Randy McQuay wins at International Blues Challenge

(extended version of an article originally published in Star News, additional Q&A below)

By Brian Tucker

It’s an early Friday morning and things are different – the sky is blue and cloudless, warmer weather has replaced cold. It’s also different for singer-songwriter Randy. Tall and wiry, wearing a Carolina blue t-shirt and black jeans with a shiny silver belt buckle, McQuay is cheerful outside the Art Factory.

He should be, in January he took home first place for Best Solo/Duo performance at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, Tennessee. He’s readying an album of older material reflecting the reggae and world flavored soul music in RootSoul Project, a group he’s played in since college. Days before McQuay laid down rough recordings of fifteen songs that reflect the music that won the IBC award – solo acoustic blues. It’s what he’ll be playing at Satellite Bar & Lounge on Friday night.

McQuay won once before at IBC in 2012, for Best Harmonica. He went to the competition with a more competitive attitude but didn’t enjoy the experience as much. This time around, he took a more laid back approach that yielded different results.

“I really wanted to enjoy the event,” McQuay said in an office and recording room decorated with framed old records and 2001 posters. “I went by myself, wanting to see music and hang out on Beale Street. I got to check out way more music; maybe 30-40 bands the first day and a half.”

Randy McQuay

photo Brian Tucker, March 2015

The way he describes the trip, McQuay wandered around like a man of the people, making friends day to day. Every fan he had in Memphis he met there. While participants sometimes had large groups from their Blues Society’s traveling to Memphis to support them, McQuay actually built a small crowd that grew night to night.

“There were people from Minneapolis and Ohio that saw my first performance because I played last that night. Beale Street was dead and things were running behind. These small groups of people heard me and the next night I played those people came back and brought people with them. And it got bigger and bigger.”

This time, simply put, McQuay went for himself. The first night he met a waiter at King’s Palace and they were cutting up in the back, singing Al Green’s “Simply Beautiful” together. The waiter suggested he had to sing Green that night. With a few minutes left in his set, McQuay did. The impromptu attitude continued. During semi-finals he was to perform at Jerry Lee Lewis’ bar and noticed the electric piano.

“That set I got an additional five minutes. For semi-finals it starts to get busy as people talk on Beale Street. There was a huge crowd of people that night, wanting to check out acts they haven’t seen. I turned on the piano and started playing this little ragtime piece. The spontaneity worked for me. Rolling with the crowd I had there called for a set list change. I had to play the piano, as I was in Jerry Lee Lewis’ bar.”

The improvisation isn’t surprising, this from a singer with percussion background and whose world flavored soul band used to play between hardcore bands at Lucky’s. McQuay honed his chops at weekly Blues Jams at The Rusty Nail before and during his years at UNCW. It would lead to winning the Cape Fear Blues Society’s annual competition that sends a band and solo act each year to the IBC.

“The Cape Fear Blues Society is just so proud of Randy,” CFBS representative Lan Nichols said. “When he walked in to the Cape Fear Blues Challenge to compete, he was all business, and he owned the stage. And then gave it right back when he was done. A real gentleman.”

Additional Q&A with Randy McQuay

Why did you start Long Beach Entertainment?

McQuay: It’s always been the name of my business. The office, I needed a place to meet clients and comfortable place anyone can come and feel welcome. I’ve done things over the phone for so long it’s a good meeting place for booking for weddings and other shows. I’ll plan events, not book clubs. Refer bands. It’s really just a front for my booking and a place to meet clients. It serves a lot of purposes, I can record here, make scratch recordings here, working out material before going into the studio.

When did you move to Wilmington?

McQuay: I went to UNCW 2001 to 2005, studied music and business. First, I was a percussion major and then decided to go to business school. It’s helped, being more business oriented. I’m on the phone or emailing people constantly. I enjoy some of that it, but I wish I didn’t have to do it as much. But I like to keep things personal, like keeping my Facebook page for me and my music so people know they’re reaching me.

Did you play a lot around town while attending UNCW?

McQuay: I did. The first gig was playing every Tuesday at Lucky’s, predominantly with a reggae sound. We tried to bring a different vibe to Lucky’s because it had a lot of hardcore bands. I loved it. We did a couple of bills like that where we’d play reggae in the middle of five hardcore bands. Music is music, man, people create interesting dance moves when they’re out of their element. It was cool.

The Rusty Nail became fixture.

McQuay: There were so many staples of Wilmington, at least to me – the Icehouse, Bessie’s. I was a teenager but playing music always got me into bars. I had to get my hand X’ed but it got me into the music scene early. And The Rusty Nail and Blues Jams, it was where I honed my chops. I always give them credit.

I played at The Rusty Nail from sixteen until twenty-two. I went there a lot for Blues Jams and in numerous bands through my early years, they were good sets at the Nail. Especially coming up here with Justin Johnson in RootSoul Project. We’d ride in his van from Southport and go to the Blues Jams when we were in high school. We both went to college for music and kept playing at the Nail.

I played music in and out of college, in the Wilmington Symphony through the music program with Dr. Steven Errante and did percussion ensembles. The scholarly route stuff because all through school – concert band for middle and high school, marching band, drum and bugle corps into college and continuing it.

You didn’t start out as a singer?

McQuay: No, I was always hiding behind the guitar and taking solos. I sang around the house, my great grandpa would pull out a tape recorder. He would record us at the house, always trying to get us to sing. Looking back at that now, that’s what made me. My sister sang and she inspired me. When I played guitar my grandpa would say if I didn’t want to sing just hum the melody. I did that as I strummed songs. Going through puberty is hard for a male singer. In high school I sang, focused on the guitar and then came back to singing.

When you sing, it’s you, there’s nothing to blame. There’s no amp, no cable that shorts out, it’s your vocal chords. You can practice singing anywhere. There’s no voice that’s the right voice. I love Bob Dylan, Jack White’s voice, Jeff Buckley’s voice. They’re all great voices but they just have a place and they’re great.

You started playing harmonica in the early 2000s? 

McQuay: You remember Marlboro miles? My step dad was a big smoker. One of the things you could get was a Hohner harmonica, came in a box like Marlboro. It was a normal marine band harmonica. My mom could play a few things on it. I remember that was my introduction to it. My uncle would get me on every once in a while. Cracker Barrel sells them. I wrote “Wrong Again” and I knew that song needed harmonica on it. I’d carry three to each show, now its more.

After winning in 2012 and meeting Lee Oskar (from the band War) we would talk on the phone a lot. He was telling me about all these tunings. I told him I played a lot of different types of music and he sent me all these products, hoping that people he endorsed would pick up the other tunings instead of just playing diatonic harmonica. I loved them immediately and began figuring out to use them (which led to prerecorded teaching online lessons).

Are harmonicas still in their infancy, as far as people being aware of them?

McQuay: It is in its infancy because not a lot of people are aware of his products. Hohner is without doubt the biggest manufacturer of harmonicas out there but they don’t have these things. Lee created these things and it’s crazy because these reeds work and respond together. You blow one note and you draw through and it plays another note. Based on how those two reeds work together when air blown harder through or drawn, those two reeds work together to create new note, or several notes.

His harmonicas have opened up all these doors for me, all these colors and palettes that I never had when I played in minor keys playing jazz. To understand more of the physics of music instead of the theory, he’s more knowledgeable than any person I’ve ever met. Lee played percussion in War and we hit it off when it came to the rhythmic side of music.

You’re originally from Southport?

McQuay: Charlotte, but I went to high school in South Brunswick. Several of my friends from high school that played music are still doing it. Brian van Meter is living in Nashville. I’m a drummer, was one first and everything since has been a drum. I think every instrument is more of a percussion instrument to me than anything else.

I’m just a really rhythmic player. Timing and rhythm can be so much more important than how many notes you’re playing, or how fast. I think a really good groove makes the biggest difference. And trying to make the biggest sound and best groove with one person has been my goal lately, with the Farmer Foot Drum. It’s really unique to have one. I feel really blessed to have the instrument. I used it in Memphis as part of the International Blues Challenge.

And the first time?

McQuay: I went out to the IBC in 2012 and won the Best Harmonica Player Award, went to the finals. That surprised me then. It surprised the Cape Fear Blues Society. I went back thinking I would promote my product that I endorse now and help Lee Oskar out and Farmer Musical Instruments and be that guy walking around. And, I wanted to really enjoy it and listen to a lot of bands. I guess the ease of not expecting a lot made my performance better.

The first time I went with a more competitive mindset and I got results, but this time I really wanted to enjoy the event. It was way better than I got to experience (the first time). As soon as I got to Beale Street I called home, and went to see music on Beale Street. It was killer, wandering by myself.

That must have boosted your confidence.

McQuay: At first I thought there were groups that were going to dominate because they packed rooms, because they brought people from home to support that came from out of town. Some bands had fifty people that came to support them from their Blues Society. That’s why I wanted to get out and talk to people, to get the skinny is on this thing. 

When I went in 2012 gas was $3.65 and I spent $800 to go to Memphis and drive around, parking was $25 a day. Learning about the event the first time I knew my way around. This time I wanted to get out there, socialize, push the product and hopefully not lose my voice. I’m naturally raspy from singing all the time.

I was on Beale Street all day. All I wanted the first night was a good performance. But I had some technical troubles, feedback issues, a tambourine flew out of the Foot Farmer. The second night I went to the same room and all I wanted was a good performance and pack up my stuff enjoy the rest of my weekend. I went in, and in my opinion, had one of my three best performances, where I walked away and thought I didn’t miss a note.

I went back to my car, packed my things and went to relax, heard some music because I had plenty of time. They don’t announce the results of each day until two or three in the morning. You wait up to hear or wait until the next morning, which I did for the finals. I went to sleep, because either way I needed my rest if I needed to perform. I got up the next morning, took time to open up my voice to perform, which I was third that day to perform. I have songs early in my set that allow me to warm up as I’m playing, several entrances in my set that warms my voice up for the harder stuff, more technical stuff.

Did you think it was over for you?

McQuay: It was because after my first set I was so let down by my performance. I was tired and irritable from not having the sound I wanted. I was just upset. Everybody wins going (to Memphis) because you’ll play at least two nights on Beale Street. You’ll at least get to play where you can feel the spirit and the energy of it, even though it has been commercialized.

After having that bad performance I thought I had another shot at least. If I get to perform my show on Beale Street I’m happy, to prove I had better skills than the night before. It was really unexpected. I didn’t really think my great performance was as good enough.

About avenuewilmington (314 Articles)
A website hosting articles about Wilmington music history (its bands and bands visiting the area), articles from my ILM based base publications Avenue and Bootleg magazine (2005- 2009) and articles from other publications (Star News, Performer, The Tonic)
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