Chris Thomas King

Bluesman For The New Millennium
Bluesman For The New Millennium

Me, My Guitar And The Blues is the uncompromising new release from acclaimed guitarist, bluesman Chris Thomas King. The album echoes inspired, atmospheric, authentic Delta/Bayou blues journeys from King as he glides with ease on authoritative slide and acoustic voicings on Dobro, Martin steel string, and classical nylon string guitars while throwing in a scratch of electric Strat every now and then. King also performs all vocals, all instruments including bass, drums, keyboards and produced and mixed the album.

Amazingly versed and accomplished as a guitarist, vocalist, and multi-instrumentalist, King, born in 1964 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is the beneficiary of a remarkable musical heritage. His father, Tabby Thomas, a Louisiana blues legend in his own right, encouraged Chris from childhood to play the guitar and a multitude of instruments. Tabby’s musical kinship and travels with the likes of Buddy Guy, Joe Tex, Guitar Kelly, Moses Whispering Smith, and Henry Grey, embedded the seeds that took root in King, who by his early teens, was playing guitar with these greats live, on their albums, and wound up on the infamous Louisiana All Star Blues Tour in Europe in 1983.

The benchmark revelation in King’s musical education occurred during his 1983 tour, witnessing the reverence that European audiences held for the blues as a greatly esteemed, indigenous music style and for the American blues artists who performed and interpreted it. Deciding to take up the blues mantle himself, in 1986 King recorded and released his debut album, The Beginning, playing guitar and all the instruments on the album.

To further inform his musical palette he moved to Austin, (King was a regular in house player at Antones), performing among the blues/rock circles of the late 1980s, early 1990s. He continued to hone his musical chops during the mid 1990s, living and recording in Copenhagen, Denmark, known for its creatively stimulating free forward attitudes, but by 1996 he returned home to New Orleans.

Chris then added “King” to his name to honor B.B., Albert, and Freddie and took reflective regard for his hometown Delta roots, settling in and building his own recording studio. In the tradition of most blues artists, King has been a traveler of sorts whose music and life have taken many roads and come full circle. Over the last decade, King has released a succession of albums, each daring to push the creative envelope further and further as an ever evolving personal expression of the blues.

Now he is enjoying his well deserved due with the release of Me, My Guitar And The Blues, his first acting role, (in which he also plays guitar), as real life bluesman Tommy Johnson in the Coen Brothers major feature film, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and the impending release of yet his newest, upcoming album, O Brother, The Legend Of Tommy Johnson, a record inspired by and including music from the film.

The soft spoken guitarist, multi-talented musician, equally stellar evoking traditionalist voicings on his treasured Regal Dobro and blazing scorching riffs on his Fender Stratocaster, discusses his current projects and the strides he has taken as a blues artist in the new millennium to both preserve yet evolve the great tradition of the blues.

Vintage Guitar: On Me, My Guitar And The Blues you produced the album, you wrote all but two songs, you perform vocals, and you play all of the instruments.

How much of a creative challenge was this for you?

Chris Thomas King: When I first came home from the 1983 Louisiana All Star Blues Tour in 1983, I had some earnings from that tour and that’s when I decided to cut my first album, The Beginning. But I didn’t feel comfortable having all of the great older blues musicians around town perform on my record because I didn’t feel comfortable telling artists of such stature how to play music. I wasn’t comfortable to be a leader among such great musicians, plus I wanted to record music which I wrote that was a little bit different, with a new sound; something closer to what a young musician would say. So then I tried to get other young musicians that I went to school and played music with to perform with me, but not a lot of them wanted to because they didn’t want to do the blues. They wanted to play music like Parliament Funkadelic. So I ended up going into the studio alone to try to make my music and put it on tape and I wound up playing the lead guitar, the drums, the bass. Out of necessity, I had to do it all myself, whereas out of that necessity, I’ve become very comfortable with that creative process. Over the years, I also built a studio here in New Orleans and also technology has come to a point where it’s easier to do. It’s a lot easier to be the engineer, the producer. I’m glad that I learned the old fashioned way, where I’m not relying on technology, but it is easier to be a one man band, songwriter, producer, etc.

What personal artistic statement did you aspire to create as a blues guitarist, as a singer, and as a songwriter on the album?

My music had gotten so advanced with my albums 21st Century Blues From Da Hood and Chris Thomas King, that I felt I was getting too far ahead of my American audience and that they really didn’t know the Chris Thomas that grew up at my Dad’s club Tabby’s Blues Box playing with these statured older musicians. I grew up on the Delta blues style, not the big electric modern sound I had created. People in New Orleans knew this about me because they had been watching me since I was seven or eight years old playing music. But people in other parts of the country only knew me from my records. So I wrote and recorded Red Mud, which came about because I wanted to show and say to people, “This is where my music and I really came from.” I went back to my Delta blues roots and Red Mud was an all acoustic album. Me, My Guitar And The Blues is a continuation of Red Mud and shows where my music came from and where my music is progressing forward. I used the Delta blues style and then added some modern things like a hip hop beat so people can hear how my music has evolved. I wanted to bring the audience with me and say, “This is how I came from Red Mud to here.”

How long did it take to record, mix and complete the album?

Well actually I never stop recording. I continuously record and then I’ll group some songs together for a particular album. But I would say about four to five months. I began recording it early 1999 and released it on my own label, 21st Century Blues.

Can you elaborate on your unique approach to playing slide guitar and which slides you use?

I’m really bad at keeping up with slides and picks and so forth. So when I get to gigs, sometimes I have to borrow slides from someone in the audience! But normally I can play with just about any slide.

Do you prefer glass or metal?

I don’t have a preference, just anything that works. One thing that I don’t like to play with is a plastic slide. But if it’s glass it gives you a different tone, if it’s brass it gives you a different tone, and steel or platinum slides will each have a different tone and each one will give you a different sound. It just depends on what sound you’re looking to achieve. If I had to make a choice, the one slide I’ve played with the most is a brass slide because my strings are really heavy and having a heavier slide on my finger makes it easier to get the tone. It bends the strings a little bit easier.

What gauge strings do you use?

On my acoustic guitar I use the E in 13.

What about your Dobro?

I have a Regal Dobro. I’m not sure what year it is. The other guitars that I use on Me, My Guitar And The Blues are a Martin steel string guitar. I also use a Fender Classical nylon string acoustic guitar, and that style of guitar is something most blues artists don’t use. To me, that has such a full, rich, beautiful sound for acoustic blues and it’s reminiscent of that beautiful sound of classical guitarists like John Williams.

When you’re playing slide, which guitars do you prefer for achieving the richest tone?

My Dobro because for recording I love the sound. But when I play live, it doesn’t have any electric pickup so I have to mike it. So it’s not the guitar I prefer for live performances. But in the studio, when I want that full, rich sound, that’s my guitar of choice.

What guitars, gear, and equipment do you use when playing live?

I use a Fender Stratocaster. It’s a 40th Anniversary reissue that’s pearl white and it’s my main guitar. I also use a Fender Bassman Tweed Amplifier to get my tone. I know a lot of people know me lately as an acoustic player, but my years playing a Stratocaster go way back to when my father bought me my first guitar.

Do you remember what your first guitar was?

It was a Kent electric. It was like a like a little cheap copy of a Fender Strat.

When did you first learn to play guitar?

I started messing around with the guitar when I was very young. My Dad would be at work and I’d go around and mess with his guitar when he wasn’t there. He would come home and a few strings would be broken and he had a little bit of a problem with that.

(King laughs) So one Christmas Eve he got me a little guitar of my own which was the Kent. For a long time I wouldn’t put it down.

Can you discuss your picking pattern.

There’s a new album that I’m working on right now that’s going to be released in the next two or three months and it’s called O Brother, The Legend Of Tommy Johnson. It includes music from the Coen Brothers movie that I have my first acting role in, O Brother, Where Art Thou? as well as music that was inspired by the movie. After I got the acting role, Ethan Coen called me up one morning asking if I could go to Nashville to spend some time with a Canadian guitarist by the name of Colin Linden. He’s someone the film’s music director, T-Bone Burnett is familiar with and so they wanted me to spend some time with Colin because he’s a guitarist who has really studied the stylings of the great 1920s blues players like Skip James and Blind Willie Johnson. I was curious, because I thought I got the role because I could do this style of music but I think I got the role more on my acting ability. The 1920s is not an era I had spent a whole lot of time playing and the players of that era… .their playing style is very complex. I learned it’s a five fingered approach. Whereas when I was playing acoustic guitar before, I was using three fingers. I really couldn’t play this style of music the way that I was playing. Sitting down with Colin… .I spent a day or two with him singing and playing some songs… .and I realized that it’s a five fingered approach to picking that style of blues. He showed me his technique for playing and helped me to form a technique of my own to do it. So it opened up a whole new door to me. It also helped me to make more of the character in the movie. In the film you see me perform a song called “Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues” which is on the film’s soundtrack as well as the album I’m doing that’s inspired by the movie. During the shoot of the movie, I was in character and clothes from the period, listening to music from that period. Waiting for the technical people to set up the shots, I would be in my dressing room, in between scenes, and I would spend a lot of time with my guitar from the movie and I began to write songs and spend time playing music. Out of that experience came several songs that I wrote in character, based on what the time frame might have been like and they are included on my upcoming album. It came about because the actual soundtrack for the film is mostly bluegrass music, actually about 16 bluegrass songs. There’s only about two blues songs on the soundtrack, even though I play a real life, semi-mythical blues character in the film. People are going to see this film and romanticize about the Delta and they’re going to want to listen to some Delta blues music and I feel that my blues album that’s inspired by the movie can fill that void.

Since you play a blues artist in the film, how much of a resemblance to your own life and experiences did the role take on for you?

None really. For one thing the movie is set in the 1930s and it didn’t resemble my lifestyle. My only similar references to the character are that I’m from the South and the dialect of the language… .but none as far as his experiences, the historical context with it taking place in the Depression era. The biggest challenge for me though was playing the music of that period. They didn’t hire me to portray this role to play music like Chris Thomas King, but to play the music of the period. My thing that most people know me from is that I’m the cutting edge blues guy who tries to bring something new to the table, mixing and sampling and so forth. I’m the guitarist in a little band in the film called The Soggy Bottom Boys.

I’m the sidekick in the film to George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Nelson and it’s probably one of the biggest roles a blues artist has ever had in a major film. The movie was shot in Mississippi at the crossroads in the Delta. I play Tommy Johnson. A lot of people haven’t even heard his story. He lived and recorded in the ’20s. Tommy only recorded less than 12 songs but his most famous song was about canned heat, and you know what canned heat is! Legend is that Tommy really had a problem with canned heat. The Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan, pulled from a lot of sources for their film. It’s based on Homer’s The Odyssey.

What tuning do you play and compose in?

Several different tunings. Most people use the key of G and the key of D, which of course I use. But I also use some minor tunings. One of my favorite tunings is D minor and most musicians don’t use that tuning.

When I use G and D, I usually put my capo way up on the neck and play in keys like A or B. I get a lot of e-mails and letters about the tunings of my guitar.

When you are singing, do you find that that influences the direction of your guitar playing, or is it the other way around?

Mostly I find the keys that I can sing in and then I have the guitar follow that. If the guitar is really dominant, then I would use my singing to compliment what I’m playing on guitar. But mostly, the guitar follows my vocal performance.

When you’re composing, do you compose on guitar and what inspires your songwriting process?

Almost anything can inspire me. I can literally be driving along in my car and get an idea for a song. Very rarely do I pick up my guitar and practice. Usually when I pick up my guitar it is to write a song and work out some melody that I’m hearing. I write most of my music on piano. I enjoy sitting at the piano and composing. When I write on the piano, my music takes on a different melodic tone. A lot of people don’t realize that I play piano. Obviously, some of the songs that are pure Delta blues songs are written on my Dobro, the open tunings, something of that nature.

Even though you implement vast amounts of overdubbing, your album has a very spontaneous feel.

Playing so many different instruments, if I can make that feel like a band, that’s a great compliment to the production of the record.

But, when I’m playing live, I know the chord progression, the rhythm of the song and the lyrics, and my band has a great understanding of the natural groove to the music. I do perform live with a band. My bass player is Anthony Hardesty and my drummer is Darryl White.

What production techniques do you use and how did having this particular creative control chart the course and goals that you set for Me, My Guitar And The Blues?

Ever since my first album, I’ve been pretty comfortable producing my records. For a period I began producing for Warner Brothers and the major labels. I ended up in Los Angeles spending a lot of money in L.A. studios recording albums. I always left their studios not quite satisfied with what I had done and totally not satisfied with the amount of money I spent out there. I felt there was a lot of waste and a lot of unnecessary things going on. So I decided after I made the record in the garage in Copenhagen (21st Century Blues From Da Hood), then and there that I felt the music that I had done in that garage was far more powerful and true to my creative vision than anything that I had done before. It gave me the confidence to know that I didn’t need to spend six figures on a recording session, recording the blues. Most people recorded the blues on one microphone in a hotel room somewhere. All the classic Delta blues recordings were made that way. It’s almost 75 years later and we’re still listening to these records and marveling at them. So it’s not necessarily what microphone or what equipment you use. It’s mostly getting a great performance. To get a great performance, you have to be comfortable, so since that time, I moved back to the States and I’ve constantly been building my studio here in New Orleans, adding to it. I’m not saying I won’t ever go back to L.A. to record. In fact, I did some of the movie soundtrack work there. I just feel very comfortable working in my own studio. Also, I don’t like to use tape. I use ProTools. My whole recording and mixing process is tapeless and done in ProTools, so it’s all digital, no analog. Ten years ago, you had to go to L.A. for that kind of quality and efficiency, but now you don’t have to, so it’s a great thing.

As a blues player, how do you select which notes and scales will best inflect blues style, how selective are you in getting down the right sound and groove, and what moods inspire you to the right sound and groove?

It mostly depends on the lyrics. If you’re telling a story that’s uplifting, you just have the music compliment that. If it’s a sad story, you might use some minor keys that will give you a sad tone, and if it’s something that you want people to dance to, then obviously you’re going to give them a good rhythm and a good beat. I think it depends on what emotion you want people to feel from the music. I’m hoping to get to do more soundtrack work because that relies heavily on emotion. I feel I have a real sense for that kind of thing. My vision of the blues is I feel there’s a lot more to the blues than what America has been discovering with the older music. I think now that we’ve uncovered just about everything about the blues’ past, people are ready for the blues of the present and the artists who are exploring that. And now, people are also looking forward to where the blues is going now that we’re in the 21st century.

You lived and recorded in the mid-1990s in Denmark, finding great success that eventually crossed back over here to the States, bringing you back home. Why do you think that Europe has always and continues to be more accepting and supportive to American blues artists than our own audiences here at home in the States?

They understand that music is a rich art form and that the blues are something that they don’t have in their culture, so they don’t take it for granted. One thing about Europe… .America is more interested in the past, the history of the blues, but in Europe, they’re more interested in where the blues is going. They get more excited regarding this. I did go to England at first, I lived in London for about nine months, but I found it to be very flavor of the month and consequently a very different England than I had heard or read about in the past. It’s not really about music as much as style. So it was further into Europe that I found people with open minds and open attitudes about music. It was in Copenhagen, Denmark where I met musicians who didn’t have any preconceived notions of what blues music should be, so I met some friends and ended up staying there almost three years. And so I felt free to create my music. When the album that I recorded there was released, it became very popular, especially in France.

Then I got a call to come back to the States, to L.A., because they liked the album and I then moved back home to New Orleans in 1996.

Have hardcore blues enthusiasts been resistant or have they finally opened up to your modern evolving expression of the blues?

I get invited to perform at all of the national blues festivals and so the purists have come to accept what I do as just another evolution of the music. You have to remember that the music of the 1920s sounds totally different from say, the blues rock of the 1980s and the music of today, but it’s still the blues. Certain time periods just reflect certain sounds, but it’s all the blues. The challenge to me is to create music and albums, where when people listen to them thirty years from now, it will tell them something about the time period I lived in. So Me, My Guitar And The Blues should sound like an album from the year 2000, not an album that was made in 1955 or 1970.

Perhaps more than any other style of music the blues are born of a very deep expression of emotion and also of life experience. Can you elaborate on how this has informed you on Me, My Guitar And The Blues and overall as a blues artist?

My life experience is all that I have to recall from that I can truly express convincingly. When I was a young kid, 13 or 14 playing music, I couldn’t perform songs about my kids, a lost love and so forth. I feel that I’ve done what I set out to do in a sense in how people are looking to the blues of the ’90s and today. My music sounds like I’ve captured the era that I live in… ..the hopes, the dreams, the pain, the tragedies, the aspirations that people experience during their lifetime. If I can capture these emotions, then I feel I’ve been true to my creative voice. I’ve grown as a writer where I don’t have to write about my own personal experiences. I can write about anyone’s. I don’t personalize every song but a lot of my experiences are there. What I don’t like about a lot of blues music are artists who try to completely recreate note for note, sound for sound, for example Little Walter or some other past great blues artist’s music. It’s like a copy or a counterfeit album. It doesn’t have anything to do with the artists’ own personal expression and it doesn’t have anything to do with the past or the present context. I’m comfortable trying to create music of this moment, of this time. If it reflects that in a truthful way to people or in a way that they can relate to, I think I’ve done what I should be doing as a blues artist.

Chris Thomas King
Since the release of his acting debut O Brother Where Art Thou? Chris Thomas King finds himself trying to get 48 hours out of each day. King’s new acting career has him up for a role in legendary director Steven Spielberg’s latest movie The Minority Report starring Tom Cruise. King also has offers on the small screen including an ABC sitcom pilot.

The O Brother soundtrack is currently number one on the Billboard country music chart and number 19 on the pop chart. It has been certified gold by selling over 500,000. The movie was number nine at the box office last week.

King is also excited about “21CB” a new Hip-Hop/R&B group. The first CD from the group is near completion and King says, “It may be the best record I have done so far.” King produced all tracks at his New Orleans recording studio. The group’s live shows are built around a DJ. Darryl White (DJ Scorpio) serves as DJ and percussionist. DJ Scorpio will provide all grooves from samples to live drumming. “The sound of the record takes New Orleans Hip-Hop to a new level by adding live guitars and blues sampling to the mix” says King.All the recent success has inspired an increase in sales of the Chris Thomas King discography. Arhoolie Records is set to re-release King’s very first recording “The Beginning” for the first time on CD. There has also been so much interest in King’s guitar playing style that publishers are preparing music books featuring tabs to Kings’ songs, and playing style. If all of this wasn’t enough Chris Thomas King begins the first part of a world tour in Spain February 19 through March 4.There is still no release date for the new O Brother, The Legend of Tommy Johnson CD. Several Labels are currently interested in releasing the record. Among the interested labels are Tone-Cool, Island Def Jam, Fantasy and Rykodisc.

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