At only 27, the Louisiana-born and Texas-based blues-rocker has already spent 14 years performing live. His powerfully raspy voice and wicked guitar licks leave no doubt he’s grown up in the school of barroom blues-rock. Clay Melton is quickly establishing himself as a rising star, most recently opening for Grand Funk Railroad on the Chevrolet Main Stage at the State Fair of Texas and sharing the stage with Sir Earl Toon of Kool & The Gang fame. Past credits also include an opening for blues legend Robert Cray and platinum-selling artist Chris Daughtry.
It was really great to sit and chat with Clay, as he is hotly tipped as a blues talent to watch for, and we agree! It’s also been a little while since we sat and talked about the blues (although we have some great blues artists on the way next month), so we hope you like this special blues feature!
We felt it would be great for Clay to introduce himself to you all first.
Clay- I’m a blues/rock musician based in Houston, Texas. I was born in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and we are a three-piece band. We are loud rock ‘n’ roll, and we try to push the envelope. I’d never say we were strictly blues, but all that music is close to my heart. It is the music I grew up with in Houston.
We heard a live version of “Runner,” and on our team here, Lorraine commented on those vocals. Freddie Mercury used to have vodka and a cigarette before performing to get the vocals right; we wondered if Clay followed that line or whether he was trained vocally over the years?
Clay- I was not a born singer. I started playing guitar, and I used to love to sing along to the tracks I grew up to. Once I started playing guitar I wanted to sing songs to accompany that and when I started to write I really just wanted to sing along. All the music I listened to, a lot of blues, I first got into Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Zeppelin; the holy trinity of Classic Rock blues. I went back to their influences of singers I gravitate to stylistically. I guess my voice is kind of ‘breathy’ and funny enough, I had a tonsillectomy, it was kind of an emergency. And after that, as an adult, you have to retrain your voice. As an adult, there is so much air in your airways now, it is a different thing. I did notice a change after that.
Not that we are a guitar geek magazine here! But we do like to ask about what guitars our musicians use, as many people are interested in these things!
Clay- Of course, for those fellow guitar nerds! I’m partial to a Fender Stratocaster, I love the way they handle. To me they are a Swiss Army Knife, they do everything I like within an entire set of music. If I don’t break a string, I will play the one Stratocaster the entire time. I always need just one more guitar, though!
One of those early bluesmen that we did a feature on in this magazine was Lead Belly. We consider him a real pioneer of the craft, yet he is very undervalued. He was such an influence on the grunge movement too, with Kurt Cobain citing him as a major influence.
Clay- He is underrated. Less people are aware of him unless they have really done their digging. It’s hard to get a hold of his records, or it used to be until all this streaming. An older musician friend and mentor of mine actually gave me a vinyl record of him; it contained a collection of his songs, and it is the real deal. It is real Delta blues.
The great thing about those early Delta bluesmen is that they were great entertainers. They entertained; they never presented the blues as depressing. This was a key to the success of BB King, for example, as noted by his daughter Shirley.
Clay- 100%. You listen to those early BB King recordings, and the crowd is going nuts and having a great time. That is the thing that’s so infectious with blues music, it is that same feeling when I am on stage or whether I’m enjoying a performance. Whatever happens on stage is so special, it makes the audience feel something. Here in Houston, we have a really rich blues history, and Milton Hopkins was a player (blues guitarist and bandleader) who played with BB King. and he recently passed away in 2022, but I sat with him and talked to him about his experiences with BB. This was great, he said BB kept his band tight and would put them to the test. They had a huge songbook, and had to be ready at any moment to pick it up, they were focused on putting on a show for the crowd.
Clay- I have no set way of writing a song, almost on a whim, really. I like to keep it fresh for myself. That song came off the 2022 tour supporting Des Rocs and the Blue Stones, and it was a very smooth tour, so we were feeling very positive. Sometimes you have a few road bumps along the way and you need a nap when getting home. But this time it was all positive, and the song is about touring and the whirlwind it is. Alive on a wire, you are stretched thin, but keep on going! Then the process was recorded here in my Texas living room. I guess we have usually worked in studios with producers and done it over days we could afford. But doing it ourselves, gave us the luxury of growing the ideas. The next one, “Runner,” we also did here. That song was the one the crowds responded to strongly on the tour, and we felt the track should be taken to the studio.
Talking to UK blues acts, we tend to pick up on the way that British blues has become a montage of styles, with rock, Americana, and country (among other styles) entering the music. But it is often felt that the US scene is more straight blues as the blues purists are a louder body Stateside. How did Clay feel about that?
Clay- I think they are right! One factor is that it originated over here, so a UK blues artist is playing a style that came from the States. But they are also playing blues inspired by the UK blues scene. I don’t knock the purists, or anybody, but the blues purists will feel that blues has to be in a certain format, (the 12-bar blues arrangements), mostly because of how radio shaped the standard acceptability for blues hits. They could only be so long because of radio advertising, and they just delivered on that format. But listen to the early recordings of Robert Cray, and there are a lot of colours in his arrangements. Listen to other styles to Delta blues, and the style changes. It doesn’t have to be a certain thing; you have to push the envelope.
Music does need to change and evolve like everything else. Look at punk and how it changed music in the late 1970s, and then grunge came and destroyed hair metal. There has to be this renewal every now and then.
Clay: Yes, punk came in, and it was raw and energetic and pretty simplistic in the ingredients. Same with grunge, I think people are always drawn to something that is organic and happening on stage. They made it happen. It is always effective and universal.
As a solo artist, we wondered how Clay functioned both live and in the studio. Was he playing all the instruments himself in the studio? Or was there a set of regular musicians he worked with?
Clay- We are a trio band. I have a very dedicated and consistent group of musicians, which was not always the case. I will usually come up with the meat of the song, the chorus and verses—on my own; I used to go and program and write in the drum parts myself. But now we have such a rhythm to the band that I will bring it into the room, and Zach Grundle is on drums coming up on nine years. I spoke to Zach on the phone first and asked him about influences, and I remember him telling me ‘I like John Bonham, I like to hit the drums hard and rock n roll and that sounded right to me. He likes to step out and do the extra, not just in pockets, so that fills out our sound.Zach Cox is on bass guitar and I’ve known him since middle school. He joined our group about a year and a half ago. He’s a guitarist first, and I like that as it shows up in our arrangements.
“The Runner” has one hell of a guitar solo in the middle. It is interesting with the solos, Frank Zappa was interviewed and said he had no idea from one night to the next what the solo would sound like; he would just go with the feel. On the other end of things, you have some guitarists who will be note-perfect for every performance. Where was Clay on this scale?
Clay- On the solo, I’d say I’m more improvisational. I grew up with blues jams here in Houston and a lot of the styles I grew up playing lean toward that. Within the band we look to keep it entertaining so we do the improv sessions, we know how long they will be but we never know exactly what will happen! The guitar solo for “Runner” was crafted, I get it down to what I like and what fits. Now people know that solo I will keep the sweet spots.
And a few quick fire questions at the end…
Which of your favourite rockers would you most like to sit and have a meal with?
Clay- Buddy Guy.
Clay- The Godfather.
Favourite guitar solo?
Clay- Jimi Hendrix, “All along the Watchtower.”
What did the 16 year-old you listen to?
Clay- I wasn’t listening to what was popular; I was listening to a lot of blues. But I would listen to some hardcore and metal
The best live show you have seen.
Clay- The first real rock concert I went to, Eric Clapton and then John Mayer I saw on tour in 2013, and that was fantastic.
And in 2023, no tour to the UK, but what is going on for you?
Clay- We had to push UK plans back due to the pandemic, but maybe 2024. In 2023, we are on the road through August, and there is a new album being recorded with the hope of a spring 2024 release.
So with this in mind, we tell you all to watch out for Clay Melton and his band, they are gaining increasing attention in the blues and rock world and are going to hit 2023 like a rocket. His website is here. His 2021 release “Back to Blue” is linked here, some great material on that one!
By Benny (the Ball) Benson
Mark C. Chambers
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