Overnight Sensation? Or Old Soul?
By Linda Cain
Photo: Roman Sobus
Christone “Kingfish” Ingram has arrived! At age 24, the Clarksdale, Mississippi native is already a critically acclaimed, Grammy award-winning blues sensation who has performed all over the world (including opening for the Rolling Stones in London), while winning avid new fans of all ages. The triple threat guitarist/singer/songwriter just won his tenth Blues Music Award for Contemporary Male Blues Artist of the year during the ceremony in Memphis in May.
Heralded as “one of the best, and undoubtedly the most exciting, blues guitarists in the world” by Guitar World Magazine, Ingram was discovered and mentored by Buddy Guy, who paid for the recording of his debut album, Kingfish, which was released on Alligator Records and went on to earn a Grammy nomination in 2020. His current Alligator release, 662, won a Grammy in 2022 for Best Contemporary Blues Album.
Kingfish will headline at Blues on the Fox in Aurora Saturday, June 17, 2023. The RiverEdge Park festival will present a roster of blues acts that day starting with Joey J. Saye (3 pm), Mud Morganfield (5 pm), Kenny Neal (7 pm) Kingfish (9 pm). On Friday, June 16, Blues on the Fox will host Ruthie Foster (7 pm) and Jimmie Vaughan (9 pm).
“I can’t wait to come back,” Ingram declared. I’m really excited for this show, Blues on the Fox. I remember seeing the lineups from the past. So to just finally get to come play, I’m very ecstatic! I always have a fun time in the Midwest.”
photo: Michael Lepek
In late April, Ingram had just returned from a tour of Australia, as the opener for Buddy Guy. He took the time from his busy schedule to sit down for a Zoom call with Chicago Blues Guide’s editor/founder Linda Cain. He wasn’t at home in Clarksdale, but in Los Angeles where he is recording new music during a break in his busy tour schedule.
Ingram stretched out on a sofa to chat about a variety of topics including: his mentor Buddy Guy, blues as protest music, Michelle Obama, reincarnation, Asperger’s Syndrome and his plans for the future.
Christone’s speaking voice is low, deep and a bit gruff, almost like a young Howlin’ Wolf’s. He sounds like a much older person. Ingram’s answers are thoughtful; he is pleasant, easy going and likes to laugh or chuckle at some of the questions that strike home.
We took a trip back in the time machine to recall his formative years. When Christone was a child, his grandmother declared him to be an “old soul.”
He recalls, “Well, around the time she said it, I was younger and I obviously didn't have no understanding of it, at that age. But as I got older and I started getting other people in my family who said it, I kind of felt like I was different. And not only that, but just being around other kids who are my age and not really connecting with them, that was like the peak for me understanding that I was an old soul, so that's where the understanding comes in.”
What does Ingram think about the concept of reincarnation at age 24? Has he been here before?
“Hey, could be, you never know. I do know I’m very mature at this early age. And I don’t connect well with most kids around my age, so I was always getting the insight of older people. So, you know, I could have been here before,” he chuckles.
One of the elders in Christone’s Clarksdale circle was blues artist Bill “Howl-N-Madd” Perry, who just passed away in mid-May. Perry was the one who gave Ingram his stage name: Kingfish. Was it a reference to the old time radio and TV comedy series, “Amos & Andy”, with a character of the same name?
“Yeah, he did say that. That was the reason why he gave it to me,” he laughs at the memory. “Yeah yeah, yeah, yeah!”
Kingfish and Toronzo Cannon/photo: Roman Sobus
Another significant adult who briefly entered Christone’s early life was Michelle Obama. When he was only 14 years old, and a student at the Delta Blues Museum’s blues school (where he had been taking classes since he was 8), the budding guitarist and his bandmates, along with museum officials were invited to perform at the White House. First Lady Michelle Obama presented Kingfish and the museum’s director with the National Humanities and Youth Program Award, and a $10,000 honor.
Ten years later, what does Ingram remember most? What will he tell his future grandchildren?
“I’ll probably just tell them the story, you know. I won’t embellish anything like that, just the story as is, because it's really special. You know, by itself, all I remember man, we just went through a whole bunch of security. And we got a chance to play in one of the big conference rooms where they have, like, the news coverage and everything. And we did, ‘Sweet Home Chicago,’ as a tribute to her, you know, because she's from there obviously. Um, she was really nice, you know, she's a hugger. It was just a great experience overall, man!”
Quite the experience to be hugged by the First Lady of the United States!
photo: Dianne Bruce Dunklau
Ingram proved to be musically gifted at an early age, but socially awkward. As a result, he was thought to have Asperger’s syndrome – a condition that is on the milder autism spectrum – but that sometimes comes with benefits, such as extreme creative talents or unusual intelligence skills. Although he was never officially diagnosed, the possibility helped the young talent make sense of his musical insights.
Ingram recalls, “For me, it was getting, a certain feeling out of music, like hearing a note. And saying that note represents this color or seeing certain colors when you're listening to songs or something like that. For me, that was the big thing because I can you know hear songs. And I feel like that the tone of the key of the song, represents something sad.
So it's like a dark blue or something like that. That was the biggest thing for me. And it wasn't like really diagnosed. A doctor told my mom (about it) and asked (questions about) does he do this or does he do that? And she was like, there's a possibility that he may have it. And my mom kind of felt like that was the real thing. But there are, you know, certain things that I do with this music that makes me think I am.”
He concludes, “And the biggest thing is pretty much like with the colors and the notes.”
If it’s possible that musical geniuses who are blind, like Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder, can credit their disability with serving to stimulate different parts of their brain that create music, is there a comparison there that Ingram can relate to?
“I never thought about it, but now that you mentioned it, I definitely think so. And it all stems with, of course, how they say that when one thing goes away, something else gets stronger. I think all of that gels together. They obviously can’t see. But they have impeccable hearing you know. It's the same as with the Asperger’s, I feel like there's definitely a parallel with that for sure.”
Ingram’s incredible musical talent caught the attention of blues icon Buddy Guy, who became his mentor.
They met when Ingram was only 17 at a festival in Oregon in 2016 where Guy headlined and Kingfish and his band played a side stage during the day. Buddy invited Ingram to jam with him during his show. The blues star was so impressed, that a few months later he asked his own producer, drummer and songwriting partner, the Grammy-winning Tom Hambridge in Nashville, to produce Kingfish’s first album. And Buddy paid for it all. Alligator Records signed Ingram and released his debut, titled Kingfish. Buddy played on the album’s first single “Fresh Out.” And he took Ingram on tour with him as the opener.
photo: Dianne Bruce Dunklau
Ingram just got back to the States after opening for Guy on his Australian tour. It was the second time that Kingfish has toured Australia. What lessons has he learned from Buddy that have helped him with his career, his music, or his life?
“Well, he indirectly teaches me, like, he doesn’t even know it. Each time I’ve been on a show with him, and there’s been a lot of shows, I’ve ended up learning something different. Just watching how he has the crowd in control, in the palm of his hand. And being able to make them react in some way off of one note or how he uses his voice. That’s been pretty much the biggest lessons for me coming from Buddy Guy.”
He continues, “But there’s been times where, I’ve sat with him, like once I had a chance to sit with him in the studio in Nashville and had him tell the stories. You know, telling me what NOT to do. And who to trust and who not to trust and how to discern people who are not in this business.”
Have there ever been late night talks between them about more personal subjects, like women, life on the road, how to handle success?
“Nah. I don’t think we’ve gotten that deep yet,” Ingram laughs. “We were talking about some deep things as far as his life goes. And him giving me lessons from different situations in his life.
But we haven’t gotten that deep, but hopefully on this tour, I’ll get a chance to sit with him. The last time I was asked to take a shot with him for the first time. So maybe this time we can go a little bit more deeper, you know.”
Does this mean Buddy let Christone drink some of his very expensive cognac?
“Oh yeah, yeah, yeah!” Ingram replied, with a chuckle.
Buddy Guy headlined the Blues on the Fox Festival last summer, when he was about to turn 86. As he always does, he exited the stage to play guitar and move through the audience. The security staff with the flashlights could barely keep up with him.
Kingfish notes, “Yeah! He moves like he’s about 40. Yeah, you can’t even tell he’s 86!”
This year’s tour has been touted as Buddy Guy’s last big one. Did Buddy indicate what his plans were for the future to Ingram or to the audiences?
“No, ma’am. I haven’t seen him say anything about it. Like, each show has been a regular Buddy Guy show. He hasn’t said on the mic, “Oh, this is my last hoorah.” You know, I can’t speak for the man, but for what I’ve seen, I don’t really think he cares.”
Both Buddy’s and Ingram’s tour schedules continue to be jam packed. Eric Clapton’s legendary, star-studded Crossroads Guitar Festival in Los Angeles was recently announced – with Kingfish on the lineup.
How did that happen? Did Buddy hook Kingfish up with Eric?
“No, no, not at all. My manager told me that they had reached out (to us). But maybe the Buddy (connection) also helped.”
Like Buddy Guy, Ingram is now the proud owner of his first Grammy Award. (Buddy, of course, has many of them). His Alligator Records debut Kingfish landed a Grammy nomination in 2020. His current Alligator release, 662, won a Grammy in 2022 for Best Contemporary Blues Album. Ingram attended both ceremonies. It was an experience he’ll never forget.
“Yeah, yes, ma'am. I did (attend both) The first experience was actually really cool. Because it was here in LA and it was actually sad, as well, because it was the same day Kobe (Bryant) had died. But other than that, the experience as far as the music was wonderful. I got a chance to see some friends, make some new ones. And the second year was dope because they had it in Vegas. And this was right after the COVID shut down.”
photo: Michael Lepek
He continues, “So everybody was really happy to see each other. Honestly, I didn't think I was gonna win. You know, and even though I didn't think I was gonna win, that was pretty much the reason why I kind of wasn't excited. You know, I just felt like that I had seen it already. So I knew what to expect. So we went and when they got to my category, I was like, okay, it's gonna be one of the bigger names. I already know what's gonna happen.
And when the lady said ‘Christone,’ I looked at my manager and I was like, oh shit, you know what? So yeah, that was like the longest walk up to the stage. And up to the podium and it was, yeah, man, I still can't believe it. You know, I still can't believe it.
Did he have a speech prepared in case he won?
“Not at all, not at all!”, Ingram exclaimed.
“Yeah, it was a long walk too, because we got there late.
So we was sitting in the back area. Like, that whole walk, I'm thinking. I'm trying to piece together who am I gonna thank? And make sure I don't forget anybody. Yeah, it was crazy!”
photo: Michael Lepek
BLUES FOR THE NEXT GENERATION
Like his mentor Buddy Guy, the successful young bluesman has made it his mission to keep the blues going into the future. Ingram makes the effort to bring the music to younger fans in a way they can relate to. He and his band performed in a night club scene on the Netflix show Luke Cage, a Marvel Comics action series, and reached a whole new demographic that way. He also uses social media and has many millions of viewers internationally.
“Well, I think out of all social networks, my biggest following is probably Instagram. And of course, we know Instagram is one of the premier social networks among young people. So I noticed a lot of my videos float around Instagram. And I'm assuming that's definitely like one of the ways that more younger people have gotten into it and know what I do.”
He continued, “And also what I do to engage them is by using rock rhythms, you know, more modernized styles to mix with my old traditional style blues. Along with the hip hop, you know. We just did a remix of a song off my record, “Another Life Goes By” with Big K.R.I.T. -- a great rapper that’s also from Mississippi.”
The song is a plea for social justice and equality, that cries out for change against racism, police brutality and violence.
Ingram adds, “So, you know, just taking different avenues and different ways that I know that they can be drawn to the blues by using modern styles and modern beats.
As a popular young artist with a social conscience and much influence on social media, does Ingram feel that his message songs can possibly change people's hearts and minds and enlighten them? Or is it more like preaching to the choir?
Ingram stops to think about it.
“Uh, hmmm… I would hope to enlighten, you know. That’s always been the mission, to just deal with ignorance, especially when it comes to the blues.
But, I know for a reality, it may be preaching to the choir for the majority. I know when I did release the song, I had some people in my fan base, who didn't like it. And they felt as if I was dividing more than, trying to, you know, bring awareness to something.
So that right there is the reality for me; it may be preaching to the choir, but my hope is that I'm actually enlightening some, I'm asking someone to get to where they can, you know, change their ways or just understand people's pain.”
He adds: “From the beginning it's (blues) always been protest music.
Now that his career has skyrocketed, will he continue to live in his hometown of Clarksdale?
“I'm going to be totally honest. I definitely don't plan to see the rest of my life in Mississippi. I do want to leave, and I do want to leave sometime soon.
But where I want to go is well, you know, I'm on the fence. At first it was L.A. Then for some reason, after my mom died, I kind of was like, well, I don't want to move to LA. Then it was Nashville, and now it's somewhere else, you know? So like, I'm still trying to put together where I want to go to, for sure.”
Kingfish painting: by Trish Panopoulis
Where does Kingfish see his career headed in five years? What are his future goals?
“Where do I see me in five years? Hopefully, hopefully in the bigger city, like we talked about that.
And, with a bigger and better catalog, with more music out and still entertaining. That's where I want to be at in five years for sure.”
Ingram says he’d like to be involved in more aspects of the mainstream music industry.
“And I also want to give more opportunities to more kids or more people my age or around my age, who may not have gotten the same opportunity that I've gotten, to have someone like a mister Buddy Guy come and, you know, help them and mentor them.
So I want to give opportunities like that to other people around my age so they will be able to do what I do. So I want to start something. Not necessarily like a label, but like a little agency where I can have other artists under me and groom them and get them to where they can get opportunities as well.”
The future, whatever it may hold for this talented young artist, certainly looks bright.
For Kingfish, the world is his oyster!
About the Author: Linda Cain is the managing editor/founder of Chicago Blues Guide.