Chris Thomas King knows blues
By Naughty Mickie

You probably are familiar with Chris Thomas King from his roles in "Ray" and "O Brother, Where Art Thou," but did you know that he is a recording artist as well? Thomas' most recent effort is "Live on Beale Street" (21st Century Blues Records) and he's been hitting the road, playing everywhere from Africa to the United States, including Los Angeles and his hometown, New Orleans.

"My uncle was in the service in Japan and brought back a little coronet trumpet for me," starts King. "He played trumpet in the marching band and he would invite me to his house on Saturdays and show me how to play the trumpet. I was maybe in fifth grade. My dad's a musician, his name is Tabby Thomas, and he opened up a blues joint called Tabby's Blue Bar in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, my mother's from New Orleans and my father's from Baton Rouge, and it was really there that I understood that I wanted to do music.

"I would be there cleaning up or working for the family in the grocery store and I would hear this music from the local musicians. That really was my inspiration to start learning songs and I started playing on records with those guys and touring as a backup musician. That was my introduction to the music business." King goes on, "I'm not a formally taught musician. Coming from New Orleans down there you've got a lot of guys from Berkeley and studied musicians-- the jazz guys. Sometimes it's not so much a matter of someone sitting you down and saying, OK this is how you play this note or that note, sometimes it's just being in that environment. My family ran this juke joint for almost 25 years, being in that environment, a young teen absorbing the music, those blues guys, they don't have time to sit around and talk about guitar strings, they talk about women and life and lot of things that probably a kid my age shouldn't even being hearing, but you learn life from those guys, they don't really sit around and talk music as much as people might think."

"When I first began recording music, my first album came out on a little label out of Berkeley called Arhoolie Records and Arhoolie is notable because, well, the name arhoolie is interesting." King explains, "The name Arhoolie Records, the guy, his name is Chris Strachwitz out of Berkeley, he got the name for his label from what they would call 'field hollars.' When the Southern blacks were working the fields, they would sing while they worked. Back in the days when the Southern blacks worked in the cotton mills, they worked in groups and they sung to keep the rhythm and the work moving. But then in the sharecropper days it was more individuals working and so you have somebody way out in the fields somewhere and he would hollar to himself. The hollar was called arhoolie.

"He named his label Arhoolie Records and that will tell you right there that this guy's a real purist and basically more from a academia scope or background in recording his albums. He's making music as a document recording, more than 'I'm going to record this young teenage blues singing and he's going to sell a million records." King continues, "So I started with a real purist and that's important in my journey because I wasn't a purist at all. I made that record, it was called 'The Beginning,' I played all the instruments on that album, produced it myself, and when I moved on from there I got this huge deal with Warner Brothers Records. I recorded for Warner Brothers, a couple of albums, but the albums I recorded for them I wanted to add hip-hop and things that were happening. I grew up in this juke joint with the old guys, but hip-hop was my generation's music. I wanted to make a statement that I felt was more true to my experience about being from a bygone era."

King merged hip-hop with his blues roots and unfortunately learned that '80s hip-hop fans didn't care for blues and blues fans didn't want anything to do with '80s hip-hop. His new music sparked such a big controversy in the industry that it stalled his career. So King moved to Denmark, changed his name (from Chris Thomas to Chris Thomas King), started up his own production company, 21st Century Blues Records, and began recording the material he wanted.

We take a break to discuss King's free time.

"It's hard to do anything else, but I love to go to the movies. I'm also a gadget person," King says, adding that he enjoys tinkering with things and learning all about how they work, such as his camera. He is also a big fan of college football, rooting for Louisiana State University.

We talk about writing and King tells me that he used to start with a story or lyrics before the music, but it was a slow process. Today he is trying to work faster and has discovered that some of his best material comes when he just lets it flow. King will go into the studio and play and let the song come out, allowing the words to be whatever they may.

"If you overthink it, it can be cumbersome," says King.

King has no real set way to write, but always has a tape recorder or notepad and his guitar handy in case inspiration hits.

In February, King celebrated his roots and Black History Month by traveling to Africa. He commented that you would think of Lagos, Nigeria as a jungle filled with tigers and other wild animals, but he discovered it was a sprawling city filled with bustling streets. In Abuja he led some music workshops and felt comfortable with the people. What was strange, however, was that he had to travel in an armored vehicle, but he enjoyed interacting with the local musicians and absorbing all of the inspiration of Africa.

"I am sure that it will seep into my music," King says.

King didn't expect the African people to know his acting background nor his music, but they did. They have followed his films and even requested songs during his live shows. King also went to a MTV-sponsored record release party at a club one night during his trip and was impressed by how modern the people were. He notes that there is no middle class, just rich and poor and that all of the people are very educated, particularly about things going on around the world. The women were exceptionally graceful too.

"It was a great experience." King shares and thinks back, "I'm not sure I can find the blues there, they're just as contemporary. It's easier to find West Africa's Lil Wayne than it is to find West Africa's John Lee Hooker. They've moved on just like we've moved on in the South from the blues. For my generation, I'm one of the few, I can probably count all the blues people who are out touring and still making records from my generation on one hand and that's unfortunate.

"The blues is a doable music." King goes on, "The blues that I do,  I say blues, but people that don't know a lot about blues, they might have seen 'O Brother Where Art Thou' and 'O Brother Where Art Thou' appealed to people from all kinds of different backgrounds and all kinds of music. The same thing with 'Ray,' even though Ray was essentially a blues musician and I played Lowell Fulson in the movie and recorded with Ray for the score. People don't sit at the movie thinking I'm watching a blues movie, they're being entertained by a great artist and a genius singer. So when I say blues, it's not like the music that I play is trapped in some box. I understand my roots, but when people come to my concert they shouldn't be surprised to hear me do a Joni Mitchell number, they shouldn't be surprised to hear me do some New Orleans jazz things from my original stuff or even a Hank Williams' tune. All this music comes from blues, Hank Williams, jazz, rock and roll, some hip-hop. When people come to my concert, they're going to see me reaching and bringing some of those things back into my blues base."

"I'm writing my first book," King shares. "It's actually more of a memoir about my experience as a kid growing up in a juke joint, which those things don't really exist too much down here no more, they've been replaced by the House of Blues and more commercial clubs. A friend of mine, Morgan Freeman, he has a couple of juke joints called Ground Zero, one in Clarksdale and one in Memphis, but it takes big money now. What my dad used to do, run a little mom and pop-owned juke joint, these days a little mom and pop health food store, a little mom and pop grocery store or record shop or blues club, it's really tough to do that. All these things are kind of big business now.

"My acting, there's two things out right now. 'Kill Switch' came out on video, that's the movie where I play a detective, starring Steven Segal, and there's a series that's running on the Smithsonian Channel, a documentary that the BBC and Smithsonian combined to do called 'Sound Revolution,' it's hosted by Morgan Freeman." King continues, "I've put my acting on the side at least for this year unless some project is thrown my way that I can't resist. This will be my first club tour, playing blues clubs like this, in 10 years. I haven't been on a club tour like this since I started acting in 'O Brother Where Art Thou.' I think too many people know me through my movie characters and don't really know the essence of my music and don't really know me as a music artist as much as they know me as an actor. So I've decided to take the time out this year and maybe next year to try to play as many cities around America as I can so people can feel what I am as a musical artist and not as an overall entertainer or actor or writer or whatever."

King's next album, "Home," is slated for Japanese release in May, followed by an American release this summer. This mention led to a discussion of labels and the industry.

"A lot of people right now in the record business are trying to deal with the new record business, meaning that the major labels are losing money, people don't know what the new model will be or what the new format is going to be." King explains, "I was one of the early people to start his own record label, get national distribution with his own record label and I had to do things myself. I did more from an artistic standpoint, but it turned out to be pretty a lucrative thing. If you're making $8, $9, $10 a record wholesale you don't have to sell a whole lot of records to make 100 grand, whereas when I was recording for a major label, you sell 100 thousand records, you're so far in the red that you might not make another record with the label.

"But now that a lot of other artists are coming to the realization that you don't have to sell a million records to make a million dollars, a lot of artists are coming to the realization that they want to have their own label and with iTunes and digital distribution they can do it themselves." King states, "I'm here to say that I  am ready to turn over my catalog of music and work with a label because that's another reason I haven't been able to tour. I can't tour consistently because I'm in the office selling records and doing my bookkeeping and marketing and all sorts of other stuff. That's not why I got into business. While I'm in the office, no one's seeing me play my guitar. I supposed to be out on the road, touring up and down the highway, sharing my music with audiences.

"My acting needed to be put on the shelf," continues King. "The label, even though I'm still running it, I need to get out there, get on the road and take my music to places out there. A lot of musicians when they do get their own label and they start running their label, they're going to find out that it's a 24-hour job. There's not a whole lot of time to pick up your guitar if you're going to run your own label. It's a pretty tough choice that somebody's going to have to make, but that's the new music business."

Still not convinced that you should, no, need to catch King in action?

"If people like the music from the movie 'Ray' and they like the music from the movie 'O Brother, Where Art Thou' and they want to hear me waling on my guitar, giving my guitar a real workover, then this is the show they don't want to miss," King ends.


Find out when Chris Thomas King is coming to your town at www.christhomasking.com

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