LIVING THE BLUES: Randy McQuay releases new album after 2017 International Blues Challenge, opens for Mishka
The McQuays live in a snug neighborhood. Past the rooftops, cranes pivot and construction rumbles, but inside their home everything is quiet. Next to the front door, a scuffed Gibson acoustic hangs with scrappy pride, like a man who ran the gauntlet of life and emerged with a smirk on his face. Randy McQuay shows me the chipped edging on the body—real tortoise shell in those days, he explains. He says he likes taking old things and bringing them back to life.
We head back to his office. Rows of Criterion Collection films are squeezed into the top shelves of a bookcase and more guitars line the walls: McQuay’s signature Saner cigar box guitar (the body of which is an old NC license plate) and another antique Gibson. The latter is a hollow body he picked up only days ago in Memphis, Tennessee, where he competed once again in the International Blues Challenge (IBC).
Two years after winning the IBC, McQuay talked to us about returning to Memphis and recording his latest album, “My Kind of Blues,” released right before the challenge.
encore (e): How did “My Kind of Blues” come to be?
Randy McQuay (RM): I released “Solo,” which was a multitrack album of me playing every instrument pretty much. Everyone enjoyed the record, but they said, “We want an album that sounds just like you sound right now.” So, that’s what I did. I performed all of this record live with foot drums, acoustic guitar, cigar box guitar, harmonica, vocals. I recorded it in town with Fat Bottom Productions and Tommy Brothers, and then recorded a couple of tracks with Jim Fox at Low Tide Studio. We mixed it all there and had it mastered in Nashville at House of David.
It’s called “My Kind of Blues,” and that’s what it is. The few songs I didn’t write were tributes to North Carolinian musicians. I paid tribute to Doc Watson; I paid tribute to Elizabeth Cotten. She was a big influence, I think, on all the pickers like me. A lot of people learned from Elizabeth Cotten, and she was self-taught.
I think [this album] gives people a chance to hear what I sound like live, but at its best quality.
e: Can you describe the process of writing the songs?
RM: I really think old sayings are my favorite thing about the album. This album has a traditional feel musically but with modern lyrics. One saying is, “I don’t care where you cook as long as you come home to eat.” I thought that was a really cool old saying, so I wrote a song based on that. Something like “Netflix and chill”—that’s something that’s really modern, and I didn’t know what it even meant until recently. But I added that lyric in an old-sounding blues song, and I thought, What a cool thing to add modern subject matter to old-sounding music.
That’s really where I’m going with my writing: clever, funny, and suggestive lyrics that are a sign of the times, but with old-sounding music to keep that music alive.
e: Are there stories behind the songs?
RM: “Rehab Blues” is a very true story. It was my way of dealing with a really bad situation personally while also embellishing some of the funny things about it. With “While This Crazy Ol’ World Spins ’Round,” I knew I wrote the song for the love of my life, but I didn’t have that yet. When I wrote the song, I was really looking for it, but I knew that was the song for that person. Now that I’m married, it really fits.
The album tells the story of my life over the past several years. It progresses like a weekend: You went out Friday, got in a little trouble. Woke up Saturday hungover, went out and got in some more trouble—hair of the dog. And then Sunday you woke up, and prayed and begged God for forgiveness for what you did. All to start it over again. [laughs]
e: Did you play new music at IBC?
RM: All the songs performed at IBC were from the record, other than Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” which I played in the finals to replace one of my ballads.
I was really looking forward to [going] back and visiting friends. It’s the biggest promotional event of the year for the blues genre, so it’s real important to go and get your name out there. Let folks know you’re still booking festivals—you’re still touring. I was excited as hell to go back and to hear so many groups. The international groups are always my favorite—Israeli blues, French blues—hear how other countries take this music and their versions.
I had a very similar mindset to 2015 when I won, and that was to go in with no expectations. Just to give my best performance, and only worry about things in my control.
e: Any special experiences?
RM: I met Annika Chambers, who’s a Blues Music Award-nominated vocalist I’ve always admired. She came to my second-quarter finals performance and waited until the crowd dissipated. She walked up and said, “I just have to let you know that I’m a huge stalker of you.” We hit it off, and stood there and talked for awhile.
The next day I walked into a side entrance in our hotel and saw a piano sitting there, so I started playing a second, and she walked out of the bathroom. She was supposed to be in a meeting, but she ended up coming over to me and singing for a little bit. We recorded it, and this video went viral like immediately of us singing “Georgia On My Mind.” We just knew this was supposed to happen—the spontaneity was there.
e: So you made it to the finals but you didn’t win…
RM: It’s a blessing to know I’ve been to IBC three times and every time I’ve made it to that stage. It’s really about as big of an accomplishment I could ask for.
I did have a couple mishaps in the finals, and I feel like I did have the chance to win it. But I perform over 200 times a year, and I realized some nights, things happen. A reed on the harmonica sticks, a guitar string slips and goes out of tune, I forget a lyric. It just happens. I think it’s more human to make a mistake and recover from it. I can accept it. Definitely the fact I’ve won before makes it easier to accept [laughs]. But I also don’t want anyone to mistake that for complacency because I did give my all to the performance, and it reached all the right people it needed to as well.
e: What are your plans for the future?
RM: [Annika and I want] to record a duet, which I wrote for my wedding and sang to my wife. I originally wrote the song as a duet. She is going to come to Wilmington and record the song locally, and we’re planning a five day run through two or three states, too.
I’m actually working with two friends to do a short film for [Wilmington’s] Cucalorus Film Festival, for one of my songs that’s in Spanish. That’s so huge to me because I wanted to bridge into my second greatest passion, and that’s film. I’ve always wanted to score films or actually make my own film, so this short is a dream come true.
There’s a lot of festivals I’ll be making some trips to—Texas and Chicago. I’m moving forward and going to record another album this year, which will be out before Christmas. I’m trying to hit it while it’s hot.
McQuay will open for reggae act Mishka on Feb. 17 at Burnt Mill Creek.