ON SUNDAY the bluesman Buddy Guy received Kennedy Center honors, touted as the nation’s highest official recognition for excellence in the arts. He richly deserved it. A formidable singer and guitar player, the leading standard bearer for Chicago blues since the death of Muddy Waters in 1983, Guy has been an exemplary elder statesman of American popular music. At the age of 76, when other icons subside into fuzzy-bunny schtick, Guy’s making some of the best music of his career. If anything, he’s even better than he was 20 years ago, more willing to look deep into a song and his own craft to find the elements of tension and release that give the blues its lasting power, less willing to settle for playing yet another heroic guitar solo.
The Kennedy Center’s citation emphasized Guy’s “tremendous influence on virtually everyone who’s picked up an electric guitar in the last half century, including Clapton, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Slash, ZZ Top, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and John Mayer.” Guy really has been a seminal figure, but this emphasis on his importance as an influence has a bittersweet quality. It’s part of a general consigning of the blues to emeritus status, venerated but gently sidelined.