The stage, the recording studio, the movie set. They’re all Chris Thomas King’s stomping grounds.
The multi-million-selling “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack album — featuring King, Alison Krauss, Norman Blake, Ralph Stanley and more — won a Grammy. King also acted in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, appearing as a blues man alongside George Clooney, John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson.
King’s other film roles include blues artist Lowell Fulson in the acclaimed Ray Charles biopic, “Ray.” And he played Blind Willie Johnson in the Martin Scorsese-produced “The Soul of a Man.”
Another convergence of music and history plays out in King’s upcoming project, “The Blues House.” Set at the height of the civil rights movement, the documentary tells of the search for forgotten Mississippi musicians Skip James and Son House.
A few weeks ago, King flew to Austin, Texas, during the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference, to film performance footage for “The Blues House.” Dave Stewart, famous for being one-half of the Eurythmics with Annie Lennox, is the film’s executive producer. “The Blues House” also features young Austin blues star artist Gary Clark Jr., Lucinda Williams and Alvin Youngblood Hart.
“The Blues House” is named after the 1850s-era home where blues performers stayed during the 1964 Newport Folk Festival. Those artists-in-residence included Muddy Waters, Mississippi Fred McDowell and Louisiana’s Robert Pete Williams.
“These timeless blues legends were having a ball,” Newport Folk Festival founder George Wein notes on the film’s website. “Having them all together under one roof was a joyous arrangement.”
King noted the irony of 1960s college students learning songs from old recordings and then teaching the rediscovered blues men their own repertoire, which they themselves had long forgotten.
“They’d gone back to plowing, working on the farm,” King said. About the existence of the Blues House, King added, “you gotta be really down in the blues weeds, one of these door-knockers who goes around collecting old 78s, to be up on that. It’s not a story most people know. I’m happy they asked me to be part of the film.”
While King continues to perform and record — his latest album is 2012’s “Bona Fide” — he, to, has been unearthing untold stories. King is writing a book that’s part memoir, part musical and historical rediscovery.
The book will begin with the closing of Tabby’s Blues Box and Heritage Hall, the Baton Rouge blues club King’s father, “Rockin’ ” Tabby Thomas, operated for a quarter century. It covers King’s and his father’s lives and tell the history of blues music from a fresh, Louisiana-centered perspective.
Some of King’s findings likely will stir controversy.
“Blues is music of enlightenment,” he said. “It is quintessentially American music because it’s freedom of expression, it’s secular. What better way to pursue happiness than through this music?”
Louisiana musicians who’ve been labeled as jazz artists for decades were really blues artists, King said.
“Louis Armstrong is a blues musician. He told people that, but nobody listened to him when he said it. The person writing the biography, the interview, talks about jazz, but that’s not what the man said.
“When Louis Armstrong called a tune such-and-such blues, ‘Dippermouth Blues’ or ‘Wild Man Blues,’ he really meant it. It’s a stomp. It’s a dance tune. He’s letting the audience know that this is a Saturday night song.
“Kid Ory played the blues. Jelly Roll Morton, nothing but the blues. They’re all blues musicians. And the music they were playing, nobody in Mississippi was playing it. Nobody was playing it anywhere else.”
The alternative view of blues music King presents will maintain that Louisiana, rather than Mississippi or any other Southern state or city, is the real home of the blues.
The book, King said, “will take you on a different journey. But when you start talking about American history, you have to talk about black and white. You have to chose your words carefully. It’s a difficult subject. A lot of people are afraid to talk honestly about it.”
The creation of a blues museum in Louisiana is another of King’s goals.
“I am not against St. Louis or Mississippi having blues museums,” he said. “I’m happy to help build them in other places. But it’s time that something happens right here in Louisiana ... because we’re the birthplace of the music.”