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.
In a previous version of this story, a headline and a question mistakenly referred to Christone "Kingfish" Ingram's new album, 662, as 622.
A MARTINEZ, HOST:
The Mississippi Delta - it's where the blues was born. Legendary musicians such as B.B. King, Charley Patton and Muddy Waters lived there. Fast-forward decades later. On the scene now is a 22-year-old guitarist and singer Christone "Kingfish" Ingram. And he's clearly soaked up all that history. His first album a couple of years ago blew people away with its maturity. Kingfish's latest comes out today. It's called "662." And that refers to the area code of his hometown, Clarksdale, Miss.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "662")
CHRISTONE INGRAM: (Singing) I come from a river town, talking about nothing to do. Gators come out when the sun goes down. Gator's awful sticky, too. The Mississippi Delta, the birthplace of the blues. I was born right here in the 662.
Clarksdale's pretty much the mecca of the blues, pretty much the birthplace.
MARTINEZ: OK. You've been on tour all over the country at this point, really all over the world. When you're away from Clarksdale, what's the one thing you miss the most?
INGRAM: One thing that I miss the most - I would say the authenticity 'cause Clarksdale here carries a certain, I think, vibe when it comes to blues culture. And then we go everywhere else, we kind of don't see that. It would be like certain places like, say, Chicago and, like, Georgia. They, like, they know blues, for sure. But, like, say we go to like a place, like, you know, Wisconsin or something like, you know, they really...
INGRAM: Yeah, you know. You know, like Montana, you know, you're so like - no, we would have to explain it to them, for sure. We'd have to take it in baby steps. You're trying to get me in trouble (laughter).
MARTINEZ: No one's going to fault you for defending blues from the South. No one's going to fault you for that. What do you explain to them? When you have to explain the blues, what do you explain? How do you do it?
INGRAM: Well, for the blues, it's like one simple word, just life because that's pretty much what the blues all is. It's nothing but life. It's the ups and downs. It's how you feeling. It's the things you go through. And come to Clarksdale, Clarksdale oozes that in, like, more ways than one for sure.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMETHING IN THE DIRT")
INGRAM: (Singing) There's a drugstore on the corner where Robert Johnson used to play, must be something in dirt made Mr. Johnson moan that way.
MARTINEZ: A couple of your songs have reference to Clarksdale, "Something In The Dirt"...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMETHING IN THE DIRT")
INGRAM: (Singing) Well, I played my first gig at a place called Red's.
MARTINEZ: You sing, I played my first gig at a place called Red's, 11 years old, sneaking out of bed. I'm wondering - 11 years old, sneaking out of bed. Is that really what happened?
INGRAM: Well, I wasn't sneaking out of bed to go to Red's. But I was sneaking out of bed to play my guitar when I should have been sleep and doing homework, something like that. I'll say that. I had played before in juke joints. But that was, like, my first official paying gig. And it was a new experience for me, man, just being - because back then, you know, you could smoke in the clubs. They had, like, thick smoke everywhere. And it was definitely an experience.
MARTINEZ: Well, let me ask you this, then, because you're 11 years old. You know, you're 11 years old. Did they know you were 11 years old?
INGRAM: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.
MARTINEZ: They did. OK.
INGRAM: I didn't look my age.
MARTINEZ: I knew it. I knew you were going to say that.
INGRAM: So, you know, then they would see my mom sitting right beside me, and she would make herself known, for sure. So yeah, that's when they would know.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTONE "KINGFISH" INGRAHAM'S "SOMETHING IN THE DIRT")
MARTINEZ: Now, another song seems kind of autobiographical, too - "I'm Not Gonna Lie" (ph).
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOT GONNA LIE")
INGRAM: (Singing) Music was my way out from poverty and crime. I didn't want to be like that. There's more I had to find.
MARTINEZ: Music was my way out from this poverty and crime, didn't want to be like that. There's more I had to find. For those who don't know, what things happened that shaped you?
INGRAM: My parents went through, like, a bad breakup. They always fought pretty much. And not only that, when they got divorced, me and my mom had became homeless for, like, a short period of time. You know, we stayed in a dirty hotel. But, you know, at the end of the day, you ain't got nowhere else to go to. At that point, I was bigger in size. So, you know, folks at school, you know, got to get on you about that. So I had all this stuff, like, clowning up on me. And my guitar and the blues were pretty much the only way that I would vent my frustration. So that's how all that pretty much came together.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTONE "KINGFISH" INGRAHAM'S "NOT GONNA LIE")
INGRAM: Some people say kids can't feel the blues. I feel like kids can. You ain't necessarily got leave your woman or nothing like that, man. Like, folks got traumatic stuff that happen in they life all the time. So - and that just happened to me.
MARTINEZ: I remember having a crush when I was a kid and not having that crush fulfilled. That's losing something.
INGRAM: Yeah. Well, I ain't going to lie - I got rejected, too, a lot when I was in school. But when you get used to it, it don't become the blues no more. (Laughter)
(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTONE "KINGFISH" INGRAM'S "ANOTHER LIFE GOES BY")
MARTINEZ: What sort of obstacles do you think have you had as a blues artist in 2021?
INGRAM: Of course, you know, you got COVID.
MARTINEZ: Yeah, big one.
INGRAM: And not only that, I'm also a young Black person from the South. And, you know, the song that we got 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, 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.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANOTHER LIFE GOES BY")
INGRAM: (Singing) Nobody's born with hate. Hate is taught to them. How can you judge someone by the color of their skin?
MARTINEZ: Do you feel a responsibility to mention these things in your music now?
INGRAM: Oh - oh, most definitely. A lot of folks have this way of thinking that blues is all my-baby-left-me, cotton fields and, you know, and guitar solos when it's not. Blues pretty much, like, originally it was protest music. Those guys, when they was really singing about dealing with Mr. Charlie now, that that was originally protest music. So it's mandatory for us to put this in our song for sure.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANOTHER LIFE GOES BY")
INGRAM: (Singing) We got to stop the madness before another life goes by.
MARTINEZ: Where do you think blues fits in today? So I'm in LA. If I go out to my car and flip on the radio, I wouldn't know where to find blues music. I mean, I'd have to get someone to tell me where to find it. So where do you think blues fits in today in terms of like - where? - like pop music, hip-hop?
INGRAM: Oh, it's the foundation. It's the foundation. So like, people think that it's dead. Blues is definitely alive because you can actually hear it in all those genres of music you just named. That's the roots, and the roots are always going to be there. I feel like there's blues someway, somehow you're going to hear it. It's always there.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOO YOUNG TO REMEMBER")
INGRAM: (Singing) When you see me play the guitar, you're looking back a hundred years.
MARTINEZ: That's Christone "Kingfish" Ingram. His new album is called "662."
Christone, thank you very much.
INGRAM: Thank you, man. I appreciate you.
MARTINEZ: And you can join Kingfish later today for a live listening party. That's at NPR Music's YouTube channel, 2 p.m. Eastern. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.