Laura Carbone / Courtesy Alligator Records
Blues guitarist and singer Christone “Kingfish” Ingram hails from Clarksdale, Mississippi, a small town where blues culture runs deep.
“Clarksdale is pretty much the mecca of the blues, pretty much the birthplace and heart of the Mississippi Delta Blues,” Ingram said in an interview with NPR’s A Martinez. “662 is the area code. It represents the entire North Mississippi Delta.”
662 is also the name of Ingram New album, an exploration of his house and an exploration of their common musical roots. Although he is only 22 years old, Ingram has already had a successful career for a few years, touring around the world and in the lead Billboard‘s Blues Album chart with his debut. Clarksdale has a connection to the blues that isn’t everywhere, and sometimes, when he’s on the road, Ingram finds himself having to explain what the blues is: “Life”.
“That’s pretty much what the blues are,” he says. “My life is full of ups and downs, that’s how you feel. Clarksdale exudes that in more ways than one, that’s for sure.”
Listen to A Martinez’s interview with Christone “Kingfish” Ingram in the audio player above, and read on for a cropped and edited version.
In Martinez, Morning edition: You know, a few songs refer to Clarksdale – “Something in the Dirt” is one of them. You sing, “I played my first gig at a place called Red’s / 11, sneaking out of bed.” Is this really what happened?
Ingram Christone “Kingfish”: Well, I didn’t get out of bed to go to Red’s, but I did go out and play guitar when I should have been sleeping or doing my homework. But yes, at 11, I played my first show at Red’s. I had performed in juke joints before, but it was like my first official, paid gig – and it was also my first time playing in an old-fashioned juke joint. It was a new experience for me because at the time you could smoke in clubs. There was thick smoke everywhere. And there was blues playing on the sound system. So yeah, it was definitely an experience.
If you play the blues the way you play it, no one will think you’re 11. They’ll think you’ve been through it. You did things. You saw things.
Well I would say at that point in my life I didn’t lose my wife. [Though] my mom and I went through a little, you know, a “situation,” as they say. It may have put the blues in my life.
One song seems autobiographical – “I’m Not Gonna Lie”. How are you: Music was my way out / Out of this poverty and crime / I didn’t want to be like this / There is more I needed to find.
What more did you need to find?
Well, to answer that, I would probably go back to the first single I released – a song called “Outside of This Town”. I had to find a life outside of this city.
My parents had a bad breakup. I had never seen anything like it. They always fought. And not just that, when they got divorced, my mom and I were homeless for a short time. We stayed in a dirty hotel. But at the end of the day, you have nowhere to go. So I had it all.
And I was taller, so people at school must blame you for that. So I had all these things that fooled me. And my guitar and the blues were about the only way to vent my frustration.
Divorce from your parents and being homeless – do you remember the first time you put that in your music?
When I actually wrote these songs last year. My first record wasn’t as personal as this one, and I… wanted the world to see the growth. How did I get to where I am? You know some people say kids can’t feel the blues. I feel like children can. You don’t necessarily have to leave your wife or anything like that – people have dramatic things that have happened in their lives all the time. And that is precisely my story.
I remember having a crush as a kid and not having that accomplished crush. That’s it, that’s losing something.
Yes. Well, I’m not going to lie – I’ve been rejected at school a lot too. But when you get used to it, it doesn’t become the blues anymore, you know?
Your first album was Kingfish in 2019. I was going to ask you what is the difference between Kingfish and 622.
Just a lot of growth, man. Giving my thoughts on what’s going on in the world is also a growth. On the first album, we restricted ourselves a bit, gave them the traditional blues with a bit of rock. With this we want to show the variety.
When you play, when you watch your audience, who is there? Do you see people your age?
I do, I do. Mainly in the spotlight, because I can tell they like to play the guitar. I would say the youngest age that would be there – probably 15 to 16, because they’re with a parent.
What kinds of obstacles do you think you encountered, as a blues artist, in 2021?
Of course you have COVID. And not only that – I am also a young black teenager from the South. And you know, the song we have called “Another Life Goes By” is about things that are going on in the world today with regard to racism and things. Because me being a young black teenager from the South, no matter how hard I play guitar, any day that could be me. You know, some people seem to like talent, but they don’t really like you.
Do you feel a responsibility to mention these things in your music now?
Oh, most definitely. There is certainly a responsibility to mention it in the music, because a lot of people have this way of thinking that the blues is all “my baby left me” and cotton fields and guitar solos, when it’s not. is not the case. The blues was originally protest music. They were really singing about the pain and dealing with “Mister Charlie” and all that. The way Leadbelly talked about it is what he said in his day. And I and a few others are looking at what’s going on in our time. It’s our blues. So yes, it’s pretty much mandatory.
As for the story, in the song “Too Young To Remember”, you pay homage to the blues artists who came before you. You sing: “When you see me playing guitar / You look back a hundred years.”
Sounds like you’re very motivated to carry on the tradition – or maybe take the blues in a whole new direction?
I consider that [song] both, because some people look at my music and say, “it’s too off the beaten track.” And there are some, who don’t really have any blues knowledge, say it’s too traditional. I just like being in that gray area and doing what I feel because I personally feel like if you mix a little bit of that outdoor music into the blues, it’s a great way to get an audience. younger guys my age. And then once you roll them up, you can just sit them down and teach them the real raw thing. I’ve seen this happen plenty of times.
Where do you think the blues fits today? In terms of pop music, hip hop, rap, everything?
Oh, that’s the foundation! It is the foundation. People think it’s dead, but the blues is definitely alive because you can hear it in all of these kinds of music. The roots will always be there. All of those musical moments that you just named are pretty much the branches.
I just mentioned that you are 22 years old. I wonder if you’ve started to think about your place in music. There’s a quote from us at NPR Music that is calling you “a rising blues prodigy, a torchbearer.” Looks like you’re the face of it all. I mean, did you think about it at 22?
I’ll be honest with you: no, not at all. I have the impression of being one of the torchbearers, it is me and a few others who assume it. I just want to be the one to break the stereotype – for many years I’ve even heard my own people say that young black kids don’t like the blues. I just want to be one of those people who take that stereotype away, that’s all. And that’s pretty much how I want to be seen.