Chris Thomas King never adhered to blues-purist dogma, even before his role in “O Brother, Where Art Thou” brought him wider fame and crossover success.
He had legit blues bona fides, having cut his musical teeth at the Baton Rouge club owned by his father, swamp-bluesman Tabby Thomas. Starting in his late teens, King made a name for himself at Tabby’s Blues Box, sharing the stage with much more accomplished older musicians.
“I was pretty well-known in blues circles,” says King, who plays The Seasons Performance Hall on Saturday. “But we’re not talking about millions of people. It was a pretty passionate, small crew.”
But the thing about that scene — about any scene that breeds purists, really — is that its fans tend to scorn anything that breaks with tradition. They think of themselves of keepers of some sacred flame of authenticity, but functionally they’re more akin to museum curators, keeping their precious art form under glass where it can’t be touched. King knew they were missing the point, knew that blues isn’t a past-tense thing; it’s an evolving genre, and that evolution depends on an active role from its practitioners.
So he did things like merging hip-hop with blues in his 1994 album, “21st Century Blues ... From Da Hood.” It was his version of Dylan going electric at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival.
“My music needed to reflect the aesthetics and sensibilities of my generation,” he says.
Some of his earlier fans thought it was blasphemous.
“But there were also always people who thought that it was up to us to move forward,” he says. “As an artist, you can’t stand still.”
His musical heroes, genre-pioneering iconoclasts like Dylan and Miles Davis, proved that even the staunchest purists can be made to come around eventually. (You don’t hear many people complaining these days about Dylan going electric or Miles evolving from “Kind of Blue” to “Bitches Brew.”) King’s fans have come around, too.
“Since I got over that hump creatively, I haven’t had many of those battles,” he says. “I have an audience that follows my music in particular, not a genre.”
The exposure he got playing Tommy Johnson in the Coen brothers’ 2000 classic, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” really helped build that audience. The film launched a whole new mainstream interest in old-timey music and blues, largely on the strength of its soundtrack and the attendant “Down From the Mountain” tour and documentary.
Suddenly, after 20 years playing and innovating the blues, King was famous beyond the genre. People started showing up to see him, expecting him to be Tommy Johnson from the movie.
“There was some tension, and it was uncomfortable,” he says. “But it didn’t last too long. ... That’s the blessing and the curse of having that kind of success.”
That was the short term. In the long term, his notoriety from that film helped in that it brought him an audience much less concerned with the strictures of blues purity.
“It was a freeing thing, really,” King says.
These days his repertoire runs the gamut. He plays electric blues, acoustic blues, traditional, contemporary, hip-hop blues — all of it. He generally tours with a drummer and bassist, doing the power-trio thing like Jimi Hendrix. But his stop in Yakima this weekend is part of a solo acoustic tour. He’ll primarily be playing the folk-blues stuff the traditionalists wanted from him all along. He never rejected that stuff, after all; he just built on it.
It’s the stuff he learned to play back in the old days with his dad at Tabby’s Blues Box in Louisiana. It was a classic, no-frills blues joint, he says.
“The music was first-rate, and a lot of young people like myself got a chance to perform that kind of music with the older guys and interact with them and learn from them,” he says.
• Pat Muir can be reached at 509-577-7693 or firstname.lastname@example.org.