VOCALIST/GUITARIST Tom Gray dreamed up the moniker "Delta Moon" during a pilgrimage to Muddy Waters’ cabin near Clarksdale, Mississippi. It’s a fine name to put on his, Mark Johnson, Franher Joseph, and Vic Stafford’s grimy, smoky take on traditional blues rock. For over a decade, the band has dished out award-winning house rockers with sinewy dual slide guitar leads and Southern-steeped vocals.
Gray is a lifelong musician with a fascinatingly diverse musical past. While playing in New York new wave band The Brains, he wrote “Money Changes Everything,” a song that would become the group’s sole underground hit and a dynamite chart-topper for Cyndi Lauper (Delta Moon put their version on their 2007 LP Clear Blue Frame).
He went on to pen tunes for Manfred Mann, Carlene Carter, Bonnie Bramlett, and others. Following years as a session player and songwriter, Gray formed Delta Moon with Johnson after a chance meeting. We spoke with the songwriter about his origins and the (failed) transaction that set the trajectory for his musical career.
We’re looking forward to your Savannah performance. Has the band played down here before?
Delta Moon has played in the past in Savannah; it’s been some time ago, a club downtown, Eric Culberson’s place of the market. It was in the early days of the band. We’re looking forward to it, it’ll be a good time for everybody.
You have a fascinating musical story—from writing pop radio hits to playing in a blues band. How did your journey begin?
I guess I was in the seventh grade. I did fellowship at church, and there was a guy playing piano. I noticed all the girls went and stood around him—I thought, that’s what I need to do! I need to learn an instrument!
I started writing songs when I was in high school and played in bands in high school. I played some of my songs out at parties and stuff, but then later I played in dance bands. I’ve been doing it all my life.
After I finished college, I tried to get a regular job, but my heart wasn’t in it. I was working in bars at night. My friend was playing original music in New York, getting write-ups. I went up there with him and discovered, ‘This is what I want to do.’ I’ve been writing on my own ever since.
Was a lot of your early work informed by blues?
Not so much from the start. Blues was always a part of what I was doing. That was actually sort of a new wave band, I guess, that I was in in 1980. I had a band called The Brains, we did a couple albums with Mercury [Records]. After that, Cyndi Lauper recorded one of our songs.
“Money Changes Everything!” One of my favorite songs ever.
Oh, really? Thanks!
So, is it true Delta Moon formed after Mark wouldn’t buy the dobro you were selling out of the back of your van?
Yes! I tried to sell him a guitar—he wouldn’t buy it, but we started getting together and playing in my living room, playing slide. I played lap-style steel guitar and Mark played pedal-style. We’d swap licks for a long time and thought, ‘We can’t both play slide in the same band!’ Then we just went out and did it and it worked. It was great fun.
The next day, pushing my little boy on a swing, Mark came by walking his dog and I said, ‘Anytime you want to do that again, give me a call.’ Here we are.
What did folks think of a band with two slide guitars?
People seemed to like it. We’re pretty careful to not make it sound like a catfight! We’re very wary of not trying to go there. We teeter on the edge of the abyss.
What’s your writing process like together?
It works different ways a lot of times. I’ll write a song, bring it in, Mark will have a guitar lick that will be the base of something. Sometimes, the whole band will be together in the studio, laying down tracks. We’ll put some words to it later, and we get ahold of the song. That’s the best way.
What are your onstage dynamics like?
I really like to get the audience involved, just get everybody feeling it. Clapping works! I like to get everybody a feeling of connection in the room. That’s really what it’s all about, trying to make that connection with the audience. Usually, it works.
You released a new album last year to high critical praise. What’s next?
We’ve been recording an album this summer. We’re still working on that recording and traveling around, so it’s just kind of trying to keep things balanced. We hope to have it out by next spring. We hope!