'The King of the 21st Century Blues,' Chris Thomas King will perform at DeLuna Fest on Pensacola Beach. / Special to GoPensacola.com
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He has been called the “King of 21st Century Blues,” but 20 years from now, Chris Thomas King may also be known as the B.B. King of the next generation.
Along with King’s music and film credits for movies such as “O Brother, Where Art Thou” and the Ray Charles biographical film “Ray,” the Grammy Award-winning artist has revolutionized the blues while meticulously studying its roots.
Sometimes controversial and always outspoken, King discusses his new album, reveals what to expect from his first DeLuna Fest appearance and shares a little music history lesson.
Q: Tell me more about the new album and what does it mean to you?
A: I’m excited about it. The name of the album is “Bona Fide” and it’s comprised of 10 songs and some of the stand-out tracks that I think people have been responding to — I’ve put some tracks up on my website — (are) “You Don’t Want Me Around” it’s a blues number, but it’s a little bit more ambitious than your standard blues arrangement. It has a lot of good energy to it. Another song that’s been getting a good response is “Goodbye Chicago,” which is in the tradition of the standard 12-bar blues and the subject matter is inspired by the high rate of child killings in Chicago. (It) makes a little bit of a comment about that and then working it into the fact, migration. Everybody knows that we left the South — I’m talking about (why) blues people left the South — and moved up to places like Chicago. And the last decade or so, it’s been quite a lot of people moving from those Northern cities and moving back to the South. It’s got two meanings to it. “Sweet Home Chicago” was a refrain many years ago, but “Goodbye Chicago,” I’m starting to hear a little bit of that these days, wanting to get back to the South.
Q: In your music, how do you juggle the preservation of blues and the innovation that you are known for?
A: Well, that’s a really good question. I don’t worry too much about the preservation of it, but earlier in my career — from the reviews and the way people responded to my music, I was gaining new listeners, people who want to hear a change in the blues, so to speak — I would crossover and reach fans who might not know the lineage of the blues. You name some great blues artists like Howlin’ Wolf or Jimmy Reed and they’d probably say, “Who is that?” but the traditional blues fan, they found my music to be a little offensive to them, and I didn’t quite understand what was going on then. But I think I understand the philosophy about why that was the case.
But at the same time, sometimes you can be ahead of your time. I did a couple of albums, I made in 1994 an album called “21st Century Blues…From Da Hood,” which was definitely about 10 years ahead of its time and that’s a lonely place to be because you can’t time travel; you have to find an audience for your music today and perform for an audience tonight with your music. People need to get it. I think, on purpose, I (started) thinking about making sure I had a classic arrangement or two on my album to bring people along a little bit.
Q: In the past, we’ve talked about Miles Davis. Has Chris Thomas King recorded his “Kind of Blue”?
A: Wow. I’d like to think that I did. I don’t know if I’ve recorded my “Kind of Blue.” I think my “Kind of Blue” is invited probably in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” the movie and soundtrack. If there’s a “Kind of Blue” for me, period, that would be where I’m playing acoustically, deeply in the tradition and made a lot of the purists happy. That would be more of a “Kind of Blue” moment. It has been praised by critics as a folk and blues album; the most popular album ever of that type. So if I had a “Kind of Blue” moment, that was it. But like Miles Davis and like Bob Dylan, even though you may come from a certain tradition, some people want to project onto you their ideas and want to use your music and use you as some kind of pump for their cause, but when you’re a Bob Dylan or a Miles Davis or a Chris Thomas King ... forgive me for comparing myself to those greats, but what I’m trying to say is that when you break ways with a certain audience, and even when Dylan went electric — and I didn’t go electric, necessarily, but when I digitized the blues using hip-hop beats, rapping lyrics and using computers to make the blues — in the early ’90s, this was unheard of. I caught a lot of flak for it. By digitizing the blues, they were feeling that somehow the music wasn’t authentic and that somehow, I was a fraud, I wasn’t like a true blues musician. But I felt that I was using a tool available to me at the time.
In the early days of the blues, people didn’t have electricity or electric instruments. I came along during the digital age. It was natural for me to go digital and use sampling and hip-hop syncopation as much as other generations adapted what they were doing to new trends. And I don’t regret any of that. I wouldn’t change any of the music … if looking back on them, I don’t think I would change my musical direction. When I listen to my early records, I feel like the production value, some of my lyric writing isn’t what it is now. I’m more mature now and have a lot more wisdom to see in-between the lines of my lyrics.
Q: Tell more about the Chris Thomas King Foundation.
A: I have been involved with a lot of different fundraising activities over the years. I was one of the board members to help raise money and do planning for the B.B. King Museum in Mississippi. I did that a few years ago, and I’m very proud to help to make that become a reality. When I’m touring, I take time out to go to schools and share music with the kids and try to inspire them. I do workshops and things like that when I’m traveling. And during (Hurricane) Katrina there was a lot of things; the Grammy Foundation, raising money and getting instruments to people who lost instruments, so when people call me to do charitable things, I usually make every effort to make myself available. It just came to a time where I felt like instead of waiting for the phone to ring, create my own foundation.
A couple of things that I want to do with my foundation; I established it this year and what I want to do with it is give some notoriety to some of the elderly musicians that we’re losing and that’s always good and I hope to try and find ways to get grants and things like that to help with medical expenses or just maybe a recording budget to go into the studio and make a real high quality recording that they can share with us and enrich us all.
One of the other things I’d like to do with the foundation is get people to understand a little more about Louisiana blues. People like to say that jazz was born in Louisiana, but then at the same time, they say that jazz came from the blues, and the thing is that the truth of the matter is the blues was born here in Louisiana, and they later called it jazz. Mississippi had went back and they had landmarks all over the states and maps that you could get to celebrate their musical history; you know, Delta blues. But the Delta blues, to just give you a hint of what I’m saying, is that the Delta blues came in the ’20s and ’30s, but in New Orleans in the 1890s, they were playing this music and the only real difference between the Delta blues and New Orleans blues is that the New Orleans blues was played with trumpets and trombones and banjos and brass instruments. It was much later that the music moved from New Orleans up to Natchez, up the river, then it slowly moved on up to Memphis and slowly moved up to Chicago and now the whole world got the blues basically. Louisiana hasn’t done what it really needs to do to solidify its blues history; that’s one of the things that my foundation wants to play a role in.
Q: What can fans look forward to when you play DeLuna Fest on Pensacola Beach?
A: They can always count on me to perform some acoustic music, the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” period is always going to be a part of my set as long as people want to hear that. I’ll pull some tunes out and add some tunes from my new album, “Bona Fide.” I’ll definitely be sharing some of those new songs with folks and some “Antebellum Postcards,” so my last two albums, maybe pull out a Hendrix number to get everybody going. I recorded my first Hendrix cover, “The Wind Cries Mary,” which is on the new album. I really am enjoying playing electric and I tend to gravitate to music that allows me to stretch out on my electric guitar. I’m having a lot of fun doing that and the thing about that is I’m working with a power trio. A trio leaves a lot of room for musicians. There’s a lot of space to fill; bands like Cream, the Jimi Hendrix Experience and so many other great trios; people like Led Zeppelin, people like that, they were a three-piece band, but they had a major lead singer. That really works for me, not having keyboards, it gives me a chance to play rhythm, lead, any kind of fill or emotion that I get, I can just go with it. It’s so easy for the band to follow me. The more musicians you have on stage, the more you have to kind of stay in a tighter arrangement. The improvisation; once you get up to five, six, seven members in a band, you can’t improvise too easily in that setting, you have to stick to that arrangement. But in a three-piece band, there’s a lot of improvisation that goes on.
Q: When it’s all said and done, how do you want people to remember you and your art?
A: That’s a hard one, man. You hate to be even speaking like that. I don’t know. I just hope that people feel that I didn’t just take something from the blues for my own benefit, but that I brought something to it. That I brought something to the blues as opposed to just take from it. And I hope what I brought to it, reinvigorated it, turned more people on to it and that goes beyond music. It’s a musical thing first, but underneath that there’s some sociology there; we all are just folks. It sounds cliché, but we’re all in this together. We all have to find a way to love each other. That’s the underlying theme in all of my music.