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On The String: New Blues From Carolyn Wonderland and Kingfish

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The blues is a beautiful paradox. Its characteristics are timeless, but its capacity for individual expression and evolution seems inexhaustible. This week’s String tells a bit of that story, putting the 52-year-old label Alligator Records in the spotlight with two star artists who’ve been added to the roster in the past few years.

Christone “Kingfish” Ingram is leading today’s blues youth brigade out of his home base in Clarksdale, MS with incredible finesse and power for a 23-year-old. Carolyn Wonderland of Austin, TX is a proven veteran, already a member of the Austin Music Awards Hall of Fame before her 50th birthday. Where Kingfish released his second Alligator album in 2021, Wonderland made her label debut last year. Both are singer/songwriter/player triple threats, but that’s about where the similarities end. And these companion conversations make for a rich hour of radio.

Ingram’s musical education defies any kind of mythology about bluesmen emerging out of nowhere, their talents fully and perhaps diabolically formed. He got his start along with a bunch of other kids in the music education system that grew up in and around Clarksdale’s Delta Blues Museum. This city, arguably the single most important destination for a blues music fan and pilgrim, has invested in its cultural heritage and music tourism, while nurturing its own community. Ingram tells me what he remembers about his path, where he studied drums, bass and ultimately guitar.

“Well, if you were in the beginner class, you came in, they would teach you the string names, how to hold a guitar, the note names. And I always remember they would start you out with an easy blues, like a Jimmy Reed riff or something like that. And then when you were in the advanced or intermediate class, we would come in and just sit around and play blues standards. And they would tell us, you know, that song was by Freddie King or whatnot. And even sometimes we would put the instruments down, and they had these blues memoirs. And we would sit around in a circle and read them. So it was like a full on education.”

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In his album 662, named for the northern Mississippi area code, Ingram tells us a lot about his biography in songs. “I played my first gig at a place called Red’s/Eleven years old, sneaking out of bed,” he sings in the ode to Clarksdale “Something In The Dirt.” Ingram was a prodigy who was invited to play all over town, then the region. In 2014 he was part of a delegation from the museum that played for Michelle Obama at the White House. Major blues musicians took an interest in him. And along the way, he says his mother was an anchor and champion. Princess Pride was her wonderful name, and sad to say, she passed away not long after Christone’s first album came out. He sings a eulogy in the song “Rock and Roll” and he told me a bit about her.

“She was pretty much like my biggest supporter. She was my manager for a long time. She had gotten me to like, I want to say like 12 different countries. She got me on national television. She pretty much was the jumpstart for my career. She was security. She was my protector. She was everything.”

Wonderland also talks about her mom. Growing up in Houston, Carolyn heard her mom play folk and country in working bands and got to play her guitars (leading to an amusing incident that put Carolyn on the path to playing with bare fingers instead of a pick). And like Kingfish, she got herself into music venues when she was well underage, leading to some fateful encounters.

“I borrowed the car, unbeknownst to my parents and went out to hear some music,” she says. “And I ended up doing a song swap at the end of the night, drinking with this guy. He'd pulled out like, ‘If I Needed You’ and ‘Pancho and Lefty’. I was like, you know, I used to think that was one of my mom's songs. Her band would do it all the time. And he said, yeah, it's one of my most popular songs. And I realized, oh, wait a second. I'm playing guitar with Townes Van Zandt! I wanted to tell my mom so badly, but if I did, she'd know I took the car.”

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Wonderland goes through the beats of her story in our half hour - being coaxed to move to Austin around 2000, growing close to Ray Benson who signed her to his Bismeaux Records label and recent adventures touring the world in the band of English blues icon John Mayall. She’s a petite, polite woman who seems to grow a foot and sprout claws on stage, where her attack as a vocalist and electric guitarist can be fierce and fiery. She made Tempting Fate, the album that would land her on Alligator on her own before the pandemic set in, and she reached out through a friend to her hero Dave Alvin to produce.

“I always had it in the back of my mind that he would understand my whole genreless approach, because he's got a foot in every genre as well. His songs are so well crafted. And I just felt like, man, if somebody could improve what I'm doing, he'd be the one.”

The result is a collection more than worthy of that Alligator imprint. No Depression called it, “a roof-rattling, take-no-prisoners soulful shout-out rooted in the past that still shines brightly into the future.” The original songs like “Crack In The Wall” are meaningful and relevant. Its many cover span a sweet range, from Billy Joe Shaver’s taught and affectionate “Honey Bee” on to Mayall’s topical-then-and-now “The Laws Must Change,” and wrapping up with a seven-minute take on the Grateful Dead’s “Loser” that grows from a murmur to a roaring jam before a comfortable conclusion. “We freaked out and freaked back in,” Wonderland says. Words to live by.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's music news producer and host of The String, a show featuring conversations on culture, media and American music. New episodes of The String air on WMOT 89.5 in Middle Tennessee on Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. Twitter and Instagram: @chavighurst.