Blues Fest 2006: It’s Good to be the King -- Chris Thomas King, Saturday, 5:30 p.m., Tent Stage Print
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Mike Schulz   
Tuesday, 27 June 2006 22:46

Chris Thomas King In O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Chris Thomas King plays the young blues musician Tommy Johnson, who sells his soul to the devil for the chance to become a legendary guitar player.

"Oh, son," says Tommy's new acquaintance, Delmar, upon learning of the deal. "For that you sold your everlasting soul?"

"Well," replies Tommy, "I wasn't usin' it."

Obviously, King wasn't being typecast in the role. King's musical accomplishments reveal nothing but soul.

The 43-year-old's musical journey began at the Louisiana juke joint Tabby's Blues Box, owned and operated by King's father, Tabby Thomas. "My dad was a real solid part of the Baton Rouge blues community," King said in a recent phone interview. "He started that club when I was a kid. The blues experience and music and atmosphere ... I didn't really have to seek it. It was kind of in the living room, so to speak, and a lot of the older blues veterans allowed me to spend time with 'em."

As a youth who shared his father's interest in music - "I kind of knew what I wanted to do at a very young age," King states - he quickly discovered it would be easier to spend time with these blues vets if he learned to play.

"I think the trumpet was my first kind of formal instrument," says King, "where I really learned to read notes and stuff.

Chris Thomas King "But the trumpet didn't make enough noise for me," he laughs, and King instead focused on the guitar, which he played in his first professional gig ... at age 11. "It was in a high-school gym," he says. "We charged, like, 25 cents for everybody to come in, and we had a good ol' time."

As teenager, King made his first trek to Europe, where he began to get a sense of why so many blues artists - including, eventually, himself - find greater success abroad than at home.

King says, "Some roots musicians that can't get radio play on commercial radio stations. ... They find themselves building an audience outside of America because music isn't categorized over there. I think radio stations here are really rigidly segregated. You can be a country artist and sell out Madison Square Garden seven nights in a row, and you go to an urban station and ... they'll just laugh at you. They're not going to to play [country] even though you've sold 20 billion records.

"But in Europe, they don't have those kinds of rigid restrictions on formats, you know? It blends in together, so you'd have blues or popular jazz musicians mixed in with a lot of what we consider ‘mainstream' musicians."

For three years in the early '90s, King relocated to Europe, a decision that stemmed, partially, from the difficulty he had getting airplay in the States; it wasn't King's talent that labels objected to, but rather his choice to blend the blues with hip-hop.

"That still befuddles me," he says. "I've mixed the blues with just about every kind of music there is to mix it with. You can mix the blues with country music or classical, whatever. Try mixing the blues with a little bit of hip-hop and it seems to shock people."

King reveals that his goal was never to shock, but simply to write music that was honest.

"I didn't grow up in the cotton fields," he explains, "and I wasn't a runaway slave or anything like that. I mean, I grew up in an urban setting. I grew up with the Beastie Boys and Run-DMC. I mean, I'm the same age as Run-DMC, you know? Hip-hop predates me. Even though I grew up immersed in the blues, the music I heard on the radio, and the music my friends listened to ... you know, we weren't listenin' to Skip James and stuff like that," he says with a laugh. "You go to parties and women kind of walk out you put that on.

"I needed to write songs that a young person could relate to," he continues, "and so I began writing songs in the traditional blues style that reflected my experience, and things that my friends - people I grew up with - kind of relate to."

Blues, he adds, "is not an old man's music. It was not ‘the old folks' music' it has become. I was close enough to it, came up in it enough, to know that. Robert Johnson died at 27. He was about the same age as Tupac."

King also realizes that merging blues and hip-hop styles makes good business sense. "I think you can't reach white kids, musically, if you're not going through hip-hop. I understand why record labels forced blues artists to merge with rock for years and years, because that's what suburban kids were into. Now teenagers aren't into Mick Jagger anymore. They're more into Eminem. So you gotta switch it up."

He continues: "Some jazz and blues artists think that when they become elderly musicians, like B.B. King, that they're gonna have an audience. And that audience is not guaranteed. If I'm gonna have an audience when I'm 80, I need to reach kids right now. Otherwise, I'll be touring the graveyard circuit."

Don't expect that tour to commence any time soon. Since the staggering success of the O Brother film and soundtrack (which scored him a Grammy), King has earned an enormous following as both as actor - he portrayed Lowell Fulson in Ray - and a musician, with his latest CD, Rise, arriving in tandem with King's debut performance at the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival. (Selections and a video from the CD, on sale June 27, are available on the artist's Web site at

The most personal, and soulful, work of his career, Rise is an inspirational album born of tragedy - King's New Orleans home and studio were destroyed in Hurricane Katrina, and the CD was, for King, a way to exorcise his pain and sense of displacement.

"All my family photos and mementos, along with everything personal, was washed away," he says. "A lot of things that people can't even imagine they hold dear. We evacuated first to Houston, and were in Houston with a lot of other people, watching television in amazement. And all of a sudden, you'd think you were looking at some Third World country that had been invaded or something. So that started moving me to ask the question, ‘What would Jesus do?'"

That question became the title of Rise's first track, and a model for the blues-inflected inspirational songs that follow it, which culminate in King's rendition of the timeless Louis Armstrong classic "What a Wonderful World."

"When I got to the end of the album," King says, "there was like a burden lifted off me. There was so much pain there. I hope that the album tells people that they might have some difficulties in their lives, but hopefully those melodies will remind them that the sun is going to rise tomorrow, and you can rise with it."

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