Catching up with the 20-year-old blues guitarist, singer and songwriter ahead of his show with Buddy Guy at the Ryman
APR 30, 2019 2 PM
Music was not just an ideal career path but also the most logical one for 20-year-old blues sensation Christone "Kingfish" Ingram. The native of historic Clarksdale, Miss., began performing in church as a child, with his father Christopher Ingram and mother Princess Pride (who is a first cousin of legendary country vocalist Charley Pride). The younger Ingram was playing drums at 6 years old and bass at 9. By 11, he'd switched to guitar and began writing songs.
Ingram chose a different direction than most of his peers. The sound and fury of the blues, rather than rap or R&B, greatly attracted and fascinated him. Though he's quite familiar with the style of numerous other performers from Jimi Hendrix to Prince, his first love was the music of electric blues greats.
"When I saw that PBS film on Muddy Waters, there was just something special there," Ingram tells the Scene, speaking by phone ahead of his show on Wednesday at the Ryman, where he’ll open for Buddy Guy. "He had everything: Power. Imagination. Storytelling mastery. I couldn't believe it. I knew right then playing and singing music like that was what I really wanted to do. Even though there weren't guys my age who were doing that, we had neighbors who played in juke joints and I followed what they were doing."
It didn't take long for Ingram to make an impression. By age 11, he was playing at Clarksdale's Ground Zero Club, backing both local and national blues musicians. Bill "Howl-N-Madd" Perry, one of Mississippi's finest contemporary blues players, gave Ingram the nickname "Kingfish" while alerting the blues world about this young kid bringing 21st-century swagger to a vintage idiom.
A triumphant appearance at the White House in 2014 as part of a delegation of young blues artists from Clarksdale's Delta Blues Museum helped spread Ingram’s reputation far and wide. After he received the 2015 Rising Star Award from The Rhythm & Blues Foundation, he began appearing on national TV programs and landed a part in the second season of the Netflix series Luke Cage and playing at festivals across the country. He also gained the appreciation of musicians like funk icon Bootsy Collins (who gave Ingram’s videos on YouTube a boost by sharing them) and rap legend Rakim (with whom Ingram played a Tiny Desk Concert for NPR). Touring with Guy, another one of his heroes, is only going to raise Ingram’s profile even further.
Kingfish, Ingram’s debut LP for Alligator Records, is set to be released May 17, and it has extensive Music City ties. It was recorded locally and produced by multi-Grammy-winner Tom Hambridge, who Ingram says encouraged him to emphasize his compositions.
"We talked early about what we wanted to do, and Tom insisted it be mostly my songs," Ingram says. "We both felt it was important to focus on new material because what most people had seen and heard from the videos and other things are covers. I wanted to make it a signature thing, spotlight my writing."
Ingram co-wrote eight of the 12 cuts. “Fresh Out,” featuring Guy, was a strong choice for a first single, and the song "Outside of This Town" has generated significant buzz with its ferocious lead vocal and searing guitar accompaniment. Still, the disc's most potent singing comes on "Been Here Before" and "Before I'm Old," two numbers that blend confessional and autobiographical references with intense and flashy (but far from excessive) accompaniment. You can hear the influence of B.B. King in Ingram’s preference for crisp, tight, disciplined lines rather than high volume and flamboyant licks. Nashville great Keb’ Mo' provides delightful vocal asides and accompaniment on the track "Listen" and adds his distinctive resonator sound to six cuts.
Ingram is also thrilled about touring with Guy, even though the rigors of the road haven't always allowed them the time together he'd like.
"A lot of the time I've just watched him from backstage, and it's been an incredible lesson and experience," says Ingram. "He's told me a few things when we get a moment, but the biggest lessons I learn from him are about stage presence, how to present your music to an audience, and how he continues to do fresh and surprising things every night. And when we get a chance to talk, the stories are incredible.
Ingram rejects the widely held notion that only older music fans can appreciate the blues. He's participated in various Blues In the Schools programs nationwide, and says his audience is more diverse than what you’d expect from the stereotypical perspective on the blues. Still, he's aware blues that isn't played on urban radio, and says exposure is the main challenge in keeping the art alive.
"I've found the biggest problem isn't young people don't like the blues, but that they really haven't heard them," Ingram says. "They haven't seen or heard a lot of people in their age group who are singing and playing the blues, or applying them to their experience. But once they do, I've seen them really enjoy and appreciate it. That's the key for me now. I’m taking the music that the greats have made and making it work for my generation. I'm talking about my experiences and the things I've seen and heard, and doing it through the blues. I've found that it appeals to all types of people and their age doesn't matter."
Guy and Ingram play Wednesday, May 1, at the Ryman. Tickets start at $35 and are available right here.