Passing The Torch: From The Crossroads To ‘Kingfish,’ The Blues Is The Root Of Everything

2023 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival
NEXT GEN BLUESMAN: Christone “Kingfish” Ingram performs on Day Two of 2023 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in New Orleans on April 29. (Photo by Erika Goldring / Getty Images)

Christone “Kingfish” Ingram was only 20 years old – technically not old enough to even be in the place – but his reputation as the next great blues guitarist was such that a record release party for Ingram’s Kingfish at the famed Troubadour in West Hollywood, California, attracted a standing-room-only audience that included the likes of Slash and members of Vampire Weekend.

Soon after, agent Garry Buck of Reliant Talent Agency got a phone call out of the blue from Vampire Weekend’s agent asking about the possibility of having the barely post-teenage guitar prodigy open some shows for the band on its next tour, based solely on what they’d seen and heard at the Troubadour.

Such cold calls aren’t unheard of but, in this case, the cross-genre pairing represented Vampire Weekend’s recognition of blues as foundational to its own music, and Ingram as its new torch-bearer.

Buck – who has been representing talent, including several generational blues legends, for more than 40 years – could remember just one other time he’d taken a call that would have such a profound impact on a young artist’s career: the invitation from The Rolling Stones to client Jonny Lang to open shows on their “Bridges To Babylon” tour in 1998.

“Jonny Lang had a single when that hit, and it put him on the map,” Buck says. “And so it was with Vampire Weekend. Christone gets it, and he is unique. That just shows how cool Vampire Weekend was, how experimental and daring they were, to do something out of the box and ask him to do 15 or so dates with them. And their audience got it, too. It helped us on social platforms – it was very unique and helpful.”

And, in a repeat for Buck, The Rolling Stones invited Ingram to be one of their opening acts at 2022’s British Summer Time at Hyde Park in London.

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Buck represents both Ingram, coming hot out of the gate, and this week’s cover subject Buddy Guy, currently on his final circuit with an extensive North American tour. Guy’s been a mentor to Ingram and taken him on a couple of tours as well as rotating him and blues standouts including Robert Randolph, Jimmie Vaughan, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and newcomers like Ally Venable and Samantha Fish, into the final tour, as well as veterans like Bobby Rush, arguably one of his few living blues peers, and singer-songwriter John Hiatt.

As a headliner, even the COVID pandemic, which struck not long after that fortuitous record release party, hasn’t slowed Ingram’s momentum. He’s released another album, 662 (a nod to his Clarkston, Mississippi, hometown area code) and is an established road warrior, selling an average of 630 tickets per show and grossing $24,961.

With Guy and Ingram, Buck’s had a bird’s eye view of one legendary blues career and the emergence of a hot new artist who seems destined to claim his mentor’s mantle. But even Buck, when asked what the future holds for the truly American music form, admits that when peering into the crystal ball to divine the state of the blues, the view is a bit muddy.

The blues is a foundational form, a basic musical building block of everything that came after and influential on forms rising concurrently: country, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, hip-hop; you have none of those in the forms in which we know them without the blues. Led Zeppelin and the Stones may have sold combined millions of tickets and records built on the works of blues legends Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and more, but the practitioners of the blues on which their music is based – and in some cases outright lifted – have never seen remotely the same kind of sales.

That’s not to say the blues doesn’t sell or isn’t finding new audiences. Ingram recently played the sold-out BottleRock festival in Napa, California, and at least one leading Bay Area critic said Ingram’s performance was the best he saw over the three days – including headliners Foo Fighters, Lizzo and Red Hot Chili Peppers.

There’s no shortage of festivals that draw large crowds, including cities from which blues music sprang beginning in the late 1800s – Chicago, Memphis and New Orleans and far beyond, particularly in the Deep South, where Delta Blues reins.

Besides festival appearances, The Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise boasts massive lineups and more than 100 concerts twice annually since its inception in 2002. Its 40th cruise, Jan.-Feb. 2024, is already sold out. The granddaddy of blues cruises, The Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise, has virtually spawned a seagoing blues industry.
Memphis, Tennessee, is home to The Blues Foundation, which maintains a museum dedicated to the art, bestows annual awards and hosts a monthlong celebration called Memphis In May that attracts thousands of tourists and blues fans from across the globe.

The blues is hardly a dying art form, but it’s a brand in need of some rejuvenation. And there’s young stars ready to step up, like Ingram who in the last three years has averaged 630 tickets sold per show and gross of $24,961; Gary Clark Jr., another blues guitar phenom (1,517 tickets; $92,649 gross); Eric Gales, another guitar prodigy (203 tickets, $8,657 gross) and Kansas City native Samantha Fish (524 tickets, $20,841). They join established road warriors like Keb’ Mo’, Shemekia Copeland, Marcus King, Cedric Burnside (grandson of legendary R.L. Burnside), Otis Taylor and more, keeping the blues fires burning.

One such example that encourages Buck came at a recent taping of “Britain’s Got Talent,” where he and Ingram watched 11-year-old Harry Churchill melt faces in the studio audience with a blistering guitar medley kicked off with “Johnny B. Goode.” The Kingfish may have company soon.

“This young kid just ripped everybody’s heads off. It was crazy good,” Buck says. “It gives you a perspective on generations. Like Christone, like Susan (Tedeschi) and Derek (Trucks) – they all started as young teenagers. Their fan base has grown extremely strong over the last 10 years. Derek Trucks also was a young child playing with B.B. King. B.B. King influenced Jonny Lang, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, and he embraced all those guys.”

Buck notes that classic blues, as well its offspring in rock, jazz, and country in particular, continue to sell well.

“It’s still in stores; the classic rock bands and even some of our blues artists are selling catalog in amazing numbers,” Buck says. “I do feel that there are a lot of artists out there, conscious of the brand needing help and constantly reminding you of the quality and credibility of it. And that’s encouraging. And I’m hoping that guys like Christone, Joe Bonamassa, those who are at a certain point, really pave the way for others to see, listen and learn, and then pick up the guitar, harmonica or microphone.”