After years in the popular music wilderness, the guitar has made a certifiable comeback, with a new generation of virtuoso players drawing big audiences beyond the roots music faithful. In bluegrass it’s Molly Tuttle and Billy Strings. Southern rock has Marcus King. And at last, after arguably a skipped generation or two, the blues has an emotive, rafter-rattling, soul-satisfying young guitar master with an old school blues name. Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, at 21 years old, is a star.
Ingram’s kingly status was further solidified last month when he won five Blues Music Awards, including Guitar Player of the Year, an honor won in recent years by artists between the ages of 40 and 70. He also enjoyed three awards for his debut album Kingfish, which was recorded in Nashville with producer Tom Hambridge and guest stars Buddy Guy and Keb’ Mo’. It was released a year ago in May 2019. Packed with smart, original songs and pulsing with energy and technical facility, the album is undeniably great. Even so, few projects in the traditional blues space earn such widespread acclaim.
Kingfish’s big year didn’t come out of nowhere. He started his musical journey at age five on drums. He shifted to the bass a few years later. When he got going on guitar at 14, he’d been immersed in the feel of the music for years and was ready to grow like some genetic experiment. His local scene recognized him as a prodigy and in 2014 he was part of a Delta Blues Museum delegation to the White House, where Ingram played for Michelle Obama. The talent is a blend of nature and nurture, but the legendary quality of Kingfish comes from geography. His hometown is the historic Clarksdale, MS.
“They call it a blues town, but it really is a blues town, you know?” Ingram says in the interview posted here. “There’s a lot of poverty. We have our fair share of crime. So all of that played into the blues. When I was coming up, the blues was heavy. It was played in my neighborhood. I lived right next to a blues band. So I would go to their rehearsal sessions and they would let me check out their music. It was all around 24/7, because a lot of the guys were still alive at the time.”
Ingram says there was a lull as an older generation passed on, but the Delta Blues Museum, which moved into its current location about the time Ingram was born, became a source of inspiration and education, besides spurring a revival of the town itself. He’s been candid in other interviews that he set himself apart among his peers growing up by focusing his passion on the blues rather than hip-hop, because “I wanted to do something no one else was doing.”
His touchstones began with a Muddy Waters documentary, courtesy of his father. He fell for Lightnin’ Hopkins and Son House, among others. “With me coming from Clarksdale, the Mecca for the Delta Blues, you kind of have this thing on you,” he says. “It’s a must that you play and pay homage to the guys who came before you. I dabbled in a lot of things like rock and funk and soul. I do try to mix them because the aim is to get more young people and people in general to know about the blues. But there’s a slippery slope, because you can mix it too much, to where it sounds like something else. So I try to keep everything sounding new and fresh but deeply rooted in tradition, where I’m not disrespecting the genre.”
Ingram is also a songwriter and one who tells you as much about himself in those songs as he does in conversation. In “Been Here Before,” he reacts to the drumbeat of remarks he heard growing up that he was an old soul, perhaps reincarnated to live out a purpose. On “Outside Of This Town” we hear his ambition to expand his world and always improve. “Shooting for the highest star, Want people to remember my name,” he sings. His desire to write was sparked in part by an encounter some time ago with Keb’ Mo’.
“He said you have longevity by singing your own stuff. You can’t be singing someone else’s story,” Ingram says. “Some songs become over-done. I felt like with me being young in the blues and I need to tell my story, I pretty much took my life experiences and put them in the blues. I wanted to show the world what was going on in my head. ‘Outside of this Town’ is a great example of that. That song came from the heart. It was one of the first songs I felt confident about. It was really me.”
New songs are bound to come out of the current stasis when Ingram is very much not able to get outside of town. He says he’s been writing and cutting session tracks for others to make ends meet. But he says he’s eager to be back among his fans and his blues “big bros” like 29-year-old Marquise Knox and 24-year-old Jontavious Willis, writing a new chapter in this foundational American music. As for his rush of awards and accolades, he says, “Man I’m just grinding away. What people don’t understand about success, it can all be taken from you just like that. So the best way to handle it is keep a level head, keep your feet on the ground and just keep pushing and try to kick ass.”
Part of this interview will be included on the next episode of The String, which features blues/roots icon David Bromberg.