Chris Thomas King: A Young Man’s Blues

Chris Thomas King
A Young Man's Blues

In most circles, Chris Thomas King is currently best known for his role as Delta bluesman Tommy Johnson in the Coen Brother’s film O Brother, Where Art Thou?. His contribution to the soundtrack, a rendition of the Skip James classic “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues”, was both authentic and modern — in the sense that you could hear King approach the song with traditional reverence, but also with an electric restlessness that informed every note. On one hand, O Brother‘s sepia-tinted past was an ironic place to find King; his career has shown a driving need to reinvent the blues, to bring them into modern times by whatever means necessary. On the other hand, you could argue that O Brother paid its respects to the past with a distinctly modern, tongue-in-cheek cynicism. Whichever way you argue, both the film and King’s work in the blues are obviously born of real affection for their subjects.

King took good advantage of the film’s spotlight when he released 2001’s concept album Legend of Tommy Johnson, Act 1: Genesis 1900’s-1990’s. That mostly self-penned album found him giving a historical overview of blues styles throughout American history. However, that album, and the popularity surrounding his portrayal of a traditional bluesman, obscures the fact that, at least on disc, King’s been extremely disinterested in playing the blues straight. His most recent incarnation (as found on 2002’s Dirty South Hip-Hop Blues and best exemplified by the scathing “Mississippi KKKrossroads”) melds rap and blues in fascinating, aggressively confident ways. It’s also marked, like much of King’s career, by the search for a voice. That search, unsurprisingly, has led him through a number of record labels over the years, especially once he began shopping his blues/rap hybrid around to an industry that was more interested in hearing him mimic Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, or B.B. King.

A Young Man’s Blues covers a very small portion of King’s career: his brief early ’90s tenure with Hightone Records. Therein lies a bit of a rub all its own. After 1990’s Cry of the Prophets, King was already interested in radically expanding his sound, but Hightone reportedly wasn’t listening. King went into the studio at the label’s insistence to record a “proper” followup to Prophets, and left the sessions without finishing the album. Hightone released the songs anyway (as 1993’s Simple). So what A Young Man’s Blues offers is King’s first, rather straightforward attempts at a pop/blues mix and a later batch of songs he apparently wasn’t even interested in enough to finish.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t glimmers of light to be found on A Young Man’s Blues. King was rightly praised in critical circles when he debuted, not the least for his socially conscious lyrics and fierce guitar talent. But the flip side of an artist with far-reaching ambitions like King is that there can be just as many missteps as triumphs while he smoothes out the rough edges. Consequently, much of A Young Man’s Blues is, production-wise, a product of its times. Dated sounds abound and the most energetic tracks have that distinct early ’90s ultra-produced sound that makes them sound like they’re being strained through a colander on the way to the tape. Witness the keyboard strains of “Wanna Die with a Smile on My Face”, the compressed guitars of “Itch”, or the processed drums on just about track with percussion. What emerges even through those trendy sounds, though, are the sounds of an artist as comfortable with the R&B swagger of Prince or Terence Trent D’arby as he was with the guitar swagger of Jimi Hendrix.

The highlights, even the ones that sound dated, make it obvious that the early hype surrounding King was justified. Even if he got bored with the straightforward material he recorded for Hightone, he displayed a knack for it. The churning “Sad, Sad World”; the mellow, “Little Wing”-flavored “Plaquemine Blues”; or the slide-drenched blues stomp of “Blood on the Dagger” are well worth a listen for anyone interested in conventional electric blues. The world has no shortage of 12-bar blues riffs, though, which may have factored into King’s decision to walk away as best he could from the style of these Hightone years. His guitar skills are inarguable, his vocals often impassioned, but in many ways, these songs are indistinguishable from most blues-rock music of the last 20 years.

Even if King’s subsequent work has covered all corners of the blues map stylistically, in a restless attempt to find the right balance between tradition and innovation, you have to give him credit for not playing it safe. In hindsight, it feels safe to say that if King hadn’t walked past the conventional sounds he was plying for Hightone, he’d likely (barring some major stylistic epiphany) be a footnote in his genre. As it stands, he’s emerged as one of the most interesting artists in the blues, and at some point in the future he’s likely to find a truly groundbreaking fusion of blues, rap, and R&B. For now, though, a collection like A Young Man’s Blues shows us that such milestones don’t come without a lot of practice and experimentation.