For Grammy Award-winning guitarist Chris Thomas King, the blues has always been a family business.
He spent his early years working at Tabby’s Blues Box and Heritage Hall, a Baton Rouge, La., juke joint owned and operated by his family for 25 years.
“It was on a neglected part of town on that side of the tracks that was a danger zone, so to speak,” recalled King, who performs Saturday in San Luis Obispo. “It wasn’t trendy. There wasn’t this Disneyland atmosphere. (My father’s) cash register was pretty much a cigar box with a .45 revolver sitting next to it.”
Yet Tabby’s was a popular destination for blues fans from as far away as Europe. It was there, among visiting greats and local legends, that the young guitarist honed his craft.
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“As a kid I didn’t appreciate that (atmosphere),” King said. “But when I look back now, I’m part of a tradition. I represent a slice of blues culture.”
King released his first album, titled “The Beginning,” in 1986.
A string of well-received records, including 1990’s “Cry of the Prophets,” 1995’s “Red Mud” and 1999’s “Me, My Guitar and the Blues,” followed. But the guitarist didn’t gain widespread fame until appearing in Joel and Ethan Coen’s film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” in 2000.
King played Tommy Johnson, a thinly veiled version of famed blues guitarist Robert Johnson.
The soundtrack to “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” nabbed King his first Grammy — the much-coveted Album of the Year award — and led to a role as blues guitarist Lowell Fulson in “Ray,” the Oscar-winning biopic about R&B innovator Ray Charles.
King, who worked with Charles on the 2004 film’s Grammy-winning soundtrack, described the experience as “fantastic.”
He’s also appeared in the documentaries “Signpost to Freedom,” “The Soul of a Man,” “Last of the Mississippi Jukes,” as well as the movies “Animal” and “Kill Switch.”
Meanwhile, King’s musical journey has continued with such genre-bending albums as 2002’s “Dirty South Hip-Hop Blues” and 2006’s “Rise,” written in response to Hurricane Katrina.
King is currently working on a new album, “Shades of Treme,” which takes its name from a New Orleans neighborhood.
“That new music rocks,” King said. “I crank up my amplifier and play what I like to think is real exciting blues rock.”
King recently spoke to The Tribune from his home and recording studio in Prairieville, La.
Q: You’ve spent most of your life in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. How has the region changed since Hurricane Katrina?
A: New Orleans was a great muse for me. It’s a very inspirational American city.
I was very creative there and had a great time there. The politics are a little messed up (but) usually people are drinking and eating and enjoying life so much they don’t let those kinds of things get to them.
That atmosphere of bliss, of innocence, that New Orleans had kind of dissipated. It’s come back to a certain extent, but it’s not the city it was before the storm.
Q: How did your surroundings influence you as a musician?
A: I probably wouldn’t have stuck with the blues if it wasn’t what we did as a family. I’d be playing hip-hop or rap.
Q: What is so compelling about the blues?
A: The music comes from a place that reminds a lot of African-Americans about slavery and Jim Crow and things they would rather not be reminded about, but that same music is very powerful.
Music was all that the slave had. Music kept slaves sane and gave them strength.
Eighty percent of songs from “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” are slave songs based in the blues. Those melodies are still very powerful, still very beautiful, but people don’t always know where this music came from.
Q: Thanks in part to “O Brother,” you’ve found commercial success as a blues musician.
A: I’ve sold 10 million albums with music that is supposedly noncommercial.
Most blues artists, if they sold 10,000 records that would be a hit record for the blues. To sell 10 million records is just unheard of.
(Usually) the person who emulates (the music) ends up reaping the financial rewards and the fame. It’s the Eric Claptons or The Rolling Stones that cash the checks.
I was one of the few originators who have been able to reap the rewards.
Q: Why do you think you’ve succeeded where others have failed?
A: It’s the times we live in. People made sacrifices so that I could have opportunities. I stand on the shoulders of those men and women. I’m indebted to all those who created the great American soundtrack. I’m happy to try to continue their legacy.
Q: What inspired you to blend the blues with jazz, hip-hop and other genres?
A: New Orleans is the birthplace of blues as we know it. A hundred years ago, the words “blues” and “jazz” were interchangeable. Then Lead Belly came along. The white intellectuals and folklorists didn’t like well-dressed, well-groomed Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, standing up there in a suit reading sheet music. They went looking for 50 Cent. They went looking for this guy and made him the prototype of what the black musician should be.
Record companies in the ’80s and ’90s started looking for (the next) Lead Belly. I was controversial because I didn’t conform to that ideal.
Q: How has the history of the blues influenced your own music?
A: It’s not some rigid genre that I’m playing. I can incorporate some spiritual influences or I can incorporate some jazz, or I can make it more lowdown. It’s just the feeling that I’m trying to convey at that particular moment.
My understanding of the music that I grew up with may be different than someone who read a bunch of literature about it. My education on the blues didn’t come from school or any books. It was an apprenticeship.
Q: You’re taking a break from acting to focus on music. Why?
A: I didn’t want anything to detract from my music at this point between traveling and playing with friends and writing and recording. It’s hard to do both (movies and music) well.
At the end of the day, I want people to know me more for my body of music as opposed to a character from a TV series or movie. I really want to be known as Chris Thomas King, a person who tried to make the world more beautiful with his music.
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