At Document Records, our main focus is compiling and sharing historic recordings of traditional American music. These were the works of innovators, artists who helped music to grow and change into what would become the blues (and jazz, and gospel, and country). However, traditional American music didn’t begin or end with the artists represented by Document. To this day, people continue to grow and evolve the music that grew from earlier traditions. When we talk about “keeping the blues alive”, these are the people we’re talking about—people continuing to create this music in the communities where it originated. Here are 21 of those people: twenty-one blues musicians you should know in 2021.
This is not an exhaustive list of current blues musicians. For one thing, we could only feature so many, and the list could potentially include hundreds or even thousands of artists. For another, we wanted to focus on Black American artists, who are working within the culture where blues music originated. If you know of someone who could be on this list, but who isn’t, please share their name in the comments. Thanks!
Christone “Kingfish” Ingram
From his beginnings as a child prodigy in his hometown of Clarksdale, Mississippi, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram has become an ambassador for the younger generation of blues artists. Between touring with blues legend Buddy Guy and appearing in the Marvel TV series Luke Cage, he released Kingfish, his multi-award-winning debut album for Alligator Records. He has become the face of the current generation of young blues musicians.
For Mississippi Hill Country drummer and guitarist Cedric Burnside, the blues is the family business. He first went on tour with his grandfather, Hill Country blues superstar R.L. Burnside, at the age of 13, and quickly developed a reputation as one of the best blues drummers of the modern era. Now a guitarist as well as a drummer, his sound is a minimalistic but energetic and powerful update on the traditional Hill Country sound. He recently won a National Heritage Fellowship, and his album I Be Trying comes out June 25th.
Alabama Slim, the seven-foot-tall elder statesman of the New Orleans blues scene, put out his newest album, The Parlor, this January. Starting with his post-Katrina album The Mighty Flood, Slim has recorded three albums with Music Maker Relief Foundation, a non-profit organization that provides assistance to older musicians in the American South. Slim’s boogie sound and often-topical lyrics come together in a stunning combination of retro and relevant.
Johnson City, Tennessee’s Amythyst Kiah got her start in her native Appalachia’s old-time and bluegrass music, but expanded her repertoire to include rock and blues. Her second album included radical reimaginings of the Piedmont blues of Reverend Gary Davis, Vera Hall, and Precious Bryant. Kiah’s contributions to the Our Native Daughters project, a musical exploration of Black women’s history, won her a Grammy nomination in 2019, and her newest album, Wary And Strange, came out this Friday, June 18th.
Little Freddie King
A true character of New Orleans’ Ninth Ward, Little Freddie King came to national prominence with his 2005 album, You Don’t Know What I Know. His “gut bucket music” about troubles with women, crackheads, and natural disasters, along with his outsize personality and fashion sense, has won him appearances in Beyonce’s visual album Lemonade and the award-winning romantic crime drama film Queen & Slim.
Little Freddie King’s version of “Baby, Please Don’t Go” is available on WWOZ’s Vimeo. Three versions by Big Joe Williams, as well as one each by several other artists, are available from Document Records.
Since 2015, Nashville’s premier “Gothic blues” musician has been using her unique brand of electric guitar-based modern roots music to face both personal and societal demons. Her music and writing challenges romanticized and clichéd representations of the American South, while showing an uglier and more complicated reality—but one that, with hard work and compassion, can ultimately be changed.
Robert Finley, a retired carpenter from Louisiana, may seem like an unlikely soul blues superstar, but after receiving assistance from the Music Maker Relief Foundation, he caught the attention of the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, who signed him to his Easy Eye Sound record label. Two albums and a semifinal finish on America’s Got Talent later, Robert Finley has proven, as it says in his signature song, that “Age Don’t Mean A Thing.” His newest album, Sharecropper’s Son, came out this spring.
R.L. Boyce, the “Big Blues Mane” of Como, Mississippi, got his start in the fife and drum bands of Napoleon Strickland and Othar Turner, playing pre-blues music from the African diaspora. In addition, he learned the local blues style from the older generation of blues masters. He recently received a Mississippi Hills National Heritage Area grant for his work organizing workshops and festivals to teach and promote the region’s distinctive style of blues.
Georgia’s Jontavious Willis plays the blues with a sense of history. Although he was born in 1996, his arrangements feature instruments like clarinet and mandolin, which haven’t been common instruments on blues recordings since before World War II. Rather than being a throwback, though, his music is an update on these traditional sounds. In addition to his original recordings and his YouTube videos of cover songs, he has also founded the Fall Line Blues Project, a series of videos which document the blues traditions of Georgia and Alabama.
Jimmy “Duck” Holmes
The subject of a previous article on the Document Records blog, 2021 Grammy nominee Jimmy “Duck” Holmes has gained international fame as the last of the Bentonia bluesmen. From his home base at the Blue Front Café, a juke joint founded by his parents in 1948, Holmes continues to perform in the style first recorded by Skip James almost 90 years ago. His status as a blues icon and culture bearer led to his being chosen to appear on a U.S. postage stamp representing the state of Mississippi.
Daughter of Texas bluesman Johnny Copeland and reigning queen of the Chicago blues, Shemekia Copeland has released nine albums and shows no signs of slowing down. Drawing inspiration from all forms of American roots music, including country, folk, and R&B, in addition to blues, her 2020 album Uncivil War features both Christone “Kingfish” Ingram and Americana legend Jason Isbell on guitar.
Mississippi auto mechanic Willie Farmer has loved the old-school blues of Muddy Waters and Lightnin’ Hopkins since his childhood, and has played the blues since he was in his teens. Decades later, he co-founded the Grassroots Blues Festival in 2003. However, it was only recently, with the help of the Music Maker Blues Foundation, that he recorded his first two albums: I’m Coming Back Home on Austrian label Wolf Records, and The Man From The Hill on American label Big Legal Mess Records.
Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton
Watts native Jerron Paxton has made a name for himself as an interpreter of musical history. Paxton’s repertoire is entirely taken from or inspired by the classic blues era of the 1920s and 1930s, as well as even older pre-blues material. His vintage sound and aesthetic, along with his ability to play multiple instruments from the blues and string band traditions, has earned him appearances in the PBS documentary The American Epic Sessions and the animated TV series Over The Garden Wall.
Oakland’s Fantastic Negrito is a three-time Grammy winner in the Best Contemporary Blues category. After an earlier R&B career under his birth name, Fantastic Negrito came back in 2014 with a mission of making “Black roots music for everyone.” His music, while rooted in the blues, features elements of funk, hip-hop, and R&B, and often deals with the social issues facing the city of Oakland, America, and the world.
Since his teenage years, St. Louis’s Marquise Knox has explored the question, “Can A Young Man Play The Blues?” and has always found the answer is “yes”. With a sound reminiscent of the great St. Louis and Chicago bluesmen who mentored him, along with an intense drive to carve out a space for the younger generation of blues artists, Marquise Knox is an artist to watch.
Colorado’s Otis Taylor has been playing the blues for over fifty years. Once a labelmate of Bukka White and Fleetwood Mac on Blue Horizon Records, he took a twenty-year hiatus from the music industry before coming back with a new style he called “trance blues”. His music, which often draws inspiration from the troubled, violent history of the United States, is also notable for its reclamation of the banjo, a musical instrument with origins in West Africa.
The son of great Chicago bluesman Muddy Waters, Mud Morganfield worked as a truck driver until a recurring dream of his late father convinced him to begin playing music professionally. While he is proud to perform many of his father’s songs live in concert, as well as on his album For Pops: A Tribute To Muddy Waters, he is a brilliant singer and songwriter in his own right.
Gary Clark Jr.
One of the higher-profile artists on this list, Texan guitarist Gary Clark Jr. has won Grammys in the blues, rock, and R&B categories. Clark caught the attention of the rock music establishment with his breakout record, The Bright Lights EP, and immediately drew comparisons to the blues-rock guitar gods of the classic rock era. However, Clark’s music isn’t bound by rock or blues conventions, and he incorporates funk, reggae, and hip-hop into a sound all his own.
Another Texan, the folk and blues singer-songwriter Ruthie Foster, rejected major label offers of mainstream pop stardom in favor of blazing her own trail. Her commitment to authenticity has served her well, leading to multiple Koko Taylor Award nominations and wins, and to her induction into the Texas Music Hall of Fame.
Chris Thomas King
Although many blues fans know him from his big-screen portrayals of Tommy Johnson, Blind Willie Johnson, and Lowell Fulson, Chris Thomas King is a blues innovator and legend in his own right. Starting as a folk-blues traditionalist during his teenage years, and moving into a fusion of blues and hip-hop a decade later, King has taken the blues in every direction he can. King’s version of “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues,” from the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, was many people’s introduction to country blues.
Sugaray Rayford is the West Coast’s king of soul blues. While he currently has an active solo recording career, he has previously performed in the Tony-nominated musical It Ain’t Nothin’ But The Blues and been a member of L.A. blues supergroup The Mannish Boys. He has also done studio work as a backing musician for other artists.