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At 20, Kingfish is the future of the blues

Christone Ingram is blues music’s new sensation on the block. His recent debut album shows that he may be the genre’s great new hope

Christone ‘Kingfish’ Ingram on stage at Buddy Guy’s Legends in Chicago in January 2019.
Christone ‘Kingfish’ Ingram on stage at Buddy Guy’s Legends in Chicago in January 2019. (Photo: Getty Images)

When Christone “Kingfish" Ingram first tried to pick up a guitar and play, he was three years old. His tiny fingers couldn’t reach all six strings, so he gave it up and settled for the drums. Then, still a little boy, he tried to play the four-string bass. Growing up in Clarksdale, Mississippi, US, home of many great blues musicians, he learnt to play blues bass, before returning to the guitar by the time he was 13. He attended courses at Clarksdale’s Delta Blues Museum but also studied YouTube videos of great bluesmen to learn to play the blues guitar. That was around 2012.

Ingram is now 20. Two months ago, Guitar World magazine ranked him at No.11 on its list of 30 Best Blues Guitarists In The World Today. He shared the honours with musicians such as Eric Clapton, Derek Trucks, Joe Bonamassa, Buddy Guy, Billy Gibbons, Gary Clark Jr., and a host of other living guitar wizards that blues fans across the world are familiar with and hold in veneration.

Ingram, the latest guitar prodigy to burst upon the blues scene, is already being called the future of the blues. His guitar phrasings, soulful yet primal, and astoundingly mature for someone so young, have wowed fans and critics. But there’s also his singing—a seasoned, deep Delta blues style. After all, he grew up not far from where a young Muddy Waters lived and worked on a farm. Nor too far from the near-mythical “Crossroads", a crossing of two highways where folklore has it that the late great blues singer Robert Johnson traded his soul to the devil to achieve musical success.

There’s a video of him doing a version of I Put A Spell On You, the 1956 song written by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and made famous by the late Nina Simone’s cover. Ingram’s live rendition—he plays a Fender and is accompanied by drums and bass—is brilliant.

That’s the video where I first heard him.

But then there is his debut album, titled Kingfish and released in mid-2019. As many as eight of the dozen tracks on it are originals composed by Ingram, showcasing his breathtaking talent. He sings with confidence; his guitar is loud and gritty but with dollops of traditional blues classiness. On the second song of the album, Fresh Out, a slow Chicago blues ballad, there is a surprise: Guy joins Ingram and the two trade guitar solos and vocals, the old master and the young prodigy singing and playing together to produce an uptempo track oozing with the best attributes of classic blues. Besides Guy, whom he considers a mentor, Ingram has played and recorded with Keb’ Mo’, Eric Gales and The Tedeschi Trucks Band. Mo’ also appears on Ingram’s album. In a song titled Listen, a sweet blues ballad, the two sing and play both acoustic and electric guitars.

Kingfish is a tightly produced album that shows how versatile Ingram is. He’s as supremely confident while playing gritty, loud songs as he is when he plays gentler, tender ones. His guitar playing style blends basic Delta blues with the enhanced and amplified electric sound of Chicago blues. At live shows, Ingram is a lot more adventurous and flamboyant than he is on his album, but then that’s an apt approach.

Live audiences love him. To get a taste of his live performances, watch a video (available on YouTube) of him playing at the Dallas International Guitar Festival last May. During his set, he played a medley of two Jimi Hendrix songs: a stunningly delightful version of Catfish Blues segueing into Hey Joe. On the nearly 20-minute performance of the two songs, Ingram doesn’t try to mimic or copy Hendrix’s searing style but inflects his interpretation of the songs with his own Delta-meets-Chicago blues approach, making for a singularly enjoyable experience.

The thing about Ingram is that (not unlike other erstwhile guitar prodigies such as Kenny Wayne Shepherd or Joe Bonamassa) he is still very young and has decades of performing and recording ahead of him. This can only mean that he will get better at what he already does so well.

At a time when Ingram’s friends were listening to and getting turned on by hip hop and rap (after all, he was born in 1999), he was listening to the blues. In interviews—as well as in some of his songs—Ingram describes himself as an “old soul". In a recent feature in Forbes magazine, he says: “I don’t think like the normal 20-year-old. I like to hang around older people and get wisdom and knowledge, and learn from them. I don’t like to go out clubbing unless I have to play there, so I guess I have a different mindset than the regular 20-year-old."

That’s probably a pretty accurate description of a bluesman who had always wanted to be one since he was 3. Kingfish, already a virtuoso, is the great new hope for the blues.


Five tracks by Christone ‘Kingfish’ Ingram to bookend your week

1. ‘Fresh Out’ (ft. Buddy Guy) from ‘Kingfish’

2. ‘Catfish Blues/Hey Joe’ from the Dallas International Guitar Fest, 2019

3. ‘Listen’ (ft. Keb’ Mo’) from ‘Kingfish’

4. ‘Love Ain’t My Favorite Word’ from ‘Kingfish’

5. ‘Outside Of This Town’ from ‘Kingfish’

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

Twitter - @sanjoynarayan

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