Toby Gray’s baritone speaking voice is coarse but warm; his measured tones would make for a perfect narration of a Cormac McCarthy audiobook or some classic Western. So it’s not surprising that Gray’s singing voice is well-suited to the Americana music he performs both solo and with his backing band, Highway Buddha.
“Through music, we get rid of the obstacles in our heart,” Gray says. “I’m not religious, but I believe in spirits within you.” The name Highway Buddha is a nod to the artist’s years spent wandering Middle America, and his lifelong interest in Eastern religion.
His unique strain of spiritual folk, which he describes as “hot tub music—esoteric, tabla, eastern stuff,” was inspired in part by his childhood years spent on a farm in Appalachian Ohio. Gray draws from these experiences during live sets, where he weaves stories of moonshine-laced drum circles and various hippie exploits between songs. His narration gives the stories an old-timey authenticity, but when asked if his tales are always truthful, Gray responded with a robust “Oh, hell no!”
In addition to the storytelling, Gray keeps things interesting by bringing in a different group of players for every show: “I’m not tied down to any one group of musicians—I have my A-list, but if they’re not available I’ll bring in someone else, and often that person works out even better.”
Despite the rotating lineup, Gray got over the angst of live performances long ago. He recalls with slight nostalgia the heyday of musician’s unions, back when he played upright bass for jazz clubs in the ’70s. “The union was a blessing—you could make really good money playing music, $50 an hour in the ’70s. It was a respectable living.”
INFO: 1 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 4. Pono Reef Bar, 120 Union St., Santa Cruz. Free. 426-7666.