Looking for Blues in All the Wrong Places

Today’s audio update: The blues according to Chris Thomas King.

Modern blues artist Chris Thomas King stays on the move

NEW ORLEANS—We were waiting for the King, Chris Thomas King, who, some say, is the future of the blues. He had a night flight in from a gig in Boston, and we didn’t have anything to do in New Orleans for a day, so we took a drive down the Mississippi Delta. We were looking for blues in all the wrong places, because this is not the Mississippi Delta country that gave rise to the blues. The blues delta is up between Vicksburg and Memphis, about 200 miles of prime cotton-growing land on the banks of the river. By contrast, the actual delta of the mighty river, the place where it flows into the gulf, is confined by grassy dikes on either side, with swamp land stretching far and away into flat distances. The river was to the east of us, unseen behind a berm, a levy of grass over 12 feet high. It was like looking at a green ridge of absolutely unvarying height. Every once in a while, rising over the levies of grass, we’d see oil refineries and the prows of mammoth ships. There was no music that could help this place. We tried: Chris Thomas King’s music rocked the car. Some of it I liked. Some of it offended me. It was all good. I would say diabolically good.

Presently, the idea of following the delta road all the way down to the end of America’s mightiest river lost its appeal altogether. Instead, we crossed the Father of Waters on a free car ferry (“Do Not Get Out of Your Vehicle”). The water was a muddy brown and worried into whitecaps by a stiff wind. It looked like a big scary river, full of odd currents and whirlpools.

Then we were driving up the east side of the Mississippi, looking at a twin of the berm that had hidden the river on the other side. We arrived in the town of Poydras, at the Cheers pub, where a beer seemed in order. Pamela, the barmaid, was the proud owner of Dixie, the world’s friendliest pit bull, an animal that stood on the bar and licked my face as I drank beer and considered the Confederate flag prominently displayed behind the bar.

In K-Paul’s kitchen, the chefs have the heat on high

And so, as the sun sank like a stone into pewter gray skies and heat lightning strobed behind the western clouds, we drove back into New Orleans, where we had dinner reservations a K-Paul’s, Chef Paul Prudhomme’s restaurant and pilgrimage site. My chops were seared to perfection. The future of the blues, Chris Thomas King, winged his way down from Boston.

We met him in the lobby of our hotel. He was a handsome young man in his 30s, articulate and unafraid to offend. Guys like Christian and me were part of his audience; that was cool. But he had to play from somewhere inside him, and he played to his culture and to African-Americans of his generation. Hell, his music was supposed to offend people. Some people need to be alienated.

Chris played the semi-legendary bluesman Tommy Johnson in the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? The character is based on a real musician, a man who, it was said, sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his talent. Johnson was an alcoholic, and his most famous song was probably “Canned Heat Blues,” a song celebrating the joys and sorrows of drinking Sterno. Chris’ mournful falsettos in his version are masterful.

Chris grew up in a musical family and his father owned a club. He mopped the floor, picked up garbage, and learned a few instruments. In time, he was asked to sit in and play if a musician was sick or otherwise indisposed. Chris never studied the blues: The music was a condition of his life.

Since Chris wanted to appeal to his people, his generation, he thought he could do it with a guitar and a hip-hop attitude. Simple. But there were people in his way, folks he calls “Gatekeepers of the Blues.” They are festival promoters and magazine editors and record producers that want him to dress a certain way and pronounce his words “in a more authentic manner.” “Hell they want my to put down the guitar if I’m going to rap and stop rapping if I’m going to play the blues. It’s like I go to a bar mitzvah, tell the people that the music is all wrong. Say, ‘Y’all need to be bringing some pork chops in here.’ “

When the gatekeepers got to be too much, Chris went to Europe for three years. He was broke and in a kind of despair. He washed up in Denmark, where they told him that his given name, Chris Thomas, sounded “unfinished” in Danish. So it is now Chris Thomas King.

Back in the States, Chris put together his own record label, 21st Century Blues, a company entirely bereft of gatekeepers. His new record, Dirty South Hip-Hop Blues—the one with the blues hollers in the middle of hip-hop rants, with the classic version of “John the Revelator” remixed as “Revelations” with sub-woofers in mind—was just released last month to glowing reviews from Rolling Stone, among others. Chris Thomas King won three Grammy awards this February, including Album of the Year for his participation in the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack album.

That traditional Delta music is in him and in his blood, and he’s happy. Fifty-ish kinda guys like Christian and me like that sort of music. But we are not his audience. He’s playing for his generation and younger people. “If I keep playing the traditional blues, by the time I’m 75 and they decide to give me my award, all my fans are going to be dead.”

We stood out on Bourbon Street where it crosses St. Peter, and I said, “Chris, you’re just really good. Did you sell your soul to the devil?”

He gave me his best Tommy Johnson actor’s smile and said, “If I tell you that, then I’ll have to kill you.”