Blues dynamo 'Kingfish' Ingram, 22, made his White House debut at 14: 'A standout point in time for me!'

By George Varga

At just 22, electrifying Mississippi guitar and vocal sensation Christone "Kingfish" Ingram may very well be the next blues superstar in the making — and, quite likely, the first to get a major boost from YouTube, Spotify and Instagram.

The 2020 Grammy nominee is also the first young blues artist in memory who has Asperger's syndrome, a mild form of autism. His recently deceased mother credited her son's condition for giving him added creative depth and sensitivity.

He readily agreed with that assessment during a recent phone interview from his home in the rural Mississippi town of Clarksdale.

"I can hear music in people's footsteps, and I can hear melodies in the sound of the rain and the blowing wind," said Ingram, who on Saturday co-headlines the 11th annual AimLoan.com San Diego Blues Festival.

"When I'm performing, I can see colors in the music," Ingram said. "As a kid, I always pictured a mood to go with what I was hearing. And when I hear a note, I think that note represents everything — everything."

'Next explosion of the blues'

Hailed as a missing link between B.B. King, Jimi Hendrix and Prince, Ingram has been praised on social media by hip-hop star The Game and funk-music mainstay Bootsy Collins. Guitar legend Buddy Guy, a pivotal Ingram mentor, has championed him as "the next explosion of the blues." It's exactly the kind of accolade earned by Guy himself back in the 1960s.

The two met when Guy, now 85, invited Ingram to sit in with him at a 2016 festival in Oregon. Guy was headlining. Ingram's band had performed on a side stage earlier in the day.

Guy often invites young guitarists to join him on stage for a song. But few have made as big an impression on him as Ingram, whose two albums for Alligator Records — 2020's "Kingfish" and this year's "662" — were produced and co-written by Guy's longtime drummer and producer, Tom Hambridge.

"The sky's the limit for Kingfish. He's just killing it," said Hambridge, who has produced three Grammy-winning albums for Guy and counts B.B. King, Gary Clark Jr. and Carlos Santana among his many past collaborators.

"Like Buddy, Kingfish is a great ambassador for the blues, which is a heavy role to take on," Hambridge said, speaking from his Nashville, Tennessee, home.

"Kingfish is not a white kid from the suburbs and he doesn't have an agenda. It's not like you're trying to sell people somebody who's not the real deal, because Kingfish is already the real deal. He's from Clarksdale, the birthplace of delta blues, and he grew up playing music in church."

Ingram's potential was so apparent to Guy that, a few months after they jammed together in 2016, he asked Hambridge to locate Ingram to make an album. Guy covered all the production costs out of his own pocket.

"I tracked down Kingfish's manager, Rick, and then I had lunch with Kingfish, his mother and Rick," Hambridge recalled.

"I asked Kingfish: 'Do you have a record deal?' He said: 'No.' I asked: 'Do you have an agent?' He said: 'No.' I said: 'Well, I've got good news. Buddy wants me to produce a record for you!' They were overjoyed."

Under Hambridge's guidance, Kingfish made his debut solo album in just three days. He was then signed by Alligator Records and, for concert bookings, by the Paradigm Music Agency. Guy played on Kingfish's first single, "Fresh Out," and had Kingfish tour as his opening act.

Kingfish's first Grammy recognition came in 2020, when his chart-topping debut album was nominated in the Best Traditional Blues Album category. Last year also saw him win five national Blues Music Awards and four Living Blues Awards, including Artist of the Year and Album of the Year.

"It's all because Buddy saw there is something in Kingfish that is great and wonderful," Hambridge said. "It was a perfect storm."

Ingram speaks of Guy in reverent tones and is quick to praise Hambridge's songwriting skills and musical acumen. The young virtuoso also credits his father for introducing him to the blues — and to one of its greatest exponents — when Ingram was all of 5 years old.

All roads lead to the blues

"My dad showed me a PBS documentary about Muddy Waters at the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale. He also showed me all these musical artifacts at the museum," Ingram recalled.

"That was my first introduction to Muddy. Then, someone gave me a CD with a bunch of his songs, and I listened to 'I Can't Be Satisfied,' 'Screamin' and Hollerin' " and all the old songs. Muddy was also my introduction to slide guitar. The first slide song I learned was 'I Can't Be Satisfied.'"

Ingram enrolled in blues classes at the museum when he was 8 and began playing in its children's blues band. He started off on drums, then moved to bass, then guitar. While he also speaks knowledgably about rock, hip-hop, heavy-metal and jazz — guitarists Charlie Christian, Sonny Sharrock and Kenny Burrell are favorites — his abiding love is for blues.

Now, as when he was 5, Ingram is enchanted by this earthy, deeply felt music. Born out of spirituals and gospel, blues laid the foundation for jazz, rhythm & blues, rock, funk, rap and more.

But Ingram's peers in Clarksdale did not share his love of the blues. They dismissed the music out of hand and were baffled why he did not share their disinterest.

"I was on my own!" he recalled with a laugh.

"Even the kids in the blues class with me you, could tell they were just passing the time. I'd get questions all the time from my classmates, like: 'Why do you listen to this old boring stuff?'

"I'd tell them: 'This is our history and culture. The blues is the root. Everything we hear on the radio has blues elements in it, some way or somehow'."

How did his classmates react to his rationale?

Ingram laughed again.

"Honestly," he replied, "they wouldn't take it serious."

Seemingly by fate, Ingram was born and raised in the Mississippi town long known as the cradle of the blues.

A partial list of musicians to have emerged from the Clarksdale region includes Waters, John Lee Hooker, Son House, Ike Turner, Junior Parker, Eddie Boyd, Pinetop Perkins, Earl Hooker, Big Jack Johnson, Lil Green and, later on, Sam Cooke and hip-hop stars Nate Dogg and Rick Ross.

Famously, Clarksdale is also the site of the fabled crossroads, where — as legend has it — delta blues pioneer Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in return for unsurpassable musical greatness. Led Zeppelin co-founders Jimmy Page and Robert Plant paid tribute to Johnson and the region with the title of their 1998 duo album, "Walking Into Clarksdale."

"My dad would tell me about Ike Turner and other music stars from the area," Ingram said.

"And the Delta Blues Museum helped me learn about Robert Johnson, Johnny Shines, T-Model Ford, Honeyboy Edwards. ... The museum was the doorway for me to learning about all those guys, and about all the other bluesmen who came out of the Mississippi Delta area. It was a real deep arts education."

Extending the reach of the blues

Ingram's rise to national prominence started when he was 14 and the Delta Blues Museum Band performed for then-first lady Michelle Obama at the White House. She presented him and museum director Shelley Ritter with the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, a $10,000 honor.

"That was a great experience before the glitz and glamour in my career began," he said. "That was a standout point in time for me!"

In more recent years, Ingram has shared stages with the alt-rock band Vampire Weekend and Americana music star Jason Isbell. In 2020, he recorded a duet with Bootsy Collins, the bassist best known for his tenure with James Brown and Parliament-Funkadelic. The growing buzz for Ingram led to his being interviewed by Elton John for the pop-music legend's Apple Music podcast, "Rocket Hour."

Ingram is also connecting with fans on YouTube, where his performance videos have racked up more than 31 million views. In concert, he will intersperse his original songs with combustible versions of "Hey Joe" — the Billy Roberts classic popularized by Jimi Hendrix in the 1960 — and Prince's "Purple Rain."

Then there's "Another Life Goes By," a standout number from Ingram's new album. It thoughtfully reflects on the lost lives of some of the young Americans who inspired the Black Lives Matter movement.

"I most definitely feel a responsibility to have some of my songs reflect the state of our nation," Ingram said.

"Because, in today's world, you can see there are a lot of people who are misinformed about what the blues really are. They have a narrow way of thinking that all the blues are is someone singing: 'My baby left me,' and then a guitar solo.

"But the blues was originally protest music. And the things happening now, with racism and police brutality, that's our blues for me and other African American musicians. Because when we put our guitars down, we could be the next Michael Brown or George Floyd or Sandra Bland. So it's almost mandatory to reflect that in our music and help raise awareness."

'Dude, you're on fire!'

Thanks to his precocious talent and youthful sensibilities, Ingram is reaching a broader and younger audience than most blues performers. He can gauge some of his impact via social media, a tool not commonly used by blues artists.

"I always look at my Instagram page," Ingram said. "And I get a lot of messages from young kids who listen to rap, and they're like: 'Dude, you're on fire!' That, for me, is like: 'Mission accomplished.'

"That has always been my goal — putting outside elements into the blues so that young people are attracted to it and we can teach them about the real thing. The feedback has been great. And on the most recent leg of my (summer) tour, I saw a lot more people in the crowds in their late teens and early 20s."

Ingram's six-string hero status was confirmed in January when he was spotlighted on the covers of Guitar World magazine and DownBeat. While he feels he is just coming into his own as a singer on his new album, "662," he is increasingly confident about his instrumental skills.

"I try to use dynamics a lot," Ingram said. "If you look at all the years of my playing, it was always one line, real fast, after another, but I tried to tell a story. Now, I like to slow the pace sometimes, build it up to a climax and keep the crowd with me."

That he is still an up-and-coming artist working toward a mainstream commercial breakthrough is undeniable. So is his potential to evolve into a major force who can simultaneously salute and extend the blues.

"I once heard Prince say his songs gave him a chance to 'turn the ears of the people,' and that is the goal," Ingram said.

'"When we go on stage, we turn the ears of the people and help them to put their problems aside, heal, take whatever they want to from the music and have a good time. People skim over the blues, but I've always thought of it — and music in general — as being a healer.

"It's definitely been a big healer for me. Because, pre-pandemic, my mother passed in December 2019, and I was going to use going on the road and performing as my release.

"To have all of that stripped away from you, and to see loved ones passing and people you know gone, it really makes you (feel) the blues. So, when I went back into the music and started writing these new songs for my '662' album with Tom (Hambridge), it helped me appreciate life a little more and to know there's something more out there."

Christone 'Kingfish' Ingram

Born: Jan. 19, 1999, in Clarksdale, Mississippi

First instrument: Drums

Early epiphany: Watching a a film documentary about internationally celebrated electric blues pioneer Muddy Waters, who grew up near Clarksdale.

Albums: "Kingfish" (2019), "662" (2021)

Other recording credits: Albums with Bootsy Collins, Shemekia Copeland, Blues Traveler, Eric Gales and Skinny Hightower.

His future: "I know for sure I'll still be doing what I'm doing now — performing, writing and recording music."

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