Retro senior afro american blues man. Wearing striped suit with blue hat. Playing acoustic guitar. Smoking cigar.
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12 Essential Contemporary Blues Artists

Blues is the foundation of much American music, but it’s often seen as a legacy genre. These 12 blues artists make the case for its continuing relevance and vitality.

Ruthie Foster

Ruthie Foster is a singer-songwriter from Texas who boasts three Grammy nominations and numerous Blues Music Awards. From a family of gospel singers, Foster began performing as a teenager in choirs and then went on to front blues bands while in college. Her 1997 self-released album Full Circle led to her signing by Blue Corn Music, which released the subsequent albums Crossover (1999), Runaway Soul (2002), Stages (2004), Heal Yourself (2006), The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster (2008). The Truth According to Ruthie Foster (2009) earned her a Grammy Award nomination for Best Contemporary Blues Album.

Let It Burn (2012), with guests the Blind Boys of Alabama, William Bell, and the rhythm section of the Funky Meters also received a Grammy nomination. Promise of a Brand New Day (2014), produced by Meshell Ndegeocello, mixes blues, soul, folk, and gospel. Foster wrote seven of its 12 tracks. The covers include “The Ghetto”, originally recorded by the Staple Singers and “Outlaw”, a 12-bar blues hailing the women’s liberation movement written in 1970 by Eugene McDaniel, with the opening line, “She’s a sister in jeans / She’s an outlaw / She don’t wear a bra.”

Foster followed up with Joy Comes Back (2017), which featured collaborations with several artists, among them Derek Trucks of the Tedeschi Trucks Band. Her most recent album, Live at the Paramount (2020), was recorded at the Paramount Theater in Austin, Texas, and includes several of her original compositions, a “completely reimagined” version of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire”, and two standards associated with Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra, “Mack the Knife” and Fly Me to the Moon”.

Diunna Greenleaf

Diunna Greenleaf, a native of Houston, Texas, performs blues steeped in the gospel music she grew up with; her parents, Ben and Mary Ella Greenleaf sang religious music. But her influences also include Koko Taylor, Aretha Franklin, and Sam Cooke. With her band Blue Mercy, Greenleaf has performed at blues and jazz festivals throughout the United States and Europe. She has opened for and played with such luminaries as folk icon Odetta, Keb’ Mo’, James Cotton, former Howlin’ Wolf guitarist Hubert Sumlin, Willie “Pinetop” Perkins, and Carey Bell.

Her commitment to the blues extends beyond performing; she has served as president of the Houston Blues Society and has produced blues festivals. She has been nominated for many awards and has won several, including Living Blues magazine’s Female Artist of the Year in 2015. Greenleaf’s discography is slim, comprising Crazy But Live in Houston (2004), Cotton Field to Coffee House (2007), and Trying to Hold On (2011). She appears on one track, “Don’t Mess with the Messer”, on Bob Corritore ‘s album Spider in My Stew. The song is slight, but Greenleaf makes the most of it with her spirited delivery.

This year she released her first album in 11 years, I Ain’t Playin’, with four of her songs and covers of material recorded by the Staple Singers, Koko Taylor, Mighty Sam McClain, Johnny Copeland, and Nina Simone.

Christone “Kingfish” Ingram

Christone “Kingfish” Ingram is the hottest, most talked-about new talent on the blues scene. From Clarksdale, Mississippi, a town that looms large in blues history (and mythology), Ingram began performing in the seventh grade. He is a powerful singer and guitarist who acknowledges his debt to the music’s past and its great figures while staking out his turf as a 21st-century blues artist. His first album, Kingfish (2019), reached number one on the Billboard Blues Chart, drew raves from critics, and was nominated for a Best Contemporary Blues Grammy award. No Depression magazine hailed it as “a stunning debut from a young bluesman with an ancient soul and a large presence in the here-and-now”.

Ingram’s second release, 662 (2021) won him his first Grammy. The album builds on his debut’s strengths—no sophomore jinx for him– with strong songwriting that draws on familiar blues themes while giving them a personal and idiosyncratic spin. (The album’s title is the area code for Clarksdale and the north Mississippi delta.) Ingram pays homage to blues culture and history on “Too Young to Remember” and “Something in the Dirt”. “On the first, a 12-bar blues with funk guitar riffing and bubbling organ, he recalls “hearing about those juke joints / Where homemade whiskey used to flow / I’m too young to remember / But old enough to know.” The latter salutes his hometown, where “there’s magic in the music / Must be something in the dirt.”

“Not Gonna Lie” links his personal story to Black and blues history: “Music was my way out / From this poverty and crime / Didn’t want to be like that / There’s more I had to find / Blues is where I come from / I got to keep it going / I promised Buddy Guy / This is our history / and I’m not gonna lie.” When it comes to the perennial theme of love gone wrong, Ingram can be woeful and funny: “She calls me Kingfish / Got me on the hook / If I don’t quit that woman / I believe my fish is cooked.”

Ingram’s playing is indebted to his hero and booster Buddy Guy, Jimi Hendrix (name-checked on “Too Young to Remember”), Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Muddy Waters, but he’s much more than an apt pupil. A master of a variety of blues styles, he has the chops, and self-confidence, to venture into adjacent territories—soul balladry (“That’s All It Takes”), jazz (“You’re Already Gone”, “Another Life Goes By”), and, on the title track, where Chuck Berry meets Ike and Tina Turner at “Nutbush City Limits”, rock ‘n’ roll.

Amythyst Kiah

Amythyst Kiah, a native of Chattanooga, Tennessee, is a singer, guitarist, and banjo player. The self-described “funny-talking, sci-fi-loving, queer Black” has released two albums and one EP. Her song “Black Myself”, a reflection on history, slavery, and racism, and same-sex desire, was nominated for a Best American Roots Song Grammy in 2020 and won Song of the Year at the Folk Alliance International Awards.

Kiah’s first album, the self-released Dig (2013), mixed her songwriting with starkly powerful versions of Son House’s “Grinnin’ in Your Face” and “Over Yonder in the Graveyard” by the white Appalachian folk singer and banjoist Ola Belle Reed and Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees”. Kiah followed with the EP Amythyst Kiah & Her Chest of Glass (2016), also independently released.

After hearing Kiah perform “Trouble So Hard” by 1930s folk and blues singer Vera Hall, Rhiannon Giddens invited her to be the opening act on Giddens’ Freedom Highway tour in 2017. That led to Kiah collaborating with Giddens, cellist Leyla McCalla, and singer-songwriter Allison Russell on Songs of Our Native Daughters (2019), a critically acclaimed album centered on what Giddens called Black women’s stories of “struggle, resistance, and hope.” Kiah’s second album, Wary + Strange, artfully blends two disparate musical idioms: alternative rock and Americana. It includes two Kiah compositions, “Hangover Blues” and “Tender Organs”, that, according to Living Blues magazine, “are so masterful and assured they could easily become modern blues classics”.

Little Freddie King

Little Freddie King from McComb, Mississippi, was born Fread Eugene Martin. As his stage name suggests, his style of guitar playing is based on that of the influential Texas bluesman Freddie King. But the veteran performer and recording artist developed his own signature style, which the Guardian described as “an often chaotic, dirty form of country blues— ‘gutbucket’, as he defines it. One cable, straight from guitar to amp, no effects or overdrive.” After his father taught him to play, King moved to New Orleans as a teenager, where he played acoustic and electric guitar in clubs and bars with established blues stars like Slim Harpo and Champion Jack Dupree.

King cut his first electric blues album in 1969, but he didn’t record again until 1996 when he released Swamp Boogie. During his years away from the recording studio, he was never far from a stage. In 1976, King toured Europe with Bo Diddley and John Lee Hooker and was a mainstay of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (better known as JazzFest). To date, he has played at 42 editions of New Orleans’ major music event.

In recent decades, he’s made up for the years away from recording with a series of well-received albums, beginning with the live session Sing Sang Sung (2000), You Don’t Know What I Know (2005), Messin’ Around tha House (2008), Gotta Walk with Da King (2010), Jazzfest Live (2011), Back in Vinyl (2011), Chasing tha Blues (2012), Messsin’ Around tha Living Room (2015), You Make My Night (2017), Absolutely the Best (2019), and Jaw Jackin’ Blues (2020). In 2018, Carlo Ditta’s Orleans Records released Fried Rice & Chicken, a compilation of King’s recordings in 1994 and 1998; one track, “Cleo’s Back”, was featured in the 2011 Tom Hanks film, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. King appeared in Beyonce’s visual album Lemonade (2016) and Queen & Slim (2019), and his song “Standin’ at Yo’ Door” was included in the film’s soundtrack.

King’s late in life resurgence came after years of struggle and setbacks; he has survived shootings, stabbings, a serious bicycle accident, Hurricane Katrina, and, more recently, the Covid pandemic. The octogenarian bluesman currently lives in Musician’s Village, a neighborhood in New Orleans’s ninth ward rebuilt for musicians who lost their homes to Hurricane Katrina. For more than 25 years, his main local venue has been BJ’s Lounge, a bar in the city’s Bywater section.