A Chat with Christone "Kingfish" Ingram: Past, Present, and Bright Future

“Play the song that got you here!”

That’s what country music legend Roy Acuff recommended back in the day as he welcomed young performers to the Grand Ole Opry stage at the Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium.

When 22-year-old blues music phenom Christone “Kingfish” Ingram walked onto those legendary floorboards at the Ryman earlier this year, the title of the special song he chose – in the spirit of Acuff’s appeal – revealed a lot about his past, present, and future.

“‘Rock and Roll’, the song that is a tribute to my mom,” Ingram said. “Sometimes I figure ‘Rock and Roll’ was the song that got us there.”

The country-influenced “Rock and Roll” might be the song that got him onto the Ryman stage. But that song’s inspiration, his mother Princess Latrell Pride Ingram, is one of the main reasons he is playing on any stages at all right now, never mind with the widespread praise and support he receives around the world. She was his inspiration and tireless supporter from his early childhood until she passed away in December 2019.

To honor his mother and keep her memory burning, Ingram recrafted and personalized a song originally written by Nashville’s Sean McConnell and Ashley Ray. The result was the heartfelt single “Rock and Roll,” which he released in 2020 and included as a bonus track on 662, the new album on Alligator Records which may earn Ingram his second consecutive Grammy nomination.

“Even though we don’t play ‘Rock and Roll’ as much, I put ‘Rock and Roll’ in there to give us just a little country vibe, because we were in Nashville,” Ingram explained. “But when I made out the whole set, I pretty much just intertwined everything from the first record with the second record.”

Creating a fusion of inspiration and influence

How do blues, country, and rock and roll mix together? Ingram’s growing legion of fans will learn more about that fascinating fusion as his career continues to unfold, with soul and R&B mixed in as well. His debut album Kingfish earned him a Grammy nomination in 2019, while 662 debuted at #1 on the Billboard Blues Chart in July 2021.

During our chat by phone in mid-October, Ingram talked about his inspirations and influences, weaving together his past and his present, but with an eye toward the future as well.

His sources of inspiration remain intimately linked to Delta Blues and his hometown of Clarksdale, Mississippi. But his range of influences seems to widen with each new album and each fresh stop on his current tour, which will lead him to four European countries early next year. Take for example one of his recent “wow” moments, the excitement he feels “every time I get a chance to meet a big-name player that I’ve always admired.”

He recently played a festival together in New York City with Grammy-nominated pedal steel guitarist and vocalist Robert Randolph. Ingram explained that he is a big fan of Randolph’s, and when Randolph “needed a wah-wah pedal, he borrowed mine.” Randolph rewarded that loan by giving Ingram an opportunity to sit in with him and the Family Band.

“That was one of the recent moments that made me go ‘wow’, because I haven’t had that feeling in a while, for sure. Just being around that caliber of musicians and church-influenced guys. We don’t always come around like that in the blues world, but when we do get around, it’s a big jam.”

Ingram’s core sources of inspiration, however, are steeped in the blues, and he digs deeper into that Delta ground every time he returns to the Clarksdale area.

“Sometimes I may go out and hear a friend at Ground Zero Blues Club or Red’s Blues Club,” he said. “Those are the two premiere blues spots in town. It’s usually a friend playing, and just hanging out with them and listening to the old school down-home sound that they might do … that’s pretty much where I get inspiration from.”

But the inspiration comes from the personal side as well, not solely from the music.

“It’s about looking at the people, talking with my dad, talking with my family around here,” he added. “That’s where I derive inspiration from, too. That’s kind of how inspiration came for 662.”

He conceived the album 662 when he was in Clarksdale during the first waves of the Covid pandemic. 662 is the area code for northern Mississippi, including Clarksdale, and it replaced the old 601area code there in 1999, the year Ingram was born. That makes it a very fitting title for an album that pays homage to the history of Delta Blues and one of the cities that nurtured it.

Ingram may be young according to the calendar, but in some ways he is a veteran who has spent most of his life playing the blues. “I’ve had an interest in music since age 3, but age 8 was when I really started to learn,” he said, recalling the lessons he took at the Delta Blues Museum. A turning point came a few years later, when he took the stage in Clarksdale for the first time.

“That was the time I felt like I was on to something,” Ingram said, when asked when he first thought music could be a serious career path and not just a fun hobby. “As I got through the night, I felt like ‘okay, maybe I have a hand in this.’”

He still maintains close contact with the Delta Blues Museum. “I literally just did some artifact pieces for the museum a couple months ago,” he said. “Whenever they have classes and the director Shelley Ritter wants me to come by, we always make time to come by. We also just donated some guitars to them from Fender.”

There is a mantra in the blues community about “Keeping the Blues Alive.” The album 662 is proof that Ingram has committed himself to that cause, as the torch passes from legends such as Buddy Guy to a new cohort of blues artists. Guy has personally guided Ingram in his efforts to create a fusion of his inspiration and his influences.

“Oh man, it’s a really beautiful thing working with Mr. Guy,” Ingram said. “He was one of the first blues legends that I was YouTubing when I was younger, and he became one of my favorites.” Watching Guy taught him a lot about performing live. “He was also one of the first guys I saw to play out in the crowd, and I borrowed that from him,” Ingram said. “Just how he worked the crowd, that’s amazing.

“I’m really appreciative of him and what he’s done for my career,” Ingram added.

Grammy winner Tom Hambridge, who has collaborated with Guy on his recent albums and produced 662, has also been a key influence on Ingram.

“Working with Tom has been a really great thing, because he’s helped me along the way with my songwriting,” he said. Hambridge offers him “different tips and different techniques on what to do and how to make a song tell a story, how to give it a description that the listener can hear.”

Heading into a bright future

On Tuesday this week, Ingram announced an extension of his "662: Juke Joint Live" tour, which will now take him to 22 more cities in the US between March and May 2022. By the time that leg of the tour begins, he will know whether 662 has received any honors at the Grammy Awards. So what happens next for him, not only with respect to a third album but also some longer-term questions: when will Ingram himself become an influence, and what are the heights he can reach?

“I don’t think we know what type of direction we want to head for the next record,” he said. “Everyone kind of knows now that I’ve always mixed rock influences with my blues, but a lot of people have told me that they wish I would do something in the R&B realm because of my voice, and the soul realm as well.” He noted that songs on 662 such as like “That’s All It Takes” and “You’re Already Gone” have R&B and soul influences, so “that’s kind of what I’m thinking about trying to do in the future, along with the rock patterns as well, but keeping it rooted in the blues for sure.”

Ingram won’t be starting from scratch, though.

“We actually recorded a lot of songs with the 662 sessions, so there is a bunch of material that didn’t make the record,” he said. “We have a bunch of material to choose from and even more material to record to get that way in the future. We already have plans, we just did a studio session the other month, so we have stuff in the vault.”

As that torch passes to a younger generation of blues artists, Ingram has some thoughts on what needs to happen to expand and enrich the genre rather than merely keep it alive.

“For one, I think it needs to be brought more into schools,” he said. “I know we have Blues in the Schools and a whole bunch of organizations, but it really has not been taught about in schools. When I was in school here in the Delta, we would never talk too much about the history of the blues and our culture here in Mississippi.”

But he noted that potential blues artists of the future already have many places to look for inspiration and influence.

“I think that if more people of African American descent embraced more young artists who are keeping the foundation alive but are also moving it forward – you know, like Jontavious Willis and Marquise Knox and a whole lot of others – that’s one of the ways we can get young kids in,” Ingram said. “If they see people like them doing it, that’s what’s going to make them do it.”

It’s hard for anyone to chart a career trajectory at the age of 22. When Buddy Guy was that age, he was still finding his way in the vibrant, crowded music scene of 1950’s Chicago, less than a year after moving north from Louisiana. Stevie Ray Vaughan was a legend in Texas at the age, but still a few years away from his breakthrough performance at the 1982 Montreux Jazz Festival. At age 22, Jimi Hendrix was backing up the Isley Brothers and Little Richard.

So Ingram has had an impressive head start. But he wants to do more than keep the blues alive.

“I don’t talk about this a lot with my people, my band, my friends, but B.B. King did arenas, so that’s a big inspiration,” he said. “I always want to make it to that spot. I feel like that’s when you’ve really, quote unquote, made it, when the crowd knows your material and you’re able to get to that spot.”

No matter when that happens or what material gets Ingram onto those stages, it’s clear that his sound, his singing, his songwriting, and his presence will develop in exciting ways as his inspiration deepens and his influences widen. Will the influences outweigh the Delta-blues inspiration someday? There’s no way to know for certain, but Ingram offered a hint with his answer to the last question we talked about.

Imagine that you have a magic wand that would allow you to go right now and watch one artist from the past perform. Whom would you see and where would you see them? When Ingram heard that question, it would have been reasonable to expect that he’d choose someone from his hometown of Clarksdale. Maybe John Lee Hooker, who passed away in 2001? Maybe Muddy Waters, who passed away in 1983? Looking more broadly, maybe he could have chosen Hendrix or Vaughan?

Ingram’s answer came almost immediately … and with details.

“I would say Prince,” he said. “And I would see him at either one or two places, no … three places: Madison Square Garden, FedExForum in Memphis, or Staples Center in L.A.”

Ingram neither saw nor met Prince before he passed away in April 2016, though he has met his band members in the meantime.

“Prince was my guy,” Ingram said. “He was a really big influence and sometimes when I do my shows, just his guitar playing … “ He drifted off mid-sentence, but the implication is clear. In terms of what all these sources of inspiration and influence can bring, we have yet to see the best and brightest from Christone “Kingfish” Ingram.

For a review of Buddy Guy and Kingfish in concert in October 2021, click here

For a review of the album 662, click here

To check out Ingram’s website, click here

Photo of Ingram by Laura Carbone. Photo of the Delta Blues Museum trail marker by Frank Luby.

Frank Luby is co-founder and CEO of BluesBackroadsBaseball LLC and author of the book"Blues Flashbacks" which features vintage concert reviews or interviews with many Mississippi Delta region artists, including Willie Dixon, B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, Junior Wells, James Cotton, and Koko Taylor. The book is also available from the online store of Cat Head in Clarksdale, MS.

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