Words by Brett Thorne
Gary Clark, Jr. sure is in a good mood. This is especially strange when you consider that he has become the hottest young gun in the blues world. Throughout the course of our conversation he barely speaks above a whisper and while he appears a bit reserved, he never comes off as guarded. After each answer, a slight grin creeps across his face, so that it’s hard to tell whether he just made up the entire response. As he lounges on a couch on the second floor of Austin’s historic blues club Antone’s, he looks like a man at home. That’s for good reason.
The club has served as the launching pad and musical sanctuary for a performer some have labeled “the savior of blues,” a title Clark wears as much as a medal as he does a yoke.
“The savior of blues,” Clark says, leaning back, as if to view the phrase from a better vantage. “I mean it’s an honor. It’s cool to be recognized for that. To be able to be kind of like a dreaming kid to be able to put your stamp on something. People put a little more weight on it than I like, but it’s cool.”
Clark’s ascension to savior status began in 1996 when he first picked up the guitar. The young musician spent his early teens gigging around Austin and was a regular at Jimmie Vaughan shows, always picking a spot up front so he could study Vaughan’s virtuosic fingers. Clark was 17 when he finally landed the right show in front of the right person. A post-show meeting with Austin legend Clifford Antone led to an introduction to Jimmie Vaughan, and before Clark knew it, he was listening to Jimmy Reed and Little Walker in Vaughan’s truck, as the blues legend gave him pointers on the harmonica.
When the subject of Vaughan comes up, the grin that’s been on Clark’s face disappears. His tone becomes respectful and almost downright reverential.
“It’s something very special,” he says. “He still intimidates me. I still don’t know what to say to him. I still feel like that kid who was there in the front row.”
Ten years later, Clark has inked a deal with Warner Bros. Records, an arrangement that he jokes is a major distraction from watching his beloved daytime television.
You’re not alone if the name Gary Clark, Jr. doesn’t ring a bell. Clark will be the first to admit that he is far from a household name. At last year’s Crossroads Guitar Festival, before a crowd of tens of thousands of blues fans, Clark gave a stunning performance that eventually landed him the record deal. Amidst cheers from the audience, Clark jammed with Sheryl Crow and Doyle Bramhall II and tore through his songs. Before taking the stage, however, Clark was exploring the artist area and had misplaced his badge.
“I was trying to be cool and not wear it,” he said. “I guess it fell out of my pocket or someone tugged it out, so people were asking me what I was doing back there and I didn’t have my credentials. I’m like, ‘I promise I’m supposed to be here.'”
It took some explaining, but he finally convinced the security that he was, in fact, performing on the stage later in the day.
“It was like the ultimate to have all your mentors around, if not looking at you then within earshot of what you’re doing,” he said. “It was cool. I was definitely nervous, though. That’s why I was rockin’ those shades.”
As if nearly getting kicked out of his own show was not enough of an ego check, Clark later had a run-in with Slowhand himself, Eric Clapton. The blues icon was friendly but didn’t exactly rush over to engage Clark in lively conversation.
“I said ‘Hey man, thanks for having me.’ He just kind of looked at me and was like ‘Thanks for coming.’ I was like ‘That’s it?’ Then there was this awkward pause.”
It is likely that that’ll be the last Clark gets interrogated by security at his own concert. If Clark’s first offering on Warner Bros., Bright Lights EP, does not plaster his mug all over the collective consciousness of the world’s music bloggers and blues fans, the full-length he is currently working on should do the job.
The EP contains four tracks, including “Don’t Owe You A Thing,” which was recorded with Jason “Computer Boy” Buntz at the Bubble in Austin. While the songs on the EP—”Don’t Owe You A Thing” in particular—contain snappy guitar licks and other touchstones of the blues, there is a swagger on display that puts his work in a class all its own.
In a preview of Clark’s appearance at South by Southwest 2011, Spinner reported that “Clark is a rarity in the blues community—a musician who respects the great standards while remaining open to other sounds, freely mixing in rock, jazz and pop, crossing over genres like a true millennial.”
Clark doesn’t see anything too unusual about his fusion of blues, rock, R&B and pop. After all, the guy’s iPod rocks equal parts Boyz II Men and Talking Heads. Fusion was really the only option for this child of the ’80s, a decade when seemingly opposing genres were being paired up like Goose and Maverick.
“I always wanted to put everything together. I didn’t think it was a big deal to do that,” Clark said. “Even low, haunting blues like Son House or whatever. That repetition, that looping is very similar to a hip-hop track with a loop where it just gets you hypnotized and you put a story over it.”
Houston’s Free Press put it another way, saying Clark “doesn’t seem to be imitating blues-rockers three times his age as much as he is creating a sound all his own.”
Clark is conscious of the hallowed ground he is treading. The blues are an American institution, so any tinkering with the formula has to be done delicately.
“I want to do the right thing when it comes to respecting the music, but at the same time branch off and do my own thing,” he said. “I definitely want to tip my hat to those guys that came before and laid the foundation.”
Clark will be taking his gospel across the continent throughout August and September. On Sept. 16, he will make his grand homecoming at the Austin City Limits Music Festival. Whether he will be greeted with palm branches remains to be seen, but with a full-length in the works and a rigorous tour schedule ahead, one thing’s for sure: Clark will continue his ascension to the top.