12 essential contemporary blues artists

“The blues are the roots and other music is the fruit. Better to keep the roots alive because now that means better fruit. The blues is the root of all American music. As long as American music survives, so will the blues.

Willie Dixon

“Fearless, unadorned realism is a distinctive feature of the blues. Their depictions of sexual relationships are not constructed in the sentimentality of the American popular song tradition. Romantic love is rarely romanticized in the blues.

Angela Davis

“If you don’t know the blues…there’s no point in picking up the guitar and playing rock and roll or any other form of popular music.”

Keith Richards

The blues is the foundation of so much American music, but it’s often seen as a “legacy” genre, not a vital, contemporary genre. What Willie Dixon called “the fruits” – R&B, soul, rock ‘n roll, funk, country, hip hop – have long eclipsed it in terms of popularity and critical attention. While broadly accurate, this assessment overlooks the fact that the blues is a lifestyle that did not disappear with the passing of the 20th century figures who defined it: Robert Johnson, Bessie Smith, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf , BB King. , Koko Taylor, Sonny Boy Williamson, Etta James, Jimmy Reed, T-Bone Walker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Big Mama Thornton, Elmore James and many more.

The vitality of blues music today is evident in the number of artists, new and veteran, recording and performing; the many blues festivals in the United States and abroad, as well as roots music festivals featuring blues artists; the proliferation of print and online publications devoted to music; and the Grammy categories “best traditional blues” and “best contemporary blues album”. The use of the blues in advertising is perhaps not a telling indicator of its vitality. But a Viagra ad featuring Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning” or Muddy Waters’ “I Can’t Be Satisfied” in an Outback Steakhouse ad exposes the blues, even if it’s just a taste, to a large audience.

The blues presents today a great stylistic variety. Some artists perform in the older styles established in the Mississippi Delta, Piedmont region, and Chicago, to name a few geographical sources; others incorporate soul, jazz, funk and hip-hop. Contemporary blues artists are acknowledging the legacy of those who came before them while building on them with new performance and recording techniques. As has always been true, the most compelling bluesmen and women are those who bring distinctive personal perspectives on life and storytelling style to the music.

The digital age certainly has its discontents, but the internet has been a boon to the blues. Technology has crumbled over time so fans and musicians can immerse themselves in the 1920s recordings of a founding father like Charley Patton and newcomer like Christone “Kingfish” Ingram with the click of a button. of mouse. Thanks to the Internet, “the great music of the past is more accessible than ever,” observes music historian Elijah Wald. “Modern fans can listen to recordings and watch videos of top performers from previous eras, and some young artists have used these tools to learn classic styles and connect with like-minded peers.” New artists “have included a wave of young African-American musicians” who bridge “blues with country, ragtime, jazz, contemporary pop, and alternative styles”.

Wald says communities that “produced blues a century ago are still producing a wealth of new music.” “From small neighborhood clubs to stadium stages to virtual internet stages, the cultural heirs of Robert Johnson and Bessie Smith are reaching wider audiences than ever before.” If, as Wald notes, “the most popular style of blues in the United States is a rowdy bar sound with fast tempos and screaming electric guitar solos”, it is not the only one to be interpreted and appreciated .

Race and racism are central to any discussion of the blues, as they always have been. Although the blues was an art form created by black people under the oppression of American apartheid, most of its fans are white (and that’s nothing new), as are many artists today. today. Whites mainly own the means of production, distribution and representation. The white-run music industry has exploited the work of black creators; Leonard and Phil Chess give Muddy Waters and other Chess Records artists from the Cadillacs in lieu of fair compensation (depicted in the film Cadillac Records) is a metaphor for the dodgy Chess—and industry—business dealings that left these pioneers virtually broke, save for the brand new Cadillacs.

And as with jazz, white men have dominated journalistic and critical writing about music.

Corey Harris, a black blues artist, sparked controversy online with a blog post that asked, “Can white people play the blues? His response: Although white people can and do play blues, “a white singer can never sing the same songs as a black singer and have the songs keep the same meaning. The reverse is also true! Why? Culture… Culture and heritage are the dirt that the blues thrive on. This culture and this heritage are black. The blues is black music!

One can debate the merits of Harris’ culture-related argument. But there is no disputing one of his observations: “The concept of ‘guitar hero’ is a purely white introduction to music, a product of an individualistic culture that is the opposite of the communal nature of black music…C It is totally foreign to traditional blues where long solos were not common and the interaction between players was more important than the enhancement of an individual. If you’ve endured the musical equivalent of a prolonged din served up by white blues guitarists, stars and mates, their “screaming” solos in the “rowdy, bar band” style, you know Harris is telling the truth. .

The blues has been strongly associated with men since Blind Lemon Jefferson in the 1920s became “the first to embody the iconic figure of the solo blues singer and guitarist.” But the first successful blues records were made by women, “queens of the blues” like Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Mamie Smith, but also lesser known singers who enjoyed considerable popularity, like Virginia Liston, Laura Smith, Ora Criswell and Trixie. Black-smith. Other notable blueswomen include Alberta Hunter, Memphis Minnie, Victoria Spivey, Ida Cox, Gladys Bentley (openly lesbian, 1920s), Sippie Wallace, Lucille Bogan (her steamy 1935 recording “Shave ’em Dry” made of she is a godmother to Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion), Rosetta Tharpe, Koko Taylor and Beverly “Guitar” Watkins.

The following is a list of a dozen contemporary blues artists, split equally between women and men, ranging from Christone “Kingfish” Ingram (b. 1999) to Little Freddie King (b. 1940). The list is by no means definitive; there are far more talented bluesmen and bluesmen than can be covered here: veterans like Buddy Guy, Robert Cray, Bobby Rush, Robert Finley, Keb’ Mo’, Susan Tedeschi, Corey Harris, Taj Mahal and Robert Randolph ; and younger artists like Gary Clark, Jr, Samantha Fish, Beth Hart and Eric Gales. The dozen listed here, in alphabetical order, include emerging artists, established artists known mostly to aficionados, and a few more widely recognized. They are all active recording and performing artists who represent the diversity and vibrancy of the blues in the 21st century.

Shemekia Copeland

Shemekia Copeland is currently the most popular and acclaimed contemporary blues singer. Born in Harlem, she is the daughter of Texas blues guitarist and singer Johnny Copeland. She started singing and performing as a child and turned professional as a teenager. She was her father’s opening act on his tours, which helped her establish herself on the blues club and festival circuit. Copeland has released ten albums and won numerous awards. She made her recording debut with Turn up the heat! in 1998, on Alligator Records, followed by Bad (2000) and Talk to strangers (2002), the latter produced by Dr. John.

On Copeland’s latest album, uncivil war (2020), “his artistry has reached a new level”, according to Downbeat. Most of the 12 tracks (seven co-written by producer Will Kimbrough) tackle social and political themes – the lasting impact of slavery (“Clotilda’s on Fire”), religious intolerance (“Give God the Blues” ), gun violence (“Apple Pie and a .45”), and coming out as a lesbian (“She Don’t Wear Pink”). “Dirty Saint”, with its New Orleans funk, pays homage to Dr. John (“Played so sweet / Make a woman faint / There’ll never be another / Like the dirty saint”).

Copeland pays homage to his father with the Johnny Copeland composition that closes the album, “Love Song”. The album’s biggest surprise is Copeland’s gender-switching, all-tables-turned version of the Rolling Stones’ infamous “Under My Thumb.” uncivil war, though steeped in blues, it goes beyond to incorporate stylistic elements and instruments associated with that catch-all genre, Americana – mandolin, lap steel guitar and dobro. It features guest appearances by Christone “Kingfish” Ingram (“Money Makes You Ugly”), Jason Isbell (“Clotilda’s on Fire”), Steve Cropper (“In the Dark”) and rock ‘n roll guitar pioneer Duane Eddy (“She’s not wearing a rose”).

Bob Corritor

Bob Corritore is one of the hardest working figures in the contemporary blues, a much-loved harmonica player, bandleader, producer, radio host and club owner. A native of Chicago, he began collecting blues albums and attending shows, including a Muddy Waters concert at his high school, when he was in his early teens. Corritore hung around and learned from great “harp” players like Big Walter Horton, Junior Wells and Carey Bell. When he was old enough to go to blues clubs, he attended performances by Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Billy Boy Arnold, John Brim, Sunnyland Slim and Eddie Taylor.

Corritore made his debut as a producer in 1979 with Swingin’ the Blues by harmonica player Little Willie Anderson; since then he has produced numerous albums, single artists and compilations. In 1999 he released All-Star Blues Sessionshis first album as a frontman, featuring Bo Diddley, former Howlin’ Wolf drummer Chico Chism, Robert Lockwood Jr., Henry Gray and 12 other artists.

Recent additions (2021-2022) to his ample and distinguished discography include The gypsy told me, Spider in my stew, tell me about it (with Louisiana Red), and Down Home Blues Review, a compilation of Southern blues and joint dance juke numbers. In 2022 Corritore was nominated for two Blues Music Awards, Harmonica Player of the Year and Traditional Blues Album for Spider in my stew.

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