Howdy dudes and dudettes! What’s that? Yes, it most certainly can be difficult to navigate all of the music being released these days. The more people there are on the planet, the more music gets released and the more there is to catch up on!
And yet, it can be easy to feel like the blues have had their day and that there isn’t too much going on these days.
You would be sorely mistaken, however, and it is the job of this list of modern blues artists to change your mind forever about the way you see and hear blues in the modern age with many keeping blues alive.
Top 10 Modern Blues Artists
1. Joe Bonamassa
Let us start with the elephant in the room, one of the all-around guitar greats, at least of our time, and someone who many are likely to think of keeping blues alive when asked for some modern blues artists off the top of their head. He is hard to miss, a relative cultural institution unto himself, and a really touching point for many a modern blues guitarist today.
Joe Bonamassa is particularly known for harboring an extensive collection of vintage guitars and amplifiers, which he started collecting at an early age when his parents owned a music store in upstate New York. He compulsively bought guitars for a while, including many he never played, eventually selling a lot of them to focus on guitars he might actually make use of.
Unlike a lot of blues guitarists of his ilk, he found more inspiration in British and Irish blues artists than in those from America:
‘You know, my heroes were the English guys – Paul Kossoff, Peter Green, Eric Clapton. There’s so many – there’s Gary Moore, Rory Gallagher – another Irish musician who played the same things, but don’t tell him that. But those guys were my guys – Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page.
There’s a certain sophistication to their approach to the blues that I really like, more so than the American blues that I was listening to. B.B. King’s a big influence – he’s probably my biggest traditional influence. I love Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson and T-Bone Walker, and stuff like that, but I couldn’t sit down.
I was always forcing myself to listen to whole records by them, where I’d rather listen to Humble Pie do “I’m Ready” than Muddy Waters, you know? I think, the English interpretation of the blues just hit me a lot better, you know?’
2. Bettye LaVette
Such a list of modern blues artists would be remiss without the diverse and eclectic talents of the wonderful and wickedly talented Bettye LaVette. Though her stylings very often veer into gospel and country styles, the foundations or development of these genres owe a heck of a lot to the simultaneous development of the blues.
Gospel especially owes a large debt to the blues, and you would be hard-pressed to hear a gospel church service go by without at least one song that relies heavily on the blues for its harmonic progression.
Bettye LaVette was born in Michigan but raised in Detroit, and funnily enough, shares a similar contrarian beginning with Joe Bonamassa. Where many of her contemporaries began their singing in church, among some of the many gospel churches in the area, she started singing in her parent’s living room.
She was singing along to various R & B and country records that would have been lying around, all of which goes some way to explaining just how eclectic her musical stylings and sonic palette would eventually become in her professional career.
And what a career it was, culminating in her performing at Barack Obama’s inauguration ceremony in 2009, performing a duet of Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ but Jon Bon Jovi.
Three months later she would even share a stage with one of her heroes Paul McCartney, as well as with Ringo Starr, performing for the David Lynch Foundation’s ‘Change Begins Within’ benefit concert which was enacted to promote the teaching of Transcendental Meditation to children in inner-city schools from lower incomes families.
In 2010, LaVette would even go on to release Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, which included unique arrangements and performances of classic songs by artists including The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Animals, and Pink Floyd.
3. Robert Cray
Like Bettye LaVette, Robert Cray is one of the older modern blues artists on this list, though his age should not preclude any thoughts that he isn’t still able to utterly annihilate competition with his immense shredding abilities, should the chance to impress arise.
He even bestowed upon himself the pseudonym ‘Night Train Clemons’, which, though apocryphal in etymological origin, surely stands as a mighty testament to the cool that he inherently oozes at every opportunity.
Robert Cray was born on August 1st, 1953 in Georgia while his father was stationed at Fort Benning in the United States military. Cray Jr.’s musical beginnings go back to when he was a student at Denbigh High School in Virginia, where he played in his first band, The One-Way Street, a blues band name if ever I heard one.
By the age of 20, Cray had seen all his heroes (Albert Collins, Freddie King, and Muddy Waters) in concert and decided with earnest intentions to form his own band, and they began playing various college towns on the West Coast wherever they could get a show.
Eventually, Cray was an opening act for major stars like Eric Clapton and sold out larger and larger venues as a solo artist, generally playing Fender guitars (Telecasters and Stratocasters specifically) all the while, and there are even two signature Robert Cray Stratocasters models available from Fender.
The first, the Robert Cray Custom Shop Stratocaster, is made in the U.S. in the official Fender custom shop and is in many ways identical to the guitars that Cray currently plays night to night; the second version, the Robert Cray Standard Stratocaster, is a less expensive model made in Fender’s Mexican plant.
A fun but morbid nugget of information lies in the fact that, in August 1990, Cray played with Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, Jimmie Vaughan, and Stevie Ray Vaughan at the Alpine Valley Music Theatre in Wisconsin, performing the rollicking Robert Johnson classic, ‘Sweet Home Chicago’.
This was, however, to be Stevie Ray Vaughan’s final performance before he died in a helicopter accident later that night.
4. Larkin Poe
As with much of the rock genre and its related sub-factions, it can be a very male-dominated space at times, and it can thus be easy to neglect bands like Larkin Poe, who is spearheaded by two sisters, and who seek to take the stylings of roots rock and guitar music from the turn of the 20th century and refashion it into something that is going to cater for ladies everywhere.
Larkin Poe are an American roots rock band originally from Georgia, though they are currently based in Nashville, Tennessee, and have always been fronted by sisters Rebecca Lovell and Megan Lovell.
Making use of strong southern harmonies, heavy electric guitar riffs, as well as slide guitar, they are often linked to and labeled as ‘the little sisters of the Allman Brothers’, so related is their sound and their methodology.
Having been active since 2010, the sisters have toured as backing musicians for a whole host of other bands, including Elvis Costello, Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes, Kristian Bush of Sugarland, and Keith Urban.
Both sisters began their musical careers in 2005 as teenagers with the formation of a bluegrass / Americana group, aptly titled the Lovell Sisters, alongside their older sister, Jessica Lovell.
After releasing two independent albums off their own backs and touring successfully for four years, appearing on the Grand Ole Opry and at Bonnaroo Music Festival, the Lovell Sisters disbanded the group in the winter of 2009, though didn’t waste time in moving on to newer things, reforming as Larkin Poe in the following January, taking the name from their great great great great grandfather.
Right up to the present day they have continued their work, releasing their fifth studio album, Kindred Spirits, in late 2020 amidst the Coronavirus pandemic: a covers album featuring renditions of songs by such greats as Lenny Kravitz, Neil Young, Elvis Presley, Phil Collins, Elton John, and several others, paying homage to those who paved the way for their own artistic development.
5. Tab Benoit
Such a list of modern blues artists would also be remiss to mention the great Tab Benoit, especially because he seeks to carve out such a unique blend of particular styles in his playing while staying true to traditions that have scarcely changed for decades.
He was born on the 17th of November 1967 and has been a guitar player since his teenage years, appearing at a music club and cultural center in Louisiana run by fellow guitarist Tabby Thomas.
Playing guitar alongside Thomas, Raful Neal, Henry Gray, and other high-profile regulars at the club, he learned the blues from a veritable institution of living blues legends night after night.
He later formed a trio of his own in 1987 and began playing clubs in the cities of Baton Rouge and New Orleans, initially staying local to Louisiana. Though he soon began touring other parts of the South two years later and started touring even more of the United States in 1991, which he continues to do to this day, regularly performing all over the country wherever people will have him.
Aside from being an adept and able musician in the blues circuits of America, Benoit has also been involved in various efforts for conservation on behalf of Louisiana wetlands.
He is, for example, the founder of ‘Voice of the Wetlands,’ an organization seeking to promote awareness of the receding coastal wetlands of Louisiana, an area clearly close to his heart.
In 2010, he even received the Governor’s Award – Conservationist of the Year for 2009 by the Louisiana Wildlife Federation. He thus uses his music to promote the issues that plague Louisiana’s imperiled coast to a national audience, and even dedicates several songs to the subject.
6. Janiva Magness
Janiva Magness is similarly one of those modern blues artists that are also a living legend, bestowed with several prestigious awards in the blues community, not least the B.B. King Entertainer of the Year award in 2009, which she was personally given by B.B. King himself.
Therefore, becoming the second woman after the late and great Koko Taylor to be bestowed with such an award. And this was all before she had even released an album of original songs!
Janiva Magness was born in Detroit, where she lost both parents to suicide before she reached her middle teens and was subsequently placed in a series of a dozen foster homes.
Having been initially inspired by the music in her father’s record collection, she attended an Otis Rush concert in Minneapolis despite being underage which completely changed her outlook.
She later said of the concert: ‘Otis played as if his life depended on it. There was a completely desperate, absolute intensity. I knew, whatever it was, I needed more of it.’
She worked in a recording studio in Minnesota while studying to be a recording engineer, where she was eventually coerced into doing some backing singing after someone heard her singing around the studio.
Her work, which included supporting the late and great R. L. Burnside, led her to Arizona where she formed her own band, the Mojomatics.
During their brief tenure, they enjoyed some moderate local success and garnered a small following before Magness relocated to Los Angeles in 1986. Five years later, her first album More Than Live was released in 1991.
She has always been quite a critical darling, inspiring one Chicago publication to write that ‘her songs run the gamut of emotions from sorrow to joy. A master of the lowdown blues who is equally at ease surrounded by funk or soul sounds, Magness invigorates every song with a brutal honesty.’
And she would go on to take these qualities and infuse them into her own original songs with the album Original, which, after leaving Alligator Records, she released on her own label, Fathead Records:
‘I’ve had an entire career up to this point of being an interpreter of other people’s songs. And I’ve been fine with that. But it became necessary to change that thinking. This record is titled Original because it’s eleven original tracks. I’m co-writer on seven of the eleven tracks.’
7. David Allan Coe
Though he has seen a hell of a lot in his long and illustrious career and certainly hasn’t just pigeonholed himself to the blues, he still remains one of those modern blues artists who, despite being of considerable age, is still producing noteworthy music and attempting new things.
Born in 1939, he took up music after spending much of his early life in reform schools and prisons, lacking in traditional education, becoming notable at first for busking in the mean streets of Nashville.
He initially played mostly in the blues style, before transitioning to country music, which itself owes a massive debt to the blues, though he eventually became a major part of the 1970s outlaw country scene, fashioning a new identity for himself within it and regularly performing for inmates, much as Johnny Cash famously did for his At Folsom Prison album.
The rebellious attitude, wild image, and unconventional lifestyle that he fashioned for himself set him apart from other country and blues performers, which won him multitudes of blues fans for the genuine while also hindering his mainstream success by alienating the music industry establishment.
This pleased him greatly, allowing him to hold firmly onto his outlaw status, despite still continuing to be a popular performer on the country and blues music circuits.
Despite several claims against the integrity of his outlaw status, he has maintained that he was integral to its inception:
‘The truth is that Waylon and Willie Nelson and I played at an outdoor festival called “48 Hours in Atoka”, in Oklahoma…when we got there…several women were raped and people stabbed! There was a lot of alcohol and drugs or whatever. I told my band, ‘Don’t worry about it. We’ll provide our own protection.’ At that time, I was in the Outlaws Motorcycle Club.
I had my Outlaws’ colors on, I had my pistol in my pocket, and I rode my motorcycle up on stage while Waylon was singing. I got off my motorcycle and went out and started singing with Waylon. And then Willie came out and sang with us.
There was a picture of us in the paper that had an arrow pointing to the pistol in my pocket, and another arrow pointing to where it said, ‘Outlaws, Florida.’ The headline said, ‘The Outlaws came to town.’ That’s actually how it all started.’
8. Warren Haynes
This entry into the list of modern blues artists was around during David Allan Coe’s blues phase and was in fact a member of some of these bands, though I imagine they separated because of various creative differences relating to the blues and country music.
Though a potent force in his own right, Warren Haynes is more than likely best known for his work as a long-time guitarist with the Allman Brothers Band, as well as for being a founding member of the jam band, Gov’t Mule. As previously stated, he was a guitarist for David Allan Coe early in his career, as well as for The Dickey Betts Band.
And though a lesser series of ventures, Haynes might also be known for his associations with the surviving members of the jam band to end all jam bands, the Grateful Dead, including touring with Phil Lesh and Friends and the Dead as a backup guitarist. In addition, Haynes founded and manages Evil Teen Records.
He began playing guitar at age 12 and his main guitar is a Gibson Les Paul ’58 Reissue. Haynes has even referred to himself as a ‘Gibson man’, often seen playing Gibson Firebird and Gibson ES-335s alongside various Les Paul models.
Gibson has even acknowledged this penchant for their instruments, including, like that of Robert Cray, a limited edition Warren Haynes signature Les Paul in its product line, built according to Haynes’ specifications and modeled on his own ’58 Les Paul.
On his early influences, he has had a lot to say:
‘When I first started – chronologically speaking – Hendrix and Clapton and Johnny Winter were the first three people I got turned on to. That was the Cream era of Clapton. Then eventually, I heard about the Allman Brothers and everybody else from that era that I stole something from.
Of course, I would read interviews with all these people and find out who they listened to. And they all listened to B.B. King and Freddie King and Albert King and Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters and Elmore James, so I would go back and discover that stuff.’
9. Kenny Wayne Shepherd
Kenny Wayne Shepherd has been a hot topic on a lot of blues circuits for a number of years now, and if you were to pose the question of favorite modern blues artists to a blues enthusiast, then it should come as no surprise to hear Mr. Shepherd mentioned an awful lot, having released several studio albums and experienced significant commercial as a blues artist in the modern way, which is not overly friendly to the blues artist trying to make a living from their art.
Shepherd was born in Louisiana in 1977 and graduated from the local Caddo Magnet High School in Shreveport. In terms of his guitar ability, however, he is completely self-taught’, and thus does not read sheet music, a feat which sounds impressive but is in fact meaningless seeing as this is the case for most blues musicians.
His father, Ken Shepherd, was a local radio personality and occasional concert promoter, owning a vast collection of music that his son no doubt pored over often. He would receive his first guitar at the age of four when his grandmother bought him a series of plastic guitars with S&H Green Stamps, a kind of stamp popular at the time which operated on a rewards program.
Despite being such a household name these days, he has brushed with his fair share of controversy, his nomination for Best Blues/Rock Artist in the 2021 Blues Music Awards being revoked because of Confederate flag imagery displayed on his Dukes of Hazzard replica car.
He publicly acknowledged the offense such a symbol could have caused the listening public:
‘Years ago I put that car in permanent storage and some time ago, I made the decision to permanently cover the flag on my car because it was completely against my values and offensive to the African American community which created the music I love so much and I apologize to anyone that I have unintentionally hurt because of it.’
10. Susan Tedeschi
Rounding off our list of the best modern blues artists, we would be utterly remiss not to include this gem of a musician, who has blessed every aspect of the blues music community with a little something for everyone, a feat which she has been awarded for duly, with several Grammy award nominations along the way.
Susan Tedeschi was born in November 1970 in Boston, Massachusetts, the daughter of Dick Tedeschi, granddaughter of Nick Tedeschi, and the great-granddaughter of Angelo Tedeschi, founder of Tedeschi Food Shops, a once-popular New England-based supermarket and convenience store chain which has since been bought out by 7 Eleven.
She made her public debut as a six-year-old understudy in an unnamed Broadway musical. As a youth, she was fond of singing for family members and listened to her father’s record collection, replete with musicians such as Mississippi John Hurt and Lightnin’ Hopkins.
Owing to her Italian ancestry, she was raised as a Catholic, though she found little inspiration in her own church choir and instead chose to attend predominantly African American Baptist churches. She felt that the music was less repressed and more like a celebration of God in these Baptist churches compared with catholic services.
Channeling this early divine inspiration, she has been in bands since the age of 13, and formed her first all-original group at the age of 18, named the Smokin’ Section, another decidedly bluesy name.
Her voice has been described as a blend of Bonnie Raitt and Janis Joplin, both of whom she has explicitly claimed as influences, while her guitar playing is influenced by the likes of Buddy Guy, Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Freddie King, and Doyle Bramhall II, among others.
She even lists her inspirations herself in the liner notes of her 1998 album Just Won’t Burn, including on this list the likes of Irma Thomas, Etta James, Bob Marley, Toots Hibbert, Aretha Franklin, Otis Rush, Ronnie Earl, Otis Clay, Ray Charles, Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, Dennis Montgomery III, Orville Wright, Walter Beasley, Kenya Hathaway, and Mahalia Jackson, etc.
So, there you have it! Hopefully, this list of some modern blues artists has been of use to you, whether in helping you to come to a new appreciation of what the blues has to offer in our contemporary moment or perhaps in finding some new artists to listen to that you might not otherwise have come across.
Remember, this is only our selection, and is by no means in any particular order. There are countless talented artists with the inherent feel for blues out there today, more and more by the minute, waiting for you to discover them and their minutely singular playing style!
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