Do Blues Musicians Need to be Really, Really Old?

It seems that to be a famous blues musician you have to be over 65—or dead. Ted Gioia goes in search of the youth movement in blues with five artists to listen to now.

Steve Snowden/Getty

Ask a random sample of music fans to name a living blues musician. Most will probably mention B.B. King, who turns 88 this month. A few might say Buddy Guy, a comparatively young 77. Or those who prefer a newer kid on the block might choose Eric Clapton, going strong at age 68.

But one thing is certain. They won’t mention any musician who isn’t old enough to qualify for the senior citizen discount at Denny’s.

Blues fans celebrate their oldsters. No other musical genre comes close. David ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards, who recently passed away at age 96, enjoyed his peak earning years during the last decade of his life. T-Model Ford, who died in July at the possible age of 94 (not even Mr. Ford was certain about his year of birth), didn’t even get a record contract until 1995—although he wasn’t much younger than Robert Johnson. Seasick Steve, in his early seventies, is just entering his glory years.

Face it, we like our blues singers to show some signs of decrepitude. With the possible exception of Pope, no other job puts quite so much emphasis on age and experience. But do blues musicians really need to be so old? Are we unfairly neglecting the up-and-coming in favor of the old and infirm?

I plead guilty to this myself. When asked to recommend a young blues musician, I’ve been known to suggest Otis Taylor (65 years old), Alvin Youngblood Hart (50 years old) or Chris Thomas King (50 years old). For a long time, I told blues tourists heading to Mississippi to make time to hear guitarist Big Jack Johnson, one of the rising stars of the region. But Johnson, born in 1940, passed away in 2011—having spent his entire career as one of the younger stars of the Mississippi blues.

Yet even I can see that things are changing. A real youth movement is afoot in the blues world. The only question is whether the fans are ready for it. Can they accept a blues star without gray hair?

Just a few days ago, I saw a video of ten-year-old Brandon Niederauer jamming with 73-year-old Little Freddie King. This preteen really rocked the house (King’s New Orleans home, to be specific). Twelve-year-old Tallan Latz has shared his guitar skills on America’s Got Talent, and currently shakes up the blues scene in Wisconsin—where state officials have declared him too young to play in a nightclub. Fourteen-year-old Quinn Sullivan just got off the road with Buddy Guy, and released an impressive album earlier this year. These youngsters have somehow gone straight from Guitar Hero to guitar hero, without looking back.

Judging the potential of young talent is always a dicey proposition. Many prodigies fall short of their promise, or disappear completely. Back in 1970, teenager Shuggie Otis represented the future of blues-rock guitar, but he’s still trying to live up to those heavy expectations—Otis recently came out with his first album in 39 years. At first glance, that seems like miserable career management, but maybe Shuggie will turn out like Honeyboy or T-Model Ford and get into his proper groove in old age.

Meanwhile, here are five youth acts in blues music that are delivering the goods today. The youngest musician on the list is in his early teens; the oldest recently turned forty. Each warrants yours attention, and gives me some hope that the future of this music is in good hands.

(1) Quinn Sullivan:

I spoke to Quinn Sullivan earlier this month—he had just finished his tour with Buddy Guy and was getting ready to start ninth grade the next day. I want to see his homework essay on “How I Spent My Summer Vacation.” He gave me a thumbnail sketch. “I did about 25 dates with Buddy Guy. We started at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Festival at Madison Square Garden. We ended up on the West Coast at Hollywood Bowl. Just before coming home, I did the Tonight Show.”

Of course, TV appearances are old news for Sullivan. He got his first taste of fame on the The Ellen DeGeneres Show at age six. Since then audiences have seen him play his guitar for Oprah, Jimmy Kimmel and on The Today Show.

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I was more curious how Sullivan learned so much guitar, so fast. But when I asked him about the method to his badness, he shrugged it off: “I don’t practice a lot. When I was first learning, I practiced. [Pause] But even then, I didn’t practice that much.”

Sullivan did get an early start, and despite his tender years has more than a decade of playing experience under his belt. “When I was three, I got a guitar as a Christmas gift. I just picked it up, and I loved everything about it. The way if felt. The way it sounded.”

I also like the way the guitar sounds in his hands. I have seen many prodigies lose their mojo around the time they reach their twentieth birthday. But I have a hunch that Sullivan will survive the growing pains and emerge as one of the leading blues stars of his generation.

(2) The North Mississippi Allstars:

Not long ago, I sat next to an older woman at a music event in Oxford, Mississippi. She asked me point blank what I thought of the North Mississippi Allstars. Fortunately I recognized her as Mary Lindsay Dickinson, mother of two of the band members. I complimented her on her talented sons, and said they had the best young band in the world of blues.

But even if I hadn’t recognized Luther and Cody Dickinson’s mamma, I would have said the same thing. No blues band of the current day impresses me more, and the Allstars’ new album World Boogie is Coming, released this month, may be their best yet.

Too many electric blues bands are just rock bands in disguise. But these musicians know their roots, and play blues as if they were on hand when it first showed up in the visual spectrum. It didn’t hurt that Luther and Cody’s father, the late Jim Dickinson, was a legend in Southern music. But he was cult figure known mostly to music business insiders. His sons are destined for genuine fame.

(3) Shemekia Copeland

Many record labels put their faith in the children of famous blues artists. The offspring of John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, R.L. Burnside and other guitar icons have given us a chance to determine whether bluesiness is encoded in the DNA. Maybe you don’t need to pay your dues to play the blues, just secure a hip set of chromosomes.

Shemekia Copeland stands out as the most successful of these children of blues stars. At the dawn of her career, fans knew her as Johnny Copeland’s daughter. While still a teenager she toured as her father’s opening act, but Shemekia soon proved that she could fire up an audience on her own. She didn’t have much choice. Johnny Copeland died shortly after his daughter’s 18th birthday, and she had to do it alone.

Since then, Copleand has released a stack of hot albums, won a shelf of awards, and performed at the White House for the Obamas. I’m not surprised one bit by her success. Copeland’s voice possesses not only the rawness that blues fans prize, but also a vulnerability that is missing in so many modern-day blues records. She is my candidate for the great blues diva of the under-40 generation.

(4) Guadalupe Plata.

Here’s a band you haven’t heard about. When I tell blues lovers about Guadalupe Plata, they look back at me with blank stares. But after they’ve heard the music, they always come back for a second helping.

I can’t blame music fans for their ignorance. Blues bands from Spain don’t get much press in the United States. But this group deserves more recognition and a record contract with a major label. In the meantime, check out their Bandcamp page, where you can hear their most recent recording for free.

(5) Gary Clark, Jr.

I hesitated about including Gary Clark, Jr. on my list. Not because he isn’t a major blues talent—in fact, he is one of the very best. But I wonder about his commitment to the blues. I was disappointed by his recent Blak and Blu album, which showed Clark dabbling in a range of commercial styles, but without much conviction. On the other hand, his Bright Lights EP from 2011 ranks among my favorite electric blues albums of the last decade.

In short, this Austin native needs to make some hard decisions about his vocation. He just might emerge as the great blues performer of his generation. Yet I fear he may settle for a steady paycheck as a second-tier R&B player. Check out the career of Keb’ Mo’ to see how that process works in practice.

And that may be the biggest challenge the blues faces in nurturing its young talent. Not failure, but sellout. The rewards for greatness in the blues are so modest; the payouts for successful crossover sales in rock or hip-hop are so high. Blues fan certainly can celebrate the ascendancy of these promising young artists. But I’m by no means confident that they can hold on to them.