Christone "Kingfish" Ingram, musical heir to a long line of blues greats from the Mississippi Delta, has been compared to the likes of. But while the legendary guitarist is one of Ingram's favorites, "I kinda think I have my own thing going."
The guitar phenom won a Grammy last year and is a key part of a burgeoning blues revival in his home town of Clarksdale, Mississippi, bringing the licks and wails that define the genre to a new generation. And this is at just 24 years old.
"I haven't went through no divorce or anything like that, but I've definitely had my share of struggles. And, you know, anybody having struggles, that's the blues. Blues is life," Ingram said.
Ingram, who grew up in Clarksdale, is the ultimate neighborhood kid-made-good. The blues first flourished in Clarksdale and Mississippi around a century ago and in recent years, there's been something of a renaissance in the area, showing the world that the granddaddy of American music still has chords left to play.
Some of those chords are showcased at Ground Zero Blues Club, co-founded by actor Morgan Freeman more than two decades ago as a place to showcase the vast network of talented blues musicians still living and playing in the area. Freeman spent his childhood in the Delta and keeps a home near Clarksdale.
"I think this is the music that comes directly from the soul," the actor said. "It's just wrenched out of you. It's palpable that they're singing from deep."
That sound draws thousands to Clarksdale each year for the annual Juke Joint Festival. They come for the familiar licks and wails. Over the years, the town of around 14,000 people, nestled among the cotton fields of northwestern Mississippi, has produced some of the world's most famous blues stars. Many blues greats, including Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, worked the surrounding plantations.
Super Chikan, a blues guitarist whose real name is James Johnson, worked as a sharecropper himself, picking cotton on the plantations around Clarksdale, starting at age 5 or 6. He works those difficult experiences into the music he writes.
"I sing about the life I live," he said.
These kinds of experiences are what helped forge the blues in the Delta, where places like Clarksdale were built into boomtowns on the backs of slaves and later, sharecroppers.
The music here was a vessel for the Black experience. What started as field songs and spirituals evolved into a new sound: a mix of slide guitar with a howl to the human condition. Blues houses — known as juke joints — opened up. By the 20s and 30s, the first stars emerged, including Robert Johnson – who, per legend, sold his soul to the devil just outside of Clarksdale in exchange for his guitar chops.
But as musical tastes changed over the years, local blues houses closed down. Farm work dried up. Today, Clarksdale sits in one of the poorest counties in the poorest region of a stubbornly poor state. Once vibrant, Clarksdale's downtown is crumbling.
About 42% of Clarksdale's residents live below the poverty line. It was once a seat of the civil rights movement and the legacy of Jim Crow lingers.
And even a seasoned musician like Super Chikan, who's won awards, toured internationally and has had a long recording career, has to supplement his income by building guitars and driving a truck.
"I've been asked, 'When you gonna record a new album?' I said 'For what? I got 10 of them out and they ain't not one of them done me nothing yet,'" he said.
His fans don't fully grasp that he's still living the life he's singing about.
"We got a lotta blues seekers that's coming here, tourists coming here," Super Chikan said. "They want the blues. You don't want the blues, you want the blues music."
He may be younger than Super Chikan, but "Kingfish" Ingram has known hard times, too. His parents introduced him to blues music as a kid, and by age 11, he was playing gigs at local blues joints — work that brought in much-needed money. Ingram and his mother were homeless for a time. Poverty is something Ingram doesn't try to hide in his music.
"That's home, and I have to write about home," he said.
And though Clarksdale's recent blues resurgence has been bringing in money, new businesses and restaurants, Ingram says he'd like to see it benefit more people in town.
"Through the years, I've always seen, you know, money being put into that, and it's fine," Ingram said. "I just wish more of the other neighborhoods would get some of that, you know, push and revitalization. When you step away from the actual genre and you go across the track, that's the real blues."
Ingram is undoubtedly bringing the blues to a wide audience, but with the music on the musical margins, it's easy to wonder where the genre is headed. Ingram isn't worried about the future.
"Blues is always gonna be around, you know," he said. "The genre may not be in the Billboard Top 200, but blues is always gonna be here."
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