Backed by licks from an electric guitar and a driving rhythm, Cathy Ponton King sings the line “The Crux of it all, you understand profound” in the song “Blues Companion.” From that track on her latest album, she found its name – “The Crux.” The title recalls the legendary blues tale of Robert Johnson going to the crossroads to trade his soul to the Devil for great guitar talent, but the line itself means something more to King.
“It, to me, defines how fortunate I’ve been in the great friendships of my life,” King said. “There are some people that you’re friends because you know that they have a profound understanding of you.”
She has dedicated her new release to friendship, and without the friendship of two blues guitarists, the album might not have come to be.
She wasn’t even thinking of recording at the time, but wanted to seize an opportunity to make music with Jimmy Thackery. Thackery was once a guitarist for the D.C. blues act The Nighthawks, but after leaving the band he had moved out of state, making local appearances a rarity. The pair made plans to head into the studio to lay down some tracks. A chance phone call from Ronnie Earl, formerly a guitarist for the big band outfit Roomful of Blues, expressing interest in joining her project cemented the creation of a full album.
Joined by a star-studded lineup of musicians – including upright bassist Butch Warren, who has made music with performers like Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, and Thelonious Monk – King recorded the self-penned tracks that make up “The Crux.” With production by King’s husband and longtime musical collaborator Jeff, and Grammy-winner Scott Shuman, the album was mixed and mastered at Shuman’s Falls Church studio.
King will be taking the stage with Thackery April 6 at Falls Church’s State Theatre; both will be celebrating the release of new CDs at the show. Thackery played guitar on and co-produced King’s debut solo, 1992’s “Lovin’ You Right.” In fact, Thackery’s band was responsible for one of the blues maker’s formative musical experiences. As King recalls, back when she was a college student, The Nighthawks were able to get her backstage to meet Muddy Waters at a show the blues legend gave in Georgetown.
“I was lucky to learn from the foot of the master,” King said of having the chance to speak to Waters.
It was after that encounter that she started to make music in his electric blues style, but she hasn’t always played the blues. King grew up on Irish traditional music, and displayed her musical talents early on by singing from the age of 4 for a crowd, as her grandmother often hosted benefit parties in the Irish neighborhood in Hyattsville where King grew up. She picked up guitar at age 10, then drawn to acts of the day like Jimi Hendrix, and her tastes soon evolved to the blues music that was popular at the time.
It was an easy transition, King says, as the traditional Irish music she grew up with and the blues music in which she would make her name are similar: “It’s really fun party music, but then they are also able to mine the deep, deep depths of when there is a dark night of the soul,” King said.
Several tours, countless gigs, and three solo records have come since King began making music professionally in the 80s, but with this album – recording with Thackery and Earl, who have been her friends since she was first starting out – it’s as though she’s come back to the start.
“It’s kind of like everything has come around full-circle now for me,” King said.
• For more information about Cathy Ponton King, visit cathypontonking.com.