Chris Thomas King
Born in 1962, guitarist Chris Thomas King became the last major folk blues discovery of the 20th Century when he was discovered in Louisiana in 1979 by a folklorist from the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D. C. He was introduced to the world the following year by venerable folk label Arhoolie Records as an authentic folk blues successor to Huddie Ledbetter, Muddy Waters, Mississippi John Hurt and Manse Lipscomb.
As the darling of blues purists and aficionados, and the last great hope of the waning folk blues revival, which began during the 1960s folk movement, Chris Thomas King shocked the music world in the early ‘90s when he abandoned all pretenses of primitivism and embraced hip hop modernity and digital aesthetics, turning the blues world upside down.
The Blues Mafia — a consortium of folklorists, record collectors, and researchers; white self-appointed arbiters of black musical authenticity who ironically had a cartel on the lucrative new market of white rock fans interested in its musical roots — felt betrayed by King. They denounced him in the music press as a heretic, banning the young rebel from festivals and theaters across the United States.
Unbowed, King moved to Europe in 1993 and went on to write and produced a series of ground breaking recordings including “21st Century Blues” and “My Pain Your Pleasure,” which boldly challenged the ostensible primitivism ideology of “authenticity” as either naive romanticism or an outright bigoted appropriation of his culture. The French, having a penchant for recognizing gifted unsung black American artists, were enthralled by King’s subversive bohemian stance. He was lauded a genius for his transcendent folk art, which he coined twenty-first-century blues.
Celebrated as an expatriate artist, yet alienated from his culture back home, and seemingly destined for obscurity in his own country, King decided to return to New Orleans in 1996 to contend for the soul of the blues. But he found it difficult to re-enter the traditional American market, from which he had been exiled.
Nevertheless, as fate would have it, King was chosen by the Coen brothers to play the role of itinerant bluesman Tommy Johnson along side George Clooney in the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000).” Larger than life on the silver screen, Chris Thomas King, acoustic guitar in hand, captivated audiences the world over, silencing his critics. His authenticity as a folk blues artist, by any measure, proved to be undeniable. A star of stage and screen was born. New fans the world over packed sold out theaters and art centers to immerse themselves in his illuminating melodious glow. King sold millions of records and won numerous awards, superseding the success of his folk blues predecessors.
King’s major contributions to the “O Brother, Where Art Thou” phenomenon, along with its follow up album and tour, “Down From The Mountain,” has inspired a new generation of musicians such as, Hozier, Mumford & Sons, and the Lumineers. His songs “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” and “John Law Burned Down the Liqour Sto,’” to name a few, have been covered by numerous artists including legend Buddy Guy.
Thirty years after becoming the last major folk blues discovery of the 20th Century, Chris Thomas King, whose career is a coda for the folk blues revival of the ‘60s, is today, one of the most important artists in the world for having changed the way we think of blues.
In a newly written song King sings a remarkable refrain that goes, “The blues was born in, Louisiana, not Mississippi, or Texarkana,” about the ostensible fallacy that it orginated in the Delta. He then goes on to state unequivocally in the following verse, “Down in New Orleans” is “where the blues was born. You can still hear the sound of, Buddy Bolden’s horn.” Thankfully, also in New Orleans, we can still hear the enlightened art of Chris Thomas King.