Blues guitarist's new album recalls the triumph over tragedy

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"I was trying to take something as terrible as Hurricane Katrina and make something positive out of it," said Chris Thomas King about his new CD, "Rise."
Listen In:

Hear excerpts from songs on Chris Thomas King's CD "Rise":

"What Would Jesus Do?"

"St. James Infirmary"

"Like a Hurricane (Ghost of Marie Laveau)"

Chris Thomas King's latest album is about personal loss and rising above it. Titled "Rise," it serves as an exploration of the issues surrounding Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, from the potential loss of a great American city to the ongoing effort to rebuild a region while safeguarding the heritage and people who define New Orleans.

"Like a Hurricane" is an homage to the ghost of Marie Laveaux, a mysterious woman and voodoo priestess.

"Marie, how long can you control the rain," King sings with biting guitar accompaniment. "Still roaming these cobblestones, streets of old New Orleans."

Perseverance is at the core of those lyrics.

"I was trying to take something as terrible as Hurricane Katrina and make something positive out of it," said King from his home in Prairieville, La. "Sometimes writing music can be therapeutic."

King said the recording came together in a hotel in Houston. That's where he and his family landed after evacuating New Orleans the day before Katrina filled the streets, the yards and the homes with unforgiving flood waters.

"I began thinking about the people left behind," said King. "I thought about the looting and began to wonder if I would break a window to a store to get food and medicine. There was no one to pay to get what you needed. The entire city had been deserted. Sometimes your survival instinct takes over.

"I also wondered what Jesus would have wanted these people to do."

Less than a week after Katrina, King said he performed in Nashville and recorded "What Would Jesus Do?" The song debuted on VH-1 and MTV's "Hurricane Relief Project," a hastily arranged show designed to generate funds and assistance.

In the ensuing weeks, he recorded several more songs, eventually collecting enough material for a complete recording.

"I'm really happy with it," said King. "It's been one of the top-selling blues recordings on iTunes. The recording industry is going through some difficult times. Even Beyonce and Puffy can't reach the numbers that they used to. If the people at the top are having a tough time, then you can imagine what it's like for blues musicians."

King, who lost his home in Uptown New Orleans, has since relocated to Prairieville, a city just outside of Baton Rouge.

"I had over five feet of water in my house," said King. "Fortunately, I had my office and recording studio [21st Century Blues] on the third floor of a building on Magazine Street, and that wasn't damaged. I'm trying to rebuild, but I'm spending all my money in litigation. I had the maximum flood insurance, I had the maximum business insurance, but it's been difficult trying to keep people honest. It's really terrible, but the city is coming back.

"But I have to tell you, there are some things about New Orleans that should never come back. We have the worst school system in the nation. The city has an opportunity to start fresh and rebuild the economy."

King is a second-generation blues guitarist. His father, the legendary Tabby Thomas, owned a downtown Baton Rouge blues club known as Tabby's Blue Box.

After living in London and Copenhagen for several years and making several recordings, King settled in New Orleans and founded 21st Century Blues Records.

In 2000, he played the itinerant bluesman Tommy Johnson in the Depression-era film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" He contributed "Hard Time Killing Floor Blues" to the movie's soundtrack, which sold millions of copies and won several Grammy Awards.

The movie also spawned the "Down From the Mountain" tour, which sold out concerts across the country.

"It was an incredible opportunity for me," said King. "We played about 80 different dates on the tour, and it grossed about $20 million and attracted about 250,000 fans. As a blues musician that was huge because for some musicians it takes 20 years to reach that size of an audience."

In 2003, he was cast as Lowell Fulsom alongside Jamie Foxx in "Ray," a movie about the legendary Ray Charles. He also portrayed Blind Willie Johnson in a 2003 blues series produced by Martin Scorsese.

"I love playing music and touring with my band, but Hollywood is calling," said King. "I just closed a deal on a new film that I wrote, and I am going to star in it. It's based in New Orleans and is a fictional portrayal about my life and my music."

King's style has historical references, but it isn't stuck in the past. He has always explored music's more contemporary elements, especially hip hop.

"Music was always around me as a kid, but it could have been fishing poles," said King. "I developed an early interest in music, and I played several instruments before I settled on the guitar. I had a knack for it, and through my dad I got to meet a lot of the old Louisiana blues masters, like Henry Grey or Guitar Kelly.

"These old guys didn't teach me how to play, nor did they talk to me about the blues. Old blues guys talk about women. I learned about life -- not about how to play an F minor seventh."

King was nurtured on the blues, but he also listened to Eddie Van Halen, Jimi Hendrix and other guitar giants.

But at a certain point, he began thinking less about guitar heroes and wanting to play solos and, instead, began thinking more about songwriting.

"The songwriting was important because there weren't many blues songs I could sing at age 15 without sounding foolish," said King with a hearty chuckle. "Some of those lyrics were about your wife and kids leaving. So I started writing my stuff, and that not only led me to writing fresh lyrics but to creating a style of music that was a reflection of my generation."

Not to mention a reflection of a movement to rise beyond tragedy toward triumph.


Nate Guidry can be reached at nguidry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3865.


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