Michigan BluesFest returns to Old Town this weekend with a two-day slate of blues artists from the Midwest and beyond. Lawrence Cosentino sat down with guitarist Bobby Murray and singer Cee Cee Collins to preview this year’s festival. See the insert on pages 12 and 13 for a complete list of performers and activities.

Michigan BluesFest

5 p.m.-midnight Friday, Sept. 16; 2-11 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 17 FREE Old Town, Lansing (517) 371-4600, oldtownbluesfest.com

Bobby Murray:
‘Keep strokin’’

Guitarist Bobby Murray feels blessed to play the blues for a lot of reasons. Saturday’s headliner at Michigan BluesFest worked closely with blues legend Etta James for 22 years, and he’s traded licks with the likes of B.B. King, Robert Cray and Albert Collins.

In spite of the star company he’s kept, Murray seems to get his biggest kick out of making his mom proud.

“Her friends say to her, ‘My son Jimmy is an attorney, how’s yours doing?’” Murray said. “They’re thinking, I’m a musician, I’m probably sleeping on somebody’s couch.”

That’s why it was so much fun to play “The Tonight Show” or share the bill at Bill Clinton’s 1992 inaugural with music legends like Booker T. & the M.G.s, Al Green and McCoy Tyner.

“Those kinds of gigs give her a little ammo,” Murray said, shifting into his mom’s voice. “‘Oh, he’s playing for President Clinton. He’s on ‘The Tonight Show’ tonight. You should watch it. How’s Jimmy doing again?’”

Rock, R&B, disco and rap have all taken turns in Murray’s day, but the blues are still as basic as water.

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“Most blues artists can’t say, ‘We just want the red M&M’s’ or write a 200-page rider, but I wouldn’t change a thing,” Murray said. “The art continues.”

Murray is soft spoken, almost genteel, but he has a wicked streak. Just before James’ last Detroit gig, at the Motor City Casino, she told the band she wasn’t feeling well and wanted to cancel. James’ sons, drummer Donto and bassist Sametto James, were also in the group.

“Tell your mother the casino owner is the guy who took out Jimmy Hoffa,” Murray advised Donto.

She went through with the gig.

“The show must go on. That’s my thought,” Murray said with a shrug.

Saturday night, a powerhouse lineup of two guitars, bass, keyboard, drums and the four-piece Motor City Horns will re-create songs Murray played with James.

It will take four guest singers, Murray said, to cover her amazing range.

“She could do gutbucket blues, she won a Grammy singing jazz and she opened for the Rolling Stones — she could rock,” Murray said.

Expect to hear many of the searing songs James and Murray played together, from the hip-shaker “Tell Mama” to the joyous “Something’s Got A Hold On Me” to the soul-shredding “I’d Rather Go Blind.”

James’ band was more than a red-hot drop forge of jazz and blues; it was a surrogate family for Murray. Donto James was the best man at Murray’s wedding, and Etta James was “like a mom” to him, although he gallantly added that she really wasn’t old enough.

“We played around the world,” Murray said. “Much bigger names than mine were willing to play on her sessions for free, but she fought hard to get us on her records.”

Murray got the guitar bug early from watching teen idol Ricky Nelson break out his axe and sing “My Rifle, My Pony And Me” with Dean Martin in Howard Hawks’ 1959 Western, “Rio Bravo.”

When he was 12, he played Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” at a classical guitar lesson.

“My teacher freaked out and threw me out of class,” Murray said.

Murray went to the same Tacoma, Wash., high school as blues legend Robert Cray. Albert Collins, known as “master of the Telecaster,” played at his high school graduation.

More than 20 years later, Cray and Murray traded licks with B.B. King on the guitarist’s 1993 Grammy-winning album, “Blues Summit.”

“It was cool — we just looked at each other and thought about high school,” Murray said.

In the early 1980s, Murray moved to L.A. and made a lot of demos. He got a lot of rejections but absorbed some lasting lessons.

“Sometimes people are going to pass on you, but you gotta keep strokin’,” he said.

By the time he moved to the San Francisco Bay area, Murray had played with every one from Collins to John Lee Hooker to Percy Mayfield.

“The only person I hadn’t worked with was Etta,” he said. But James had just recorded her 1989 comeback album, “Seven Year Itch,” and was ready to put together a new seven-piece band.

“I’m calling people, and this is about the fifth time I’ve heard your name,” she told him.

Their association lasted over 22 years, until James died in 2012.

Murray moved to Ferndale, Mich., in 1996 and hasn’t looked back.

“The pool of musicianship is extremely deep in the Lansing area and Detroit and Ann Arbor,” he said. “I’m still meeting new people even though I’ve been here 20 years.”

Bobby Murray Presents the Music of Etta James
9:30-11 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 16
MICA (South) Stage

Cee Cee Collins: ‘Steal Away’

About this time last year, Cheryl “Cee Cee” Collins told the crowd at Guy Hollerin’s Bar & Grill in Ann Arbor that she was going to take some time off from singing.

“I needed to get away,” Collins said. “I was going through some things, living the blues.”

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Road trips are Collins’ favorite way to push reset. (She also likes fishing and whiskey.) No wonder she calls “Steal Away” her “centering song.” It’s not the song’s theme of forbidden love that grabs her — it’s the “getting away” part.

To sort life out, she took a trip through Georgia, Florida, Alabama, New Orleans and Chicago.

“I love being on the road — pick up and go when that feeling hits me,” she said.

Next to her, in the passenger seat, is an ever-present box of CDs by local blues artists like Detroit guitarist Billy Davis and singer Alberta Adams, a close friend and mentor for six years. She loves the tightknit Michigan blues community, of which she is an integral part.

“The coolest thing is when you’re listening to Sirius and they announce somebody you know,” she said.

She wouldn’t mind having a flesh and blood road trip companion, though.

“But if it’s not in the cards, it’s not in the cards,” she said.

Growing up in Detroit, Collins was into “easy listening” like Kenny Loggins. (“Crazy, huh?” she said with a laugh.)

From her teens through her 30s, Collins sang in many different bands and venues, including a short-lived stint in Madrid as one of the “New Supremes.”

After living in Georgia, she came back to Detroit in the 1980s and joined “a real blues band,” the Detroit Underground Blues Band.

“I loved that band so much,” she said. A reunion is in the works.

She was also the bass voice in an a cappella group called Lorelei that played various venues in Detroit and appeared on the late, lamented local access TV show “Krystal’s Motor Town Café.”

“Talk about so much fun,” Collins said. “I’ve gotten to do so many great things over the years.”

It hasn’t been all fun. A 1990s gig at the Blue Martini, near Pinckney, Mich., sticks in her memory.

“By this point, I was very used to being the only black person in a lot of clubs,” she said. “But this one — I walk in and people are looking at me like, ‘Can I show you to the kitchen?’ Very unwelcoming.”

As always, she gave her all to the gig. By the time she finished the first set, people were buying her drinks and inviting her to stay at their homes.

“It’s amazing how music can break down barriers,” she said. “It’s cool, but it still don’t feel good and don’t make it right.”

Where does all her power and light come from? Even Collins doesn’t know. Before a gig, she does whatever it takes to “get that feeling.”

“I start with my shoes and work my way up to the hairstyle,” she said. “When I feel good I can take that feelgood with me.”

The pre-show ritual might include a hit of Crown Royal, but never solid food.

“I had the unfortunate incident of belching into a microphone early in my career,” Collins said with a laugh. “It just comes out of nowhere. You’re breathing deep, you just ate, you get ready to belt out a song and it’s like, ‘Oh my goodness, did I just do that?’”

Cee Cee Collins
7-8:30 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 16
MICA (South) Stage