Christone "Kingfish" Ingram
Photo: Colin Hart

Delta Blues’ Christone “Kingfish” Ingram Will Rock Your Soul

Blues powerhouse player Christone “Kingfish” Ingram knows how to swing, but at this week’s Extra Innings Festival, he won’t need a baseball bat to prove it.

Live in London
Christone "Kingfish" Ingram
13 October 2023

Growing up in the Mississippi Delta, blues musician Christone “Kingfish” Ingram admittedly never became a baseball fan. Playing songs in church at an early age became his all-American pastime. It developed into a career passion that exists to this day as comparisons to Black Guitar Heroes from Muddy Waters to B.B. King to Jimi Hendrix add to his fame game. 

Though his connection to the major leagues might be hanging by a thread, when Ingram puts a Telecaster guitar in his hands, he might as well be swinging a Louisville Slugger. These are glory days for Kingfish, the adopted nickname for a blues prodigy whose hits from the stage are as monstrous as any Babe Ruthian blast from the past. 

So it makes perfect sense that Ingram will be in the starting lineup at the Extra Innings Festival to be held 1-2 March in Tempe, Arizona. The baseball-themed event, which runs just as action at MLB’s Cactus League spring training sites starts to heat up (with Arizona’s weather), will include 21 acts over two days of fun in the sun at Tempe Beach Park & Arts Park. 

The closing artists on the Home Plate stage will be Chris Stapleton on Friday (1 March) and the Dave Matthews Band on Saturday (2 March). Other heavy hitters in the eclectic lineup include Ingram, Charley Crockett, and Turnpike Troubadours on Friday, then Sheryl Crow, Noah Kahan, and Morgan Wade on Saturday. Baseball-related activities will include a batting cage and speed pitch areas for fans to test their athletic abilities and appearances by former major-league stars such as Hall of Fame legends Rollie Fingers and Tim Raines. The Extra Innings weekend makes its debut, following the Innings Festival that held its sixth annual event the previous week, featuring Red Hot Chili Peppers and Hozier. 

During a phone interview for PopMatters on 22 February from Los Angeles, Ingram sounded excited about this festival stop on his “Mor Fish” tour that began earlier this month. It will continue with dates throughout the United States, United Kingdom, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and even the Fuji Rock Festival at Naeba Ski Resort in Niigata, Japan. 

Asked what he expected would top his list of highlights, Ingram says with a laugh, “It all depends on the lineup. I’m really looking forward to seeing all the artists on this one in Tempe. I’m just big on liking music festivals, festivals that are not just pigeonholed by one genre. And this festival shows that.” 

His road map to success certainly is a long way from the small-town life of Clarksdale, Mississippi, where Ingram was born and raised. He got his musical start by playing the drums in church, “hanging around my mom and all of my uncles and aunts,” he recalls. “She had me in church watching them, so they were the first musicians that I pretty much was inspired by. So playing drums with them, I didn’t get a chance to get on a string instrument, even if I wanted to play, until like my blues journey [began].” 

Adding, “I wanted to learn the guitar on my own at first; my fingers were too big for the strings,” Ingram went from playing drums, then bass guitar at Faith Temple Word of Christian Faith Church in nearby Tutwiler (just down Highway 49 from Clarksdale) to electric guitar in blues clubs and juke joints. 

He remembers finally being able to join a band “at age ten or 11, and I was playing bass. My first gig literally was six at night to one in the morning [at Red’s blues club in Clarksdale]. And at the end of the night, I was like, ‘I can do this.’” 

Ingram said he started playing electric guitar at age 13. At 15, the musical wunderkind performed for Michelle Obama at the White House as a member of the Delta Blues Museum‘s talented troupe of student players. 

Kingfish, his debut album for Alligator Records, was released in 2019, a few months after he turned 20. A Grammy nomination followed, then others for his next two albums — 2021’s 662 (for Clarksdale’s area code) and 2023’s Live in London. More accolades (No. 200 among Rolling Stone’s 250 Best Guitarists in the World) and memorable moments supporting acts like Buddy Guy, the Rolling Stones, and Vampire Weekend followed. 

So did heartache, though. After his mother, Princess Latrell Pride Ingram, died on 4 December 2019 in Oxford, Mississippi, at age 49, Kingfish reworked a song originally composed by Nashville songwriters Ashley Ray and Sean McConnell. “Rock & Roll”, a tribute to the single parent who raised him, is a bonus track as the final number on 662. The tender ballad includes touching lyrics that conclude with a nod to Robert Johnson: 

She made a deal with the angels, so I’ll never let go.
I’m gonna sell my soul to rock & roll.

“Rock & Roll”

“It’s a track about my relationship with my biggest champion — my mom,” Ingram wrote in an Instagram post in 2020. “The true-to-life lyrics reflect my mom’s dedication to me. I would not be where I am today without her unwavering love and support.”

On 3 April 2022, Ingram was in the audience with a couple of friends when 662 won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album. “We got there late, and I was still tired because we had just flown in from a show the night before in Baltimore. So, you know, I had my expectations low, but I really wasn’t thinking too much about it,” offers Ingram, who found it “inspiring” that his friend Cedric Burnside had just won Best Traditional Blues Album. 

“When the category came, and the person that was announcing the winners said, ‘Chris’, I just went crazy,” he continues in our interview. We were sitting in the back because we were late, so it was a long walk to the stage and I got up there, and my voice was shaky. It was a really cool moment. Sometimes, I still can’t think that it happened.”

His third nomination — for Live in London, its 17 tracks including a live version of “Rock & Roll” — didn’t turn into a win this year (sister act Larkin Poe, also performing at Extra Innings this week, got the hardware). Yet a humble Ingram feels grateful to be in the room, rubbing elbows with like-minded musicians and R&B producers. 

“It was really a great experience as always,” he surmises about chatting with folks like Shane Foster (after previously connecting on Instagram) and ex-Carolina Chocolate Drops member Dom Flemons. “I get to meet new people, like, I get to see friends. I get to learn. There’s also a great moment for you to have some fire lit … to go back to the studio and do more music.”

Christone "Kingfish" Ingram
Photo: Colin Hart

Pointing out that life has “just been a whirlwind” since his Grammy victory, Ingram seems thrilled that he’s “been able to expand and go to a lot more places in the world,” citing unforgettable examples from his sellout show at the Apollo in New York to a headlining gig at Mahindra Blues Festival 2023 in Mumbai last February. 

While his list of heavy-hitting influences includes Burnside, Eric Gales, and Robert Randolph, the blues legend he refers to as “Mr. Guy” stands alone at the top. “He’s been a tremendous helping hand in my career,” Ingram proclaims. 

Still keeping his Clarksdale residence and occasionally spending time there while living and recording in Los Angeles for almost two years, Christone Ingram takes great pride in his hometown. More so now that it has witnessed a resurgence through blues music and clubs like Red’s and Ground Zero Blues Club, the venue with a high-profile co-owner in actor Morgan Freeman. 

“I’m not surprised,” Ingram asserts about the so-called rebirth that was the subject of a recent 60 Minutes report featuring him along with far older performers who still struggle to make ends meet. “It’s really cool to see that people see that blues is still alive and well in the young generation in Clarksdale. It’s not just dying off with all the musicians we had in the city.” 

Ingram cites the youth movement spreading to places like Gainesville, Florida, one of the first stops on his 2024 tour. “It was kind of like we almost had like a college crowd. And not to say that that’s out of the norm because young people have been showing up in the last few years.” 

While working on material for a new album — that may or may not be ready to release this summer — Ingram initially uses an “all of the above” answer instead of singling out the most satisfying aspect of his career. After a practice swing, the on-deck batter follows with this teaser pleaser: “Just coming on stage because I just love the rush from being on stage and seeing the crowd go crazy.”

Then the cleanup hitter finally connects with, “Being in the studio has definitely become my favorite part of my career, for sure. Because I really have never been in a setting where I can create from scratch. You know, from my last two records, all the songs we wrote before we went into the studio. This particular time, you know, I’d get to sit there, write, record, play, whatever, and by the end of the night, we had to play the song. Usually, the songs were already done, and I’d just have to record it. These sessions, I’m doing it all.” 

That’s sort of like those five-tool MLB All-Stars who shine in every department, hitting either for average or power, then making all the plays in the field. 

Before it’s all over, “Kingfish”, on a musical level, might rank with Cooperstown Hall of Famers possessing nifty nicknames such as the “Sultan of Swat”, the “Say Hey Kid”, and “Hammerin’ Hank”. As “Mr. Cub”, Ernie Banks used to say, “Let’s play two”, and see this powerhouse performer for yourself on Opening Day of the Extra Innings Festival doubleheader. 

Extra, Extra Innings: Kingfish Steps Up to the Plate

What can Extra Innings fans expect when you perform on the Home Plate stage at 3:05 p.m. on March 1?

Kingfish: They can expect a whole lot, from rock to blues to funk. A whole lot, for sure. It’s gonna be an experience. 

Are you performing solo or with a band?  

Kingfish: Definitely with my band [that includes bassist Paul Rogers, drummer Christopher Black, and keyboardist Deshawn Alexander, all of whom play on Live in London]. My band travels pretty much wherever I go as far as performances are concerned. (laughs) 

Regarding baseball, how much of a fan are you? 

Kingfish: I watched it on a rare occasion with my Pops but never was really big into knowing the names of the players or whatnot. Maybe a few, but not all of them. 

Have you ever attended a major league game? 

Kingfish: My first and only baseball game was a couple of years ago in Los Angeles. It was a Dodgers game. 

Growing up, what was your favorite sport? 

Kingfish: I was, like, into the usual football and basketball. I didn’t play, but I definitely was a fan of both sports. And even boxing as well. 

Have you performed the national anthem or “America the Beautiful” at a sporting event? If you haven’t, is it on your bucket list? 

Kingfish: Yeah, I have [performed “The Star-Spangled Banner”]. The last time I did it, I did it at a Grizzlies and Warriors [NBA basketball] game in Memphis, Tennessee [at FedExForum]. I’d say, two years ago [3 May 2022, with a purple Telecaster Deluxe].

Did you enjoy it, or was it nerve-racking?

Kingfish: It definitely was nerve-racking because I hadn’t played the anthem in so long. To do it for the first time in like a couple of years in front of a whole bunch of people, you know, had me anxious. Everybody loved it. It was pretty cool. (laughs)

(During COVID, Kingfish appeared via the video screen on TIAA Bank Field’s huge scoreboard in Jacksonville, Florida, playing a Hendrixian national anthem live before the Titans-Jaguars NFL game on 13 December 2020.)

Favorite baseball movie?

Kingfish: Bernie Mac in Mr. 3000

Favorite baseball song?

Kingfish: “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”. 

Finally, envision this: Using a baseball analogy in terms of your musical skills, you’re up to bat with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth and need to hit a grand slam to win over the audience. What song in your repertoire will knock it out of the park? 

Kingfish: Man, either play a good, nice slow blues or something like “Purple Rain” or something. (laughs)  I used to [perform it] a lot because it’s always been a good go-to at the end of my shows if we’d run out of a song to do for an encore. And anytime we do it, the crowd loves it.