hugely promising start as a guitarist at the centre of the blues world, when Gary Clark Jr was 26 years old there
was a moment when he wondered whether it was all worth it.
“In 2010 I was thinking about doing something else,” he says, “bills weren’t being paid, my electricity got cut off and I’m sitting there with no lights, in the dark, burning candles.”
“I was paying rent late and things weren’t adding up,” he continues, “I felt like I couldn’t get into the music business. Then [I got a call that said] Eric Clapton is going to invite you to Crossroads [the guitar festival established in 1999 by Clapton]. Next thing I know I get a letter to officially invite me…”
“So I showed up with my Epiphone guitar and 20 bucks in my pocket, and in a matter of minutes my life changed. I’d never seen 30,000 people anywhere but I’m up there and I thought ‘I’ve got to do something’.”
But the biggest moment in Clark’s life came within a hair’s breadth of being a total disaster, because just as he started playing, the sound went down and nobody could hear a thing.
“I could hear boos and see people putting their thumbs down but I didn’t know what was happening… it looked like people hated me …” he says of that moment. But instead of panicking, Clark kept his nerve and extended the intro of the song until the sound kicked back in.
“I just kept going; you can see it all on the video. I keep playing and keep playing and all of a sudden the sound comes back on right at the end of my solo and everyone starts screaming. So on the DVD it looks like I’m doing some epic shit [Laughs], but that just happens because the sound comes back on.”
“After that I was hanging out back stage and was [then taken] out on tour [by Warner Bros] and it changed everything. I didn’t get back for a while; but [when I returned] I could turn my lights on, was eating every day and I could put some food in my refrigerator - which is a great feeling -, and I thought ‘Phew!’ [sighs], alright, I think we are good for a minute!’”
That DVD of the song Bright Lights at the Crossroads Guitar Festival 2010 now has over 12 million views on Youtube and led to Eric Clapton personally writing a note to say thank you. “You make me want to play again,” Clapton reportedly wrote to Clark.
Gary Lee Clark Jr (15 February, 1984) is a multi-instrumentalist from Austin, Texas, but principally plays guitar. “My dad had a couple of guitars and my first memory is trying to pull one off the wall and it falling to the ground and shattering, so that was the fist time I saw one,” he says in one interview. “What really got me interested [however], was watching videos of the Jackson 5 and seeing Tito Jackson play a red Gibson 335 – that’s why I got one! All the badasses like Freddie King were playing one, and I felt like you had to get one of those, you know. It has an ‘f’ hole. I like those guitars because I like the way the neck feels; it’s electric, but you can also get an acoustic sound out of it.”
There is a touching Youtube video called Gary and Eve: How Gary Clark Jr. Learned to Play, in which Clark explains how the Austin-based blues guitarist Eve Monsees influenced him. Later, when accepting his 2014 Grammy award for Best Traditional R&B Performance he said: "I wouldn't be playing guitar, I wouldn't be playing music, if it weren't for her. She took me to my first gig, and it all started from there."
Clark also recalls a key moment when the pair discovered T Bone Walker and sat down and listened to a tape and worked out how to play it. “I realised what I wanted to do with my life,” he says. “The rock n roll was was more edgy, cooler and rebellious, and I thought ‘I want to do that!’.”
At that time Antones in Austin was a thriving blues venue and Clifford Antone, the owner, was doing everything he could to encourage young talent. If he saw an artist who was committed and enthusiastic he would encourage them to go up on stage and play alongside the best. “What he did was bring [the blues] to a younger audience,” Clark explains. “He introduced a white audience, hippies, to the blues. You’d have Buddy Guy playing alongside someone like Derek O’Brien [and it] turned into this scene that is still resonating and inspires people all over the world. I started when I was 15, and underage. I got up on stage with Pinetop Perkins, James Cotton and Albert Wolf; that was my first experience. The place was very special.”
Blues was and always will be Clark’s touchstone but as is well-known, he had bigger ambitions. In one interview with Joe Rogan in February 2016, he explicitly states: “for the record I wanted to experiment and challenge myself musically.” In another interview Clark explains: “In Austin I was in the right place at the right time and I think what separated me is that I started thinking outside the box and doing original things,” he says. “I got out of the tight circle and started moving around.”
Those ‘original things’ included drawing in Hip Hop, Soul and Reggae, among other influences, into his sound. Clark doesn’t need speed, he plays clean and slow, which imbues his playing with great depth and feeling. As noted above, in 2011 Clark signed with Warner Bros – who he says “allowed me to go out on my own and do my thing” - and released The Bright Lights EP, which was quickly followed by his breakthrough album Blak and Blu (2012) and The Story of Sonny Boy Slim (2015). He supported these releases with long tours, and subsequently played alongside the Rolling Stones, Jeff Beck, ZZ Top, the Foo Fighters and B.B. King.
But what has really made Clark a legend is how he has transformed his creative process since that time. His forthcoming album This Land, is due for release on 22 February, but the title track is already available and shows him breaking entirely new ground both musically and lyrically.
Specifically, the lead single confronts the racism that Clark has experienced in his life and ties that in with what has been happening in the US in recent years. The lyrics could hardly be more direct: “Nigga run, nigga run, Go back where you come from, Nigga run, nigga run, Go back where you come from, We don't want, we don't want your kind, We think you's a dog born” and in response, Clark sings: “Fuck you, I'm America's son, This is where I come from, This land is mine, This land is mine.”
“There was a fire in me (when I wrote This Land) around November 2017,” Clark explains. “There were shootings going on. I grew up black in Texas, man; it’s kind of fucked up: getting dog shit in my mailbox, people writing ‘nigger’ on my fence besides my house, people riding around in trucks with confederate flags; and I said I wasn’t going to get into this because it makes me emotional. [But] I was in Memphis at the National Civil Rights Museum and you can hear the water, moans, chains, and screams; my people have been through a lot and I haven’t been through shit compared to them, but I can [use my privilege, for example, to] say ‘thank you Dr Martin Luther King’,” Clark says. “We have to live next to each other, there is nowhere we can go; we are here.”
While Clark has also made a point in his career to sonically work ‘outside the box’ with more contemporary artists such as Alicia Keys, Sheryl Crow, Childish Gambino, and John Mayer, he will always have the blues as a reference point.
Clark explains that when he returned to play at Antones on one occasion “a lot of the guys there said ‘you’ve got to keep the blues alive’ and I felt a little pressure, but I think what they were just trying to say is ‘don’t forget where you come from.’”
And Clark showed both his commitment to the blues and his loyal character when Antones was forced to close, leaving the city of Austin ‘rudderless’ and somewhat lost musically; by promptly investing his own money in establishing it again as a vibrant and exciting venue.
Clearly Clark is not just one of the leading and most innovative guitarists of our time; he is also a man of strong values and firm principles.