People generally love to argue about music, but blues music is one genre that inspires particularly passionate debate. It's common to hear lamentations about the state of modern blues artists, especially as beloved legacy artists retire or pass away. But for anyone who has doubts about the direction of blues music, look no further than Christone "Kingfish" Ingram. The 20-year-old Clarksdale, MS native is a virtuosic guitarist and equally talented vocalist who inspires fans and critics alike to use descriptors like “savior” and “future of the blues" when describing his music.
Ingram’s debut album Kingfish is a masterful collection of traditionally inspired blues music. The album opens with "Outside of This Town," a muscular blues rocker that nods to Ingram's small-town roots. "Been Here Before," with its acoustic arrangement and wistful lyrics, shows off Ingram's softer side. And the Buddy Guy-assisted "Fresh Out" sounds timeless from its opening notes, with the interplay between Ingram and Guy a lick-laden passing of the torch.
Across the entirety of Kingfish, Ingram's velvety, sturdy vocal is the perfect counterpoint to his guitar playing, which finds the sweet spot between honeyed melody and thrilling pyrotechnics. A triple threat, Ingram also writes narrative, evocative lyrics, which he explains only come after he's worked out a song's guitar parts. A few days after our interview, Ingram was nominated for Best Traditional Blues Album for Kingfish at the 62nd annual Grammy Awards.
Vinyl Me, Please caught up with Ingram as he was traveling across Texas between tour dates, just weeks after filming an Austin City Limits episode with Guy and performing on the Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise.
VMP: You just spent a week on what sounds like a very cool “blues cruise.” What was that experience like for you?
It was like a big family reunion for me. I saw so many players and met so many people. It was an awesome experience. Plus, it was my first time in Mexico, so that was great.
And before that, you got to film an Austin City Limits episode with Buddy Guy. I know you guys have collaborated before that, too, including on your album. What does it mean to you to have such a legendary artist want to work with you?
I’ve been a fan of his since I started playing guitar. I was eight or nine. It's been really special to me, because I've always wanted to just meet him, you know, and be around him. Just being able to connect with him - that's an amazing thing, because I didn't ever think it would happen... I still can't believe he likes [my music]. [laughs]
People really seem to be responding strongly to your album, in a way you don't always see with debut artists. How have these last few months since the album released been for you?
For me it feels great because in order to have longevity, you have to have your own material, your own body of work. So it feels good to finally have an album. And I'm glad that everybody sees what's going on in my head and my heart and my mind. And I'm glad everybody's been enjoying it.
When did you first start working on the material that would become the album? Was there a particular song that you worked on or an idea that clicked things into place for you?
One of the early songs I wrote is "Outside of This Town." I wrote that in my living room. That's when I had the first songwriter session at the time with the producer Tom Hambridge. I had the first session with him at his house and we had like six songs on the album. So we recorded for three days, in Nashville actually.
When you're working on writing a song, do you write the guitar part first or save that for later?
It's pretty much either/or. I could be sitting down and hear this cool groove... I probably have some life experience that I can take and write some lyrics and add some music to it later.
You have such an amazing sense of phrasing with your guitar playing, unlike anyone else I've heard in a long time. When you're in the studio recording your guitar parts, how much do you know about what you're going to play when you go in? Or is it mostly you following your gut and improvising?
I'm improvising almost all of the time, unless there is a certain lick I feel like should go in a certain spot, which is very rare. Other than that, it's pretty much one hundred percent just improvisation. They give me the track and I just play to it, play what I feel.
One of my favorite songs on the album is "Been Here Before," because it shows another side of you. How did you write that one?
That one — it's a funny story. It was originally supposed to be the title track for the record. Some people, the higher-ups, didn't like it. That was the last song that we wrote and the last song we recorded, after we did all the music. We did all the music for everything else and we went upstairs and wrote another song and ended up recording it. We took the experience of some of the things my grandmother used to say when I was younger. She used to always say that I've "been here before," that I'm an old soul.
To your point about you being an old soul, do you remember the first time you encountered blues music? Or has it just always been there?
It's pretty much always been a part of my life. My dad showed me a Muddy Waters documentary at an early age. Then he showed me an episode of Sanford and Son with B.B. King doing a cameo. I lived right next to a blues band and I was in a blues town in Mississippi, so I was always around it.
There are a lot of people who talk about you as being one of the young heroes of the blues. What does it mean to you to be able to carry the tradition on?
Oh, man. It's definitely big. There's a little pressure there [laughs]. I definitely a duty I feel I have to fulfill. We have to show that there are kids, and young black kids, that are still into the blues.
Brittney McKenna is a writer living in Nashville. She contributes regularly to many outlets, including NPR Music, Apple Music and Nashville Scene.