Chris Thomas King – O brother, who art thou?
The Coen brothers couldn’t have scripted a stranger irony than the musical resurrection of Chris Thomas King. After years of refusing to submit to traditionalist strictures — resisting the pressures of a record industry that couldn’t accept his streetwise raps and hip-hop samples as a natural progression of the blues –King renewed his career by playing the role on screen that he wouldn’t play in life.
As traditional country bluesman Tommy Johnson (based on the 1930s composer of “Canned Heat Blues”), the neophyte actor held his own with the likes of George Clooney and Holly Hunter in O Brother, Where Art Thou? — sparking a flurry of screen offers, club dates and concert engagements (including this winter’s Down From The Mountain soundtrack tour of O Brother performers), along with his best album since 1990’s Cry Of The Prophets.
The CD — The Legend Of Tommy Johnson — compounds the irony, for it serves as an extension of the character he portrays in the movie, looking backward where King’s artistry characteristically pushes forward, while documenting an evolution of the blues from acoustic spirituals through supercharged electric guitar. On the movie set between takes, King composed plenty of blues the recall the Depression era — including the folkish “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” theme, featured on King’s album but not in the film or on its soundtrack — in a marked departure from the direction that his trademark brand of “21st Century Blues” has taken.
So is this a Chris Thomas King album or a Tommy Johnson album?
“It’s in the voice of the character, but obviously it was conceived by me,” says the soft-spoken King of the project (which carries the full title 21st Century Blues Presents Chris Thomas King, The Legend Of Tommy Johnson, Act I: Genesis 1900s-1990s, Inspired In Part By The Movie O Brother Where Art Thou).
“The movie has a great soundtrack, but it left something of a void for the Delta blues fan, so this is a nice complement. During the four months I spent on the film, I really got inspired by the music of that period. You know, you lock me in a trailer for a few months and give me a guitar, I’m going to come up with some tunes.
“If it was a Chris Thomas King record, you definitely would have heard some scratchin’, a little hip-hop, some of this and that,” he continues. “But this is like that record where the Beatles pretended to be Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It gives you some creative freedom to go where you might not otherwise go as an artist.”
Let’s ponder that paradox for a minute. As Chris Thomas King, the artist formerly known as Chris Thomas had all but sacrificed his career to the principle of artistic freedom, burning bridges with labels, managers and clubs who figured he was a crackpot for attempting to fuse the worlds of blues and hip-hop. Yet by assuming a character, he freed himself to make music that he couldn’t as Chris Thomas King?
“I have my own record label and my own studio in New Orleans, so basically I can record as I wish,” he admits. “But if I hadn’t been in the film, hadn’t played that character and hadn’t spent four months in a suit and tie in 100 degree weather in Mississippi, it never would have occurred to me to make this record.”
Though the Coens apparently cast their net far and wide in search of the appropriate actor or musician to take the part, this Southern bluesman is a role King was born to play. The son of Baton Rouge bluesman Tabby Thomas, Chris had cut his musical teeth at his father’s club, Tabby’s Blues Box, and made his recording debut for the tradition-minded Arhoolie label with 1986’s The Beginning (recently reissued in light of the O Brother phenomenon). Even then, however, he had split musical allegiances: He played in a cover band that ran the gamut from Prince and the Isleys to AC/DC and Rush, but stayed closer to blues convention when he played at Tabby’s club.
Steeped in blues but driven by rock, the Arhoolie album offered a hint of the changes to come, a pace that accelerated when Thomas (as the man who would be King still billed himself at the time) moved from his native Louisiana to Austin. While he initially did his woodshedding at Antone’s — and was briefly signed to the club’s fledgling label — he expanded his horizons all over town, playing solo acoustic at the folk Chicago House and immersing himself in a variety of atmospheres, from the punk-rocking Cannibal Club to the Continental Club’s time-warped essence of cool.
He pulled it all together with 1990’s Cry Of The Prophets. Released on HighTone, which plainly hoped to better the success it had enjoyed with Robert Cray, and given a major promotional push through its distribution by Sire/Warner Bros., the album introduced Thomas as a bluesier avatar on the order of Prince, Terrence Trent d’Arby and Living Colour. Standout tracks such as “Wanna Die With A Smile On My Face” and “Help Us, Somebody” seemed to herald a fully-formed visionary, one whose ambitions extended well beyond rootsy Austin.
“There’s not a shuffle on that record, which at that time coming from Austin was unheard of,” he says with a laugh. “As much as I admired Stevie Ray Vaughan, I knew I had to find my own sound. Austin’s a beautiful place to live, and I had a ball, but musically I knew that if I stayed in Austin, my music would always stay in Austin with me.”
Though Cry Of The Prophets received rapturous reviews (most significantly an extended feature rave by Peter Guralnick in Musician magazine) and reams of promotional support, it sold less than 25,000 copies. HighTone and Sire put Thomas on a shorter creative leash for the follow-up, while the guitarist chafed against the labels’ resistance to his growing interest in hip-hop.
Sire decided to drop him in the midst of recording sessions (“He’s not the easiest person to work with,” said a label spokesman at the time). Thomas later claimed that HighTone patched together 1993’s Simple without his consent. Where both the blues world and the recording industry were concerned, the promising visionary of just a couple years earlier had become a pariah.
“Nobody in America would book me, period,” says King, who decided to follow the path of Memphis Slim, Luther Allison and other European blues expatriates by moving to Copenhagen before the release of Simple. He spent almost four years in Europe, building an audience that validated his musical direction. He added the “King” to his name because, he says, it looked good on a poster. “Every rapper has a nickname, every bluesman has a nickname, and I resisted a lot of nicknames, but King has a nice ring to it,” he says.
King returned to his native Louisiana in 1996 and has since based himself in New Orleans. “I asked myself, ‘Should I stay in Europe and have the tree fall in the woods where nobody can hear it, or should I go back and let the chips fall where they may?’ In New Orleans, there’s more of an international influx of cultures than there was in Austin, and I play to people from all over the world.”
Though he’s enjoyed a movie breakthrough as a country blues revivalist, don’t expect King to put aside his samples and scratching. To the contrary, he’s already recorded Act II: Revelations 2000 & Beyond, which brings the cloned resurrection of Tommy Johnson into the musical world of Chris Thomas King. Playing everything himself, with some guest vocals from Tabby Thomas, he conjures a musical realm that B.B. King, Malcolm X and Tupac Shakur might all recognize as their own. Though this follow-up won’t be distributed through American retailers until the summer, it’s already available through his website, and he hopes to release Acts I and II as a two-disc set in Europe.
“I’m not trying to be the torchbearer for the blues, obviously, because if I were, people feel that I’m doing it all wrong,” says Thomas, who nevertheless maintains that his music is more a renewal of blues tradition than a repudiation of it. “If I wanted to emulate Muddy Waters, well, Muddy Waters was a guy who took country blues from the Delta and plugged it in, gave it an electric guitar and beat. And if I wanted to emulate great songwriters of the period, the Tommy Johnsons and Robert Johnsons, well, they wrote about the things around them.
“I feel like I’ve digitized the blues, using the tools around me, samples and loops and not just electricity,” he continues. “How can you live in a world where there’s so much going on and not speak to it? A lot of the music being put out by these blues labels doesn’t really deal with the way people are living today. Who are they singing to? It’s like they’re trying to sell records to ghosts.”