When Luke Winslow-King graduated from prep school in Michigan, he had no plans to attend college, at least not right out of school and definitely not in Louisiana. Instead, Winslow-King joined two friends on a nationwide tour performing Woody Guthrie songs and telling stories. But the tour abruptly ended in the Big Easy, and suddenly, college didn’t seem like such a bad idea after all.

“The car got stolen while we were there and we lost all our instruments, but I auditioned for the classical program at the University of New Orleans and wound up going there, because I was so charmed by my time there,” says Winslow-King. He graduated with a degree in music theory and composition.

While those car thieves probably didn’t change his life’s course — Winslow-King was destined to be a musician since childhood — living in New Orleans definitely gave him a new direction. “I think living in New Orleans and being surrounded by a lot of older music just gets you into trying to speak the language and not trying to write something retro,” he says. “We try to view it as a living form and write new songs to keep it that way and also try to do your part to make sure you know the original melodies and where things are coming from. And also really dig deeper and get into understanding the rhythmic sensibilities people had back then.”

When he wasn’t studying, Winslow-King spent much of his time in and on the streets of New Orleans busking and jamming with other musicians, breathing in the sound. Those experiences add a real air of authenticity to the 30-year-old musician’s ragtime vibe. He learned alongside such local legends as jazz singer John Boutte and blues maestro Robert Luti. Last month, he even received a Best Male Performer nomination at the Big Easy Music Awards. While he ultimately lost to another local legend, guitarist Anders Osborne, Winslow-King remains gracious. “I think I won by even being nominated,” he says.

Winslow-King’s latest, The Coming Tide, is his third album, and it showcases his tightening chops and improved melodic sensibilities. While the LP isn’t a stylistic departure from the raggedy ragtime and blues of 2009’s Old/New Baby, it’s a much more polished and assured effort. The songs jump out of the speakers more, and Winslow-King’s confidence and comfort shines for the first time on record. His charms flow easily from the suave jazzy stroll of “Let ’em Talk” to the optimistic barrelhouse blues swing of “Moving On (Towards Better Days)” and the title track’s jazz-hands gospel-blues rave-up. Winslow-King’s strutting croon is nicely balanced by the backing vocals of washboard player Esther Rose, while on tracks like “You Don’t Know Better Than Me,” he displays his sharpening lyricism.

The album originally came out in June of last year, but then he signed with Bloodshot Records in November. And last month Bloodshot gave The Coming Tide new art and a broader, national release. With bigger tours and larger shows under his belt, Winslow-King’s not complaining.

But as much as he owes his success to his Big Easy apprenticeship, there’s one experience that had an even greater impact on his craft: his former job as a music therapist, both with blind kids and the elderly.

“[Music] helped them to improve their lives and their outlook, and it really gave me a unique perspective on how humans process music,” he says. “There are all these really specific sensitivities and emotions. Words can kind of only get around what the best music can fill in altogether.”