Throughout history, humans have relied on music to carry stories and bring people together. So Rolling Stone and Can-Am are embarking on a road trip to spotlight the artists, venues, and recording studios keeping the storytelling legacy alive today. We’re calling the project Common Tread. Join us as we explore the people and places that bridge the divide between music’s past and future.
Kingfish wants you to understand something — the blues aren’t dead, not by a long shot. Tuned ears can find blues licks and lyrical crumbs sprinkled all over the radio today. Much of what we understand about popular music, from guitar solos to the storytelling in hip hop, grew from the seeds of the blues, and it’s important that we preserve that history. “Blues was the foundation,” says Kingfish. “But that seems to be forgotten.” He’s here to help us remember.
The artist’s self-titled debut album, released in 2019, earned him a Grammy nomination and five awards at the 2020 Blues Music Awards, including album of the year. At the time of Kingfish’s release, he was just 20 years old, and the success made him a torchbearer for the genre, a young talent who could bridge the gap between the traditional Delta blues and today’s popular hits.
For all of his natural ability, Kingfish’s ascent might not have happened without his blues-loving hometown of Clarksdale, Mississippi. The city’s home to the Ground Zero Blues Club, which is co-owned by Morgan Freeman, along with the Delta Blues Museum, where Ingram began learning music theory at five or six years old. As a kid, he found the bass guitar’s big strings easiest to play, and he earned a reputation around town for keeping up with more established players. “I was pretty much the substitute bass player for all the bands,” he says. “If their bass player can’t come, it was like, ‘call the little guy from the museum.’”
A blues band living next door to Ingram began inviting him to play house parties, and shortly after, he moved from bass to six-string guitar. He quickly mastered that, too, and one of the bands he filled-in with began sending him up to stage early to warm up the audience. At 12 years old, he learned to hold a juke-joint crowd all on his own.
At the same time Kingfish was growing as a performer, he was also absorbing blues lessons about resilience, decency, and even humor. “Not only did the guys play the music, but they were teaching me about life — what to do and not to do, and which examples to follow,” he says, noting the role of his hometown. “If I wasn’t born in Clarksdale, I don’t think I’d be doing this.”
Before a performance at the Delta Blues Museum, one of Ingram’s teachers — blues legend Bill “Howl-n-Madd” Perry — baptized Ingram with the stage name Kingfish. It was borrowed from the Amos ‘n’ Andy character, and at first, Ingram hated it. Then it occurred to him that the moniker contained hidden references to the greats: King echoed B.B. King, and fish could be read as a subtle nod to Muddy Waters.
Kingfish also worked in the sense that Ingram was himself a fish out of water. “The kids that I knew in school, they definitely wasn’t listening to blues,” he says. “They thought it was old stuff.”
Kingfish accepted his name, and now he’s using it to connect with young listeners. He’s currently working on his sophomore album — because of course, there’s really only one way to teach the blues. “Some things just can’t be talked about,” he says. “You got to play and sing about it.”
The Mississippi Delta delivers miles of flat highway and gravel laid out between plots of scenic farmland. It’s a playground for the Spyder F3-T, a power monster that never failed to answer my call for more acceleration. The engine serves up 115 horsepower and 96 pound-feet of torque, and at the same time, it’s prepared to go the distance. Adjustable foot pegs let me stretch out comfortably on long drives, and the 250-mile per-tank capacity gave me the confidence to take spontaneous detours without worrying about my next refill.
Check out the rest of the Common Tread series