When the Coen brothers chose Chris Thomas King to play real-life Delta bluesman Tommy Johnson in their film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" they weren't exactly going out on a limb. Long before the plum acting role came along, King was singing and playing Southern blues while recording for a variety of labels, so it wasn't surprising to find him slipping comfortably into Johnson's shoes.
No one, however, could have predicted the soundtrack's multi-platinum success or the rush of related concert and recording offshoots. In addition to joining a stellar cast of bluegrassers on "Down From the Mountain," another best-selling CD released last year, King recently recorded an acoustic "O Brother"-inspired homage titled "The Legend of Tommy Johnson."
Now comes "Dirty South Hip-Hop Blues," King's most ambitious and accomplished release yet. Charged with tales of slavery ("Welcome to the Jungle"), lynchings ("Poetry of Young Bill") and inner-city violence ("Ghetto Life"), the album finds King playing the kind of gritty hybrid blues he was pursuing long before the Coens called. Addressing slavery at the outset, King establishes a weary yet defiant tone that permeates much of the album: "I work all day / I cry all night / I think about my kids / my village / my wife / cry out so loud / cry out so long / I'm singing a strange new song."
Slide guitar tones sometimes ring out over scratchy turntable grooves here. Lyrics and raps allude to the bitter balladry of Billie Holiday and Nina Simone. "Revelations" samples Son House's stirring evangelism, then segues into King's rousing cover of Robert Johnson's "If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day." On "Da Thrill Is Gone From Here," King recruits his father, Baton Rouge R&B vet Tabby Thomas, to sing the chorus while he updates the B.B. King hit with a topical rap: "In the 21st century, it's the wild wild west / can't get home without a bulletproof vest."
Not every tune is so bleak. "Yo Kiss" and "Feel Me," a pair of songs with disposable lyrics, suggest the influence of Rick James and Prince, and King strikes a few hopeful notes on "Ghetto Child, You're Not Alone" and "Gonna Take a Miracle." The most memorable and moving tracks by far, though, are rooted in anguish and colorfully bridge past and present blues perspectives.
'The Beginning' King recorded his first album in 1986 for the Arhoolie label. Recently reissued under the title "It's a Cold Ass World -- The Beginning," it's a flawed but revealing effort, clearly the work of someone struggling to find a sound he can call his own.
Short on originality and long on enthusiasm, the 10 tracks include "Soon This Morning," a mildly diverting Jimmy Reed-like shuffle; "Cheatin' Woman Blues" and "Cocaine," tunes that bring to mind Jimi Hendrix at half-throttle; and "Mary Jane," basically one long Chuck Berry riff. Still, King's electric guitar work is often soulfully expressive, especially on "You'll Be Sorry, Baby," and there's no mistaking the young bluesman's restless spirit as he tries to charge the music with a contemporary thrust.
Other vintage King recordings will soon surface, too. Next week Hightone will release "A Young Man's Blues," a compilation of tracks that he recorded for the Hightone and Sire labels in the late '80s and early '90s. The album will no doubt shed additional light on King's curious journey through the blues and beyond.
Chris Thomas King is scheduled to appear Tuesday at Iota.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from these albums, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8172 for "Dirty South Hip-Hop Blues" or 8175 for "The Beginning.")