As a blues musician, Chris Thomas King, has his feet firmly planted in boththe past and the present. His music honors the roots of the blues but reaches for a unique, present-day sound.
Thomas, now in his 40s, grew up the son a Louisiana bluesman – the late Tabby Thomas – and learned from the masters, even playing with them as a young man. By 30, he was a major name on the blues circuit, known for his finding a way to infuse primitive blues with hip-hop and other modern styles.
Then came the movie: in the Coen brothers’ cult classic O Brother, Where Art Thou? in 2001 Thomas transcended the blues and gained an international mainstream audience. The movie tells the story of escaped convicts who become singers in Mississippi, and starred George Clooney, John Turturro, and King. King portrayed Tommy Johnson, a true-to-life blues singer from the 1930s, who sold his soul to the devil in return for his musical talent.
Of the songs on the movie’s Grammy-winning soundtrack, King’s Hard Time Killing Floor Blues was one of the only few recorded live during filming. The soundtrack, produced by T. Bone Burnett, reached No. 1 on the billboard charts and has since sold ten million copies. The subsequent, Down From the Mountain tour, took King around the world with artists like Emmy Lou Harris, Gillian Welch and Ralph Stanley.
That success gave King a broader audience for his music and led to roles in the other films, including the Ray Charles bio-pic, Ray.
“Now I can’t go through the grocery store or the airport without being recognized,” he told me recently by phone from his home near Baton Rouge.
The best result of the film was the exposure it gave the blues to a young audience.
“You had a lot of young kids who saw those movies and I introduced them to the blues. Now they are playing banjos and guitars and leading bands of their own.”
Thomas’ latest album is called Antebellum Postcards, and the concept is summed up in the title.
“Traces of the blues all the way back to Congo Square in New Orleans,” he says.
The album is me communicating back to the roots of the music and the people who made the music. It’s like I’m sending them a post card and getting a post card back from them.”
The album reflects the struggle of an artist who works in a now-historic genre, with lots of implied and implicit rules, to find his own sound – his own way.
“I’ve always wanted to be honest with my music. I didn’t want to be an imitator of my dad. Real artists want to get to a point where they have their own identity and their own sound.”
Thomas is on a small tour through Florida and for his stop at the Side Door Cabaret, he’ll be backed by his band – drummer Jeff Mills and bassist Danny Insente. He’ll play guitar and some piano. And he’ll be doing music from the films, from Postcards, and songs from his favorite music town – New Orleans.
“Even though Katrina forced King to move from New Orleans his shows “always have a touch of New Orleans.”
King’s show is one of three nights of great blues music this weekend at the Side Door. Our Blues Blowout Weekiend features the St. Pete Blues Allstars on Friday at 8 p.m.; a celebration of the release of Backtrack Blues Band’s brand new CD, recorded live at the Palladium on Saturday at 9 p.m.
Chris Thomas King’s show, in the intimate Side Door Cabaret, closes out the weekend on Sunday, July 15 at 7 p.m. For tickets and information visit www.mypalladium.org or call the box office at 727 822-3590.