By Brian Tucker
Many know Randy McQuay from RootSoul Project, a group that has performed locally for years. His soulful, raspy voice is memorable and can cut deep on a variety of material. A guitar and harmonica player, he’ll represent the Cape Fear Blues Society at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, Tennessee.
The IBC is from January 20th until the 25th. McQuay was a finalist in the 2012 competition and a Best Harmonica award winner that year. Sponsored by the Blues Foundation, the IBC is a singular competition for finding and signing unsigned artists.
Memphis is a historical city for Blues music. Of Beale Street McQuay said that within moments of being in a venue there a performer is aware of the high bar set for everyone.
“I plan to thoroughly enjoy myself again this time around. I am staying a little closer to the event,” McQuay said. “In 2012, I stayed over the Mississippi River in Arkansas. While crossing the river each day was enthralling, being closer to Beale Street means being more connected with the event and the people that come out.”
McQuay participated in the annual Cape Fear Blues Challenge and won, then selected to represent the region at the IBC. He’s also been working off and on for years on a solo album, one he’s set to release this year.
Below, McQuay talks about competing and performing at the IBC, learning to sing and play music, and writing a song while being pulled over by a state trooper.
How were you selected to represent the Cape Fear Blues Society?
McQuay: I was a participant and winner in the annual Cape Fear Blues Challenge, usually held in November. There were several solid acts to compete this year. One solo/duo act and one band act are selected to represent the region in the International Blues Challenge.
I have been involved with the Cape Fear Blues Society for nearly as long as I’ve wielded an axe. My friends, band mates, and I used to frequent the weekly Tuesday night Blues Jams as teenagers. The Rusty Nail is one of the rooms where I first performed licks I had been shredding as a novice. It was a place that was dark and smoky with strange folks. Mostly, it was and still is Wilmington’s home of the blues. Just the kind of place for a youngster to learn about nightlife and perform for a grateful audience.
For the IBC, how many songs do you get to play? Original material only?
McQuay: You’re given a twenty minute set each night. As you advance you play a different venue on Beale Street each night, which is assigned after judge’s scores are tallied. Eventually, eight finalists in the Solo/Duo and Band categories are selected for a performance at The Orpheum Theatre. Judges definitely focus on originality. Original material in these events is always rewarded.
You’ve performed a lot. Were you nervous before stepping onstage?
McQuay: I am usually more nervous and anxious off-stage than on-stage nowadays. There are performances, like the IBC, where I do get nervous. There, you are being judged. I mean, any night you are being judged by folks based on your performance, but not usually by a five or six folks with a scorecard in hand. Music is subjective.
It’s a strange platform, but the IBC has led to the discovery of many talented and prominent players in the scene. Any time I am afforded the opportunity to play to an attentive and appreciative audience I am grateful. Hopefully, I remain a performer, not a spectator through the week.
What did you learn from the 2012 competition?
McQuay: The judges want to be entertained just like anyone else. Originality, professionalism, and being genuinely courteous to others are key. The judges watch you on and off stage. Another thing the judges notice is overall sound. One of the challenges for many at IBC is that you have a different venue, set of judges, PA, and sound engineer each night. Having knowledge of your sound, gear, or simply being able to explain your needs to the sound guy is key. Acts are given a time limit to get on and off stage, so being familiar with your setup helps immensely.
What did you work on specifically for this year’s competition?
McQuay: This year I have the support of Lee Oskar Harmonicas and Farmer Footdrums. I have been blessed to have their support and products. They have made a large part of my sound possible and portable for this event. I have really been focusing on harmonica playing technically and adding the Farmer Footdrum musically and tastefully. I have never wanted to add anything to my performance that hinders what I already have going on. I have spent more time practicing this year for that reason.
I’ve also really worked on the delivery of songs. Some call for a quick story or explanation, even in a time sensitive set. Also, I have worked out some moments for the crowd to participate in the songs by clapping hands, stomping feet, and yelling.
When did you begin playing harmonica?
McQuay: I had a couple harmonicas as a child and my Uncle Timmy was an amazing player. I never took the instrument very seriously until 2002 when I wrote “Wrong Again.” That song needed harmonica on it. I remember actually performing the song with harmonica at Rox Nightclub (now Ziggy’s) for the first time.
The band had no idea it was coming. I had learned the fundamentals of playing cross-harp in about a week. Writing that song, indirectly led to one of the biggest career changes for me to date. The instrument remained a small part of my performances for a short while and gradually surfaced on songs and albums.
“Wrong Again’ was a huge part of my 2012 IBC performances. It featured about a minute long harmonica solo introduction. I believe it was those improvisations on that tune that got me notoriety for my harp playing. I was awarded “Best Harmonica Player” at the IBC in 2012.
Today, I play the harmonica on nearly every song I perform. I am known around the region for playing this troubadour, one man-band. I carry around 35-40 harmonicas per show. Some feature altered tunings that Lee Oskar developed. Lee and I, along with Phonoptic Media filmed and developed the instructional videos right here in Wilmington. I absolutely love the instrument. It is such a portable songwriting tool for me. I practice while driving a lot, sometimes with the neck holder on hands free.
How long has your new solo album been in the works?
McQuay: I started working on this record in 2007 after a stay in rehab in Los Angeles. Most of the record was recorded at Audio Genesis with Tommy Brothers before its closing. Three songs were recorded in Nashville by Brandon Henegar. I play a handful of songs from the record solo. The album is so far from my rootsy, bluesy sound acoustically.
Is it far removed from what Root Soul Project does?
McQuay: I think RootSoul fans will still connect with the solo album. I wrote the songs in the RSP catalog so there is a clear connection. This album is a little more refined in subject matter, layering, and production. I feel that this album will reach a larger audience due to its pop nature.
“Feelin’ Happy” and “Everything’s OK” sound upbeat musically, lyrically not so much. Do you prefer duality in songs?
McQuay: I have always liked duality in songs. This was a writing tool typically used in blues music. The songs would sound sad, but have an uplifting or even rebellious message. “Feelin Happy” is a song for waking up and facing your day with positive attitude.
Can you share the story behind “Everything’s OK”?
McQuay: I wrote that almost in its entirety while I was pulled over by a state trooper on Kerr Avenue. My registration was out, so I had to surrender my license plate. My truck was loaded down with gear. Phone was dead. He told me I couldn’t drive and left me stranded. At first, I sat on the tailgate and played “Folsom Prison Blues” in anger.
Then I stumbled on a chord progression in that key. I started to write. I remember walking with as much of my gear as I could carry, humming the melody along the way. I stopped at Ten Pin Alley for a beer and a shot. I then walked to the dorms at UNCW to meet the girl I was trying to see. It’s just a simple, fun, love song. It is the only song performed by myself with a band. It features The Casserole, a band that formed shortly after I returned from L.A.
Can you recall finding your voice?
McQuay: I always wanted to sing blues and soul music, but they are technically harder genres to sing than folk or country. Singing was tough for me in the teen years due to puberty and that I didn’t sing as a child. I remember hiding behind guitar solos for years. Singing is so much more personal than playing an instrument because it is generated only from the body. Singing comes from within.
I remember when I could first sing Otis Redding’s “These Arms of Mine” in the Key of A, a 1/2 step down from original key, and it sounded okay. That’s when I knew I was a singer and that I could confidently and courageously search for the voice I had inside.
Can you say when the solo album is coming out?
McQuay: I haven’t decided on an exact release date. I will have tangible copies of this long awaited album in a matter of days. Eric Miller has been giving me some spins of a few tracks on The Penguin.
Solo album full playlist: