine selling crews.

7.Favorite books?

I am a university writing teacher so I have read my share of books, making it impossible to pick favorites. I like reading classic literature as much as creative non-fiction, and I have been known to binge on biographies. Most recently, I read Trevor Noah’s memoir Born a Crime on growing up in South Africa and it was one of the most important and funniest books I have ever read. Everyone in America should read it and then reflect on our own social problems with segregation and prejudice.

8.These days you are playing with your Bert Wray Blues Band. How did you come to form the band and how would you describe it to new listeners? You’re joined by The Inn’s Mitch Cooper and Dave Wall?

I was playing blues as a solo artist under the same name when Mitch Cooper called me up and asked to play drums. I told him I didn’t have any gigs and he offered to get one. We played that show and streamed it on Facebook. An old friend from Boone, Dave Wall, saw it and called me to see if he could play bass. I said I didn’t have any gigs. He offered to get one. Haha. The rest is history!

We sound like the title of our first album Gut Bucket Radio. We mash up classic Mississippi slide blues with classic rock swagger inside of the framework of alternative rock. Other bands have similar approaches, like Jack White or the guys in The Black Keys, but we have a distinct Southern North Carolina thing going on here that I am sure you, Gideon, can understand. NC really stamps music in red clay, kudzu, and blue skies.

9.You guys have a new album out just recently, can you tell us a little about it?

The new album, Hometown Hostage, is a concept record about the trials of hometown life whether you stayed, escaped, ran away, returned, or occasionally passed through. It is a collection of stories about characters, feelings, and struggles that reveal the ways hometowns shape our understanding of self, success, and sense of place. It is the first record I have made that I believe has a theme everyone can relate too without simplifying it into some benign celebration of “home.” My own hometown life in Charlotte has defined my life view in complicated ways, and I wanted to articulate that in the music and lyrics.

10.How do you feel about blues as a musical style in this era and how does it continue to inspire you. Blues music is timeless man.

Well, just like blues, rock and roll has become a time-stamped artifact in the musical history of America. For years blues artist have worked as preservationists as much as innovators and now I feel like rockers are in the same boat. I see our music as blues-rock that revels in the old sounds while insisting on the energies and changes of the late 20th century. We have been appreciated by blues society audiences as well as criticized for not being traditional. I think the biggest challenge for a modern blues artist is finding the edge between tradition and innovation so that people understand what the music is doing but are still surprised by where the artist takes it.

11.What are some of your hobbies outside of music? Do you have other forms of creativity?

I used to draw all the time, much of it cartooning, but I don’t do it as much as I wish. I dabble in painting from time to time. My biggest non-musical craft is writing but I haven’t published anything. I am working on a big fiction project with a friend that will take a few years, but I have real hopes for that. For me, though, it always comes back to guitar, songwriting, and live shows. That’s my bag.

12.What are some of your recommended classic albums you would suggest to music fans?

Albums that I play again and again throughout the years include many genres: Bob Marley’s Catch a Fire, Talking Heads Speaking in Tongues, any Muddy Waters “best of” compilation, all the Robert Johnson songs, and The Doors L.A. Woman album.

 

13.Any recent stand out concerts you have seen you’d like to talk about?

I saw Tony Joe White twice at the Double Door Inn in the 2 years before they tore it down. He just passed away, so I have those two shows on my mind. Samantha Fish’s 2016 show at Neighborhood Theater was smoking, really freaking hot.

14.What is one life skill you think every person should have?

I wish for everyone to find the ability to accept failure, reflect on it, and adapt. Failure is the key to learning, but so many people associate it with loss, shame, and angst. And, of course, it hurts. But there is no way around it and I embrace it for what it is. I never try to redefine it, but try to reflect and learn. In many ways, failure is my life path to redemption.

15.How do you feel about the music scene with the invention of social media and the like today?

First, I will admit that social media stresses me out some. I just recently reduced the band’s profile to only Facebook because I did not enjoy maintaining a Twitter feed and an Instagram site. I guess I am an old timer like that. I know promoters love to ask, “What’s your social media game?” But for me, I’d rather start locally and radiate outwards through word of mouth and human connections even if it limits my travels.

The music scene, music business, and music itself has been transformed by technology. Post-Napster we have been blessed and cursed with the ability to self-record, self-release, self-promote. But I always dug the collaborations. I will not record myself. I refuse. I seek out talented professionals like Boo English who recorded both Bert Wray Blues records. The human interaction makes me excited and the collaboration allows me to take risks that I just cannot do in isolation.

Of course, music is basically free now, but honestly, I never made any money back in the day. So I appreciate the ability to share with those who want to listen by streaming or whatever. I do regret that most folks do not desire a hard copy of an album. Music listening, in general, has become less deliberate. There is something about picking out a record or disc and putting it in a machine and listening to it on purpose. I still love that.

16.What advice would you give a new artist just starting out?

Young sprouts, learn an instrument that allows you to write songs. Try your hand at composing lyrics. Be original as possible. If you mess around with cover songs, use them as vocabulary so you can speak with other players. Start a band and experiment with ways to move an audience. Live shows can be the most fulfilling part of being in a band if you let it. Don’t let the money, promoters, or bartenders get you down. You are there to rock not sell alcohol. Be OK playing venues once and never again. Do your thing all the way and go where the opportunities are. Most of all let it be joyful. Haha.

 

17.What motivates you to sing and play after all your years of experience?

Playing, singing, writing, and performing is the one thing I have carved out in life that I feel completely confident about. I know my deal. I can be myself. Other parts of life don’t always work like that, so I find myself returning daily to the guitar to seek solace in the playing of rock and roll.

18.Any last words or news for your fans?

We will be playing live all through fall, winter, and spring to promote Hometown Hostage. The record should be streaming at all outlets by the time you read this or soon thereafter. Locally, you can buy the CD at or our shows. Most of all, I love to meet fans old and new, so come say hi at the show! Thanks Gideon!!

Keep up the rock Bert, good to speak with you today. - G