Christone 'Kingfish' Ingram Reflects On Leaving – And Sharing – '662'
Blues guitarist-singer Christone "Kingfish" Ingram hails from Clarksdale, Miss., a small town where blues culture runs deep.
"Clarksdale is pretty much the mecca of the blues, pretty much the birthplace and the heart of the Mississippi Delta Blues," Ingram says in an interview with NPR's A Martinez. "662 is the area code. It represents the whole north Mississippi Delta."
662 is also the name of Ingram's new album, an exploration of his home and an excavation of their shared musical roots. Though he is just 22 years old, Ingram has already had a successful career for some years, touring all over the world and topping Billboard's Blues Album chart with his debut. Clarksdale has an ingrown connection with the blues that not everywhere has, and sometimes, when on the road, Ingram finds himself having to explain what the blues are: "Life."
"That's pretty much what the blues are," he says. "My life is the ups-and-downs, it's how you're feeling. Clarksdale oozes that in more ways than one for sure."
Listen to A Martinez's interview with Christone "Kingfish" Ingram in the audio player above, and read on for an abbreviated and edited version.
A Martinez, Morning Edition: You know, a couple of songs reference Clarksdale – "Something in the Dirt" is one. You sing, "I played my first gig at a place called Red's / 11 years old, sneaking out of bed." Is that really what happened?
Christone "Kingfish" Ingram: Well, I wasn't sneaking out of bed to go to Red's, but I was sneaking out to play my guitar when I should have been sleeping or doing homework. But yeah, at 11 years old, I played my first show at Red's. I had played before in juke joints, but that was like my first official, paying gig – and that was also my first time being in an old-school style juke joint. It was a new experience for me because back then, you could smoke in the clubs. They had thick smoke everywhere. And there was blues playing on the PA. So, yeah, it was definitely an experience.
If you're playing the blues the way you play it, no one's going to think you're 11. They're going to think you've lived it. You've done things. You've seen things.
Well, I would say at that point in my life, I didn't lose my woman. [Though] me and my mom did go through a little, you know, "situation," as they put it. That may have put the blues in my life.
One song seems autobiographical – "I'm Not Gonna Lie." It goes: Music was my way out / From this poverty and crime / Didn't want to be like that / There's more I had to find.
What more did you have to find?
Well, to answer that, I probably would go back to the first single I put out – a song called "Outside of This Town." I had to find life outside of this town.
My parents went through a bad breakup. I had never seen nothing like that. They always fought. And not only that, when they got divorced, me and my mom had become homeless for a short period of time. We stayed in a dirty hotel. But at the end of the day, you ain't got nowhere else to go to. So I had all that going on.
And I was bigger, so folks at school gotta get on you about that. So I had all this stuff clowning up on me. And my guitar and the blues was pretty much the only way that I would vent my frustration.
Your parents' divorce and being homeless – do you remember the first time you put that into your music?
When I wrote those songs actually, 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 kids can. You don't necessarily need to leave your woman or nothing like that – folks have got dramatic stuff that happened in their life all the time. And that just happened to be my story.
I remember having a crush when I was a kid and not having that crush fulfilled. That's that's losing something.
Yeah. Well I ain't gonna lie - I got rejected too at lot in school. But when you get used to it, it don't become the blues no more, you know?
Your first album was Kingfish in 2019. I was going to ask you what the difference is between Kingfish and 662.
Just a whole lot of growth, man. Giving my thoughts on what's going on in the world is also growth. On the first record, we kind of restrained a little bit, gave them the traditional blues with some rock stuff thrown in. With this, we want to show the variety.
When you perform, when you're looking out at your audience, who's there? Do you see people your age?
I do, I do. Especially at the front of the stage, because I can tell they're into the guitar playing. I'd say the youngest age that'd be there – probably 15 to 16, because they're with a parent.
What sort of obstacles do you think you had, as a blues artist, in 2021?
Of course, you got COVID. And not only that – I'm also a young Black teenager from the South. And you know, the song that we have, called "Another Life Goes By," talks about the things that we have going on in the world today as far as racism and such. Because with me being a young Black teenager from the South, no matter how good I play guitar, any day that could be me. You know, some people seem to just like the 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's definitely a responsibility to mention it in the music, because a lot of folks have this way of thinking that blues is all "my baby left me" and cotton fields and guitar solos, when it's not. Blues was originally protest music. They were really singing about pain and dealing with "Mister Charlie" and all that. The way Leadbelly talked about it, that's what he was saying in his time. And me and a few others, we're looking at what's going on in our time. That's our blues. So yeah, it's pretty much mandatory.
When it comes to history, in the song "Too Young To Remember," you're paying tribute to blues performers that came before you. You sing, "When you see me play the guitar / You're looking back one-hundred years."
It sounds like you're very motivated to carry on the tradition - or maybe take blues in a brand new direction?
I consider that [song] both, because some people look at my music and they say, "it's too outside the box." And there are some, who don't really have much blues knowledge, say that it's too traditional. I just like to be in that grey area and do what I feel because personally, I feel like if you mix a little bit of that outside music into the blues, that's a great way of attracting the younger crowd, the guys my age. And then once you reel them in, you can just sit them down and teach them about the real, raw thing. I've seen it happen plenty of times.
Where do you think blues fits in today? In terms of pop music, hip hop, rap, everything?
Oh, it's the foundation! It's the foundation. People think that it's dead, but blues is definitely alive because you can actually hear it in all those genres of music. The roots are always going to be there. All those moments of music that you just named are pretty much the branches.
I just mentioned that you're 22 years old. I'm wondering if you've started to think about your place in music. There's a quote from us at NPR Music that calls you "a rising blues prodigy, a torchbearer." That sounds like you're the face of this whole thing. I mean, have you thought about that at 22?
I'll be honest with you: No, not at all. I feel like I'm one of the torchbearers, it's me and a few others that are taking this on. I just want to be the one to shatter the stereotype – for many years, I even heard my own people say that young Black kids are not into blues music. I just want to be one of the ones that just take that stereotype away, that's all. And that's pretty much how I want to be seen.
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