King is touring the country representing Harman International’s annual music clinic called “harman: how to listen.” Each year a musician tours elementary schools across the country to open up students’ minds and ears to various forms of music. Artists like Allison Krauss, Terence Blanchard and Bobby McFerrin have been instructors.
King is the first blues artist to tour for Harman International. For his Indianapolis appearance, King will perform on electric and acoustic guitar as well as dobro and lap steel. He will be joined by D.J. Spin. “When the kids see the dobro, they’re probably gonna wonder what I’m playing. You don’t see these in music videos. I think they’ll be fascinated by D.J. Spin when he mixes and works the turntables. He’ll probably get as many if not more questions than I’ll get,” King said.
Ironically enough, this 21st century blues man is best known for two films where he played traditional acoustic blues artists: Tommy Johnson in the Coen Brothers epic O Brother Where Art Thou? and as Blind Willie Johnson in Win Wenders’ documentary The Soul Of A Man from Martin Scorsese’s PBS series The Blues. King’s acting career will continue when he portrays blues great Lowell Fulson in the Ray Charles biopic Unchain My Heart, starring Jamie Foxx.
King said he always wanted to act in films, but didn’t expect all this. He wasn’t even pursuing the chance to be in O Brother. “I got the script, read it and thought it was brilliant. I laughed many times over. I was so lucky to be a part of what is now an American classic. And with the album [the film’s soundtrack] winning all the awards and selling millions. It’s probably the most famous blues performance ever. I know it’s the best-selling record any blues artist has ever been a part of,” he said.
King grew up in Baton Rouge, La., where his father, legendary blues singer Tabby Thomas, ran a juke joint. Growing up, King heard old school blues and was also a part of the first rap generation. “I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t show that influence,” he said.
King has recorded albums for Sire/Hightone (Cry Of The Prophets), Private Music (21st Century Blues ... From Da ’Hood), Scotti Brothers (Chris Thomas King), Black Top (Red Mud) and Blind Pig (Me, My Guitar And The Blues). After a decade of label hopping, King has formed his own label, 21st Century Blues, and released two albums: dirty south hip-hop blues (with that nasty PARENTAL ADVISORY label) in 2002 and last year’s The Roots: The Soul Of Chris Thomas King. The label will release an album from 21C-B-Boyz called Now Or Never this year.
“I’d like kids to come away with knowing if you’re in the arts, the possibilities are endless. You don’t have to have a police record to make a record. You don’t have to be 65 to experience the blues. Where’s the pianist who can play piano and rap at the same time? Where’s the rapper that can play the saxophone? Take your violin and cello and do something new,” he said.
King was equally critical about the state of the blues scene. “Most blues artists today are tribute artists. They’re paying tribute to a bygone era. You have to forge ahead. This music will be around 100 years from now. The major problem with blues is not reaching out to the young people. The blues is dying commercially and musically because they just don’t invest in the youth. They chop down the trees and don’t plant the seeds. You don’t have to throw away the past to embrace the future,” he said.