In Blues Mythology, there are few geographical locations more sacred and storied that Clarksdale, Mississippi. In the heart of the Mississippi Delta, it’s the area where many contend the music was born, fermented, and bred its earliest stars (though residents of New Orleans might beg to differ).
Plus, it’s just a few miles from the intersection of Highways 61 and 49—literally the “crossroads” where Robert Johnson “sold his soul to the devil” to gain his mythical musical prowess.
But for 22-year-old singer/guitarist Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, it’s got another name: home. It’s the city where the blues prodigy was born and raised, learned his instrument and made his first club appearances. His recent Alligator Records album 662 (the title a nod to the city’s area code) is a love letter that celebrates Clarksdale’s past, while laying out the groundwork for the future of the blues.
“I wanted to go a little more outside the box with this one than my first record. There’s a lot more R&B type songs here, even some jazz. And my voice is a little stronger,” Ingram says. “Two years of playing [live] will do that!”
As far as Clarksdale goes, Ingram is well aware of its history. But also its reality. “It’s really like a regular small town. It’s just got a lot of music,” he says. “It’s nothing like Mayberry, though! Just a small country town where everyone knows everybody and they’re out on their porch drinking or cussing or whatever.”
662 was written, rehearsed, and recorded during the pandemic, when Ingram (already a road dog) was forced to stop playing live. He co-wrote most of songs with drummer and 662 producer Tom Hambridge, as well as Richard Fleming.
During the time, he lost his mother, who was an indefatigable supporter (Ingram pays tribute to her on the CD bonus track “Rock & Roll”). Other topics include being on the road (“That’s What You Do,” “Long Distance Woman”), romance (“She Calls Me Kingfish,” “I Got to See You”) and questionable behavior (“My Bad,” “Not Gonna Lie”).
In “Too Young to Remember,” Ingram sings “When you see my play my guitar/You’re looking back one hundred years.” “Something in the Dirt”—another tribute to Clarksdale—has the lyrics “There’s something in the dirt/And I’m trying to dig it out.” Ingram namechecks some of his blues/rock heroes including Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King, Buddy Guy and Houston’s own Lightnin’ Hopkins.
“My foundation is old school acoustic blues. And Lightnin’ and Son House were [important] to me. I saw a video where Lightnin’ was talking to some kids and playing ‘Mr. Charlie, and that made an [impact],” he says.
“And I’ve also gotten to work with [vocalist] Diunna Greenleaf, who is also from Houston. She would tell me stories of being a child and hanging in her boarding room house and Lightnin’ would be in there and play them a song. He’s always been a big influence.”
As a child, Ingram’s first instruments were surprisingly the drums and bass. But then he picked up the guitar and just a few months later at age 11, was making his debut at the city’s Ground Zero Blues Club. That’s where his mentor, local blues icon Bill “Howl-n-Madd” Perry, gave him the stage name “Kingfish.”
Things started happening quickly for Ingram: He played at the White House for Michelle Obama as part of a group of student musicians, racked up a bunch of awards and played two songs on an episode of Netflix’s Marvel superhero series Luke Cage.
After his 2019 debut, Kingfish, there were more recognition and awards and club/festival gigs, and even a chance to play with Jason Isbell and Vampire Weekend, along with one of his idols, Buddy Guy. Earlier this year, he appeared on the covers of Guitar World and Down Beat simultaneously. Elton John is a fan, and he recently released a duet with bass funkmaster Bootsy Collins.
As for now, Ingram is “excited” to be back on the road. He’s also interested in making his songs the subjects of more contemporary topics. And while it doesn’t mention the Black Lives Matter movement by name, there’s no mistaking what the inspiration for “Another Life Goes By” is.
“It’s funny. That song was written like two or three years before everything went haywire. And I was thinking more about Trayvon Martin and Sandra Bland. Some people have a narrow mind when it comes to the blues, but the blues has always been protest music and talked about [current] things,” Ingram says. “This is the blues of today.”
Finally, when Ingram was growing up and first expressing an interest in the blues, friends and frenemies both would laugh at and chastise him for liking what they considered “old people’s music” instead of, say, contemporary hip-hop.
When asked where those naysayers are today and what they think of Ingram now, he lets out a laugh.
“They see me on Facebook and I get messages from them sometimes. But I don’t think they like blues now any more than they did then! Some of them are amazed at what I’m doing. So I may have the last laugh!”
Christone “Kingfish” Ingram plays at 8 p.m. on Friday, October 1, at the Heights Theater, 339 W. 19th. For information, call 214-272-8346 or visit TheHeightsTheater.com. The Peterson Brothers open. $22 and up.
For more on Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, visit ChristoneKingfishIngram.com