The blues is a straightforward music form. So direct. It’s easy to play it poorly and exceptionally challenging to play it right. It offers the most direct connection to one’s soul—an express route, if you will. No gimmicks, no pretense. Often, there’s no major promotion or regular radio airplay. The bond between the artist and the fan stands paramount, representing perhaps the most genuine agreement in the music business.
When SPIN invited me to share my thoughts on the current state of the blues, I hesitated. Who am I to comment on an entire music genre? But then I remembered B.B. King’s advice to me: “Son, keep doing what you’re doing and keep this music alive for future generations.”
Given that perspective, I’d say the state of the blues in 2023 is thriving. There’s a surge of young talent taking the blues in fresh directions. From traditional to contemporary, artists worldwide, from teenagers to Gen-X folks like me, are all reinvigorating the blues and reaching new audiences.
Let’s reflect on the blues’ significance. Its origins lie in the field hollers of the mid-1800s South, with the call and response format blossoming by the 1920s. Pioneers from the Mississippi Delta started recording their masterpieces for iconic labels such as Columbia, Okeh, Victor, Vocalion, and Paramount. Alan Lomax undertook vast journeys to unearth southern folk gems that became known as the “blues.” Legends like Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton, and Bukka White sang about life’s myriad shades, crafting Saturday night anthems rather than Sunday morning hymns. These men were unparalleled poets, their lyrical brilliance evident throughout their works. Their themes, often grappling with the tension between worldly temptations and spiritual beliefs, influenced pop music for generations. Artists ranging from Beyoncé to Billie Eilish, directly or indirectly, owe a debt to the blues.
This history underscores the importance of preserving this rich art form. It shouldn’t be merely a museum piece or a token performance at a national holiday event. The blues needs room to grow, evolve, and find fresh ears. It deserves better representation in the mainstream (thanks to SPIN for the platform). Artists like Gary Clark Jr., John Mayer, and The Black Keys honor its traditions while introducing it to new listeners. The latter, for instance, crafts Hill Country blues for fans unfamiliar with the genre’s roots—a strategy reminiscent of the 1960s English blues revival. While this resurgence is promising, we must do more to dispel blues clichés. Up-and-coming artists like Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, a breakout star and recent Grammy winner, represent the genre’s bright future and inspire hope in stalwarts like me.
Blues performances are among the last bastions of unadulterated live music. I’d wager that among countless touring blues acts, few, if any, rely on digital aid like “pro tools” operators. This is less common in other music genres. Personally, I’ve always believed in keeping performances genuinely “live.” The blues community prizes authenticity; any artist resorting to playback or enhanced tracks at live events would likely face backlash. It’s a matter of integrity, a quality intrinsic to the blues.
I’m heartened by the new generation championing this timeless genre. I eagerly await its evolution over the next decade. By the way, I should mention my latest album, Blues Deluxe Vol. 2, releasing October 6. I genuinely believe you’ll enjoy it—I guarantee it.
Blues-rock superstar Joe Bonamassa is one of the most celebrated performing musicians of today, with 26 No. 1 albums on the Billboard Blues Album chart, more than any other artist. Featuring two new originals and eight new covers spanning some of the most important names in the blues, his new album ‘Blues Deluxe Vol. 2′ finds him returning to his roots and giving new life to the classic tracks that have informed his own artistry. For more information on the album or to see Bonamassa perform live, visit joebonamassa.com.