Some people are born cool. Some achieve cool. And some, to paraphrase the bard, have cool thrust upon them. With Gary Clark Jr, you suspect it’s a mixture of all three. We’re not talking about the way he slides into the room at his record label’s Kensington offices, peels his aviator shades off and shakes your correspondent’s hand with a laconic grin before folding into a recline on a black leather sofa. We’re not specifically referring to the casually torn jeans covering his lean, skinny frame (how do musicians get like this? What do they eat?), faded T-shirt, Chelsea boots and trilby hat, or the gold watch that suggests his days of playing by candlelight because he couldn’t pay his electric bill are long behind him. We’re talking about the fact that this is a man who has always seemed to know the right thing to do. A man who seems to have seen the creative path unfolding before him at an early age, and who has let no one divert him from it.
It’s the same poise and self-possession that saw him take it effortlessly in his stride when his hometown mayor called May 3, 2001 ‘Gary Clark Jr Day’, when the young guitar ace was just 17, and to turn down offers of record deals in his early 20s when 99 per cent of his contemporaries would have snatched at the first contract on the table. It’s the same confidence that saw him get up on stage as an unknown and make an instant international name for himself in the midst of Eric Clapton’s all-star line-up at the 2010 Crossroads Guitar Festival in Chicago. And it’s the same singleminded vision that has now driven him to self-produce The Story Of Sonny Boy Slim, the follow-up album to his 2012 breakthrough set Blak And Blu. Playing most of the instruments, he further mixes up grit-flecked blues guitar rock with smooth soul and funk stylings, despite his core fanbase often calling loudly and zealously for him to stick to the former approach. Yeah, Gary Clark Jr would appear to be one cool customer.
Yet appearances can be deceptive. In fact, while the 31-year-old remains very much his own man, he has often been touched by self-doubt. Meanwhile, the attention and acclaim he’s received in these past five years, all of which kicked off just as he was wondering if he had any future in this game, has left him feeling just a little overwhelmed.
That’s hardly surprising given that his mesmerising live performances and major-label debut Blak And Blu installed him as the rising guitar star of American blues, and led to him being burdened with the daunting tag ‘the saviour of the blues’. He’s as uncomfortable as anyone with sub-Kanye West levels of ego would feel with that label, not least because, as we’ll continue to discover on his new album, there’s a lot more to Gary Clark Jr than just one genre of music.
Indeed, the more you listen to him, the more you realise that if he lives up to the task some have saddled him with – to revitalise the blues for a 21st century audience – then he’ll do it in very much his own sweet way, upsetting as many traditionalists as he thrills modernists.
Since he went from Austin, Texas’s best-kept secret to the talk of the town after that 2010 breakthrough, he’s toured with – and got generous props from – a veritable who’s who of R&B and rock’s elder statesmen, from The Rolling Stones to Eric Clapton to Buddy Guy, which has only enhanced his reputation, and of course added to the pressure on him to be the reluctant torchbearer for a whole musical tradition. Meanwhile, his growing status as a formidable live draw was reflected in the release last year of a rapturously received double live album, with the result that up until earlier this year, he spent much of his time on the road, building on the considerable hype surrounding him. “It’s been a crazy few years,” he admits, shaking his head gently. “Pretty much non-stop. And don’t get me wrong, it’s been incredible. It’s been a privilege to play with such amazing musicians, and have so many people digging my music. But it gets to the point where you just… burn out a little bit.”
He says this as he sips a double espresso designed to counteract the effects of jet lag and disrupted sleep patterns that have resulted from arriving in London from his native Austin the previous day. It must be slightly surreal for him to reflect on how his life has changed in the past five years. “It’s a crazy life sometimes, but when all’s said and done, I’ll always love playing, and especially so now I have an audience that appreciate what I do, that want to listen to the music,” he says. “Because it wasn’t always like that, you know?”
In many ways, Gary Clark Jr did things the hard way. While he enjoyed jamming with his buddies in bands from the moment he got his first guitar at the age of 12, he ended up a lone wolf from a pretty early stage.
“Well, I kind of had an experience with Eve Monsees [his teenage neighbour and bandmate whom he later thanked in his Grammy acceptance speech] – we used to play together all the time and I love her to death, but I was maybe 16, 17, and the band I was playing in with Eve and a couple of other people, they fired me! And this was after having talks about, ‘We’re going to play in a band together forever!’
“So I was kinda angry. I was like, ‘You know what, fuck y’all, I’m gonna do me!’ I always wanted to be in a band and have a band name and do that whole thing, but that was a point when I thought, ‘Alright, it’s me against the world now.’ I realised soon after that it’s not really like that and you can’t do it all on your own, but I needed a crew of guys behind me who get it and let me be me. And it’s cool they’re encouraging, supportive – I’ll do anything for them. But I was angry for a minute: ‘I don’t need y’all!’ And that’s probably the reason why I’m a solo artist now.”
While Clark became a part of the blues community centred around famed Austin club Antone’s, and learned his trade from jamming with blues legends who passed through, such as James Cotton and Pinetop Perkins, as well as befriending local scene linchpins such as Doyle Bramhall II and Jimmie Vaughan, he also had to play to his fair share of tough crowds.
“We used to play in bars where there’d be a bigass screen with a football game on, and they’d all be looking past us, and you think, ‘You wanna hear these songs or not?’ But it’s kinda like my dad said – you’re there for a reason, so just enjoy playing music and let loose.”
Yet before the proverbial big break came his way in 2010, he was at a pretty low ebb.
“I was doing the starving artist thing,” he says. “I couldn’t pay for my electricity so I had my lights turned off on me. Not able to pay bills, late on rent, living several people to a room. I’d had an opportunity to go to university and I hadn’t taken that because I wanted to pursue my music. But I’m burning candles trying to write songs, thinking, ‘What the hell am I doing?’”
So when Austin blues luminaries Jimmie Vaughan and Doyle Bramhall II, who had befriended and mentored the young guitarist, recommended him for Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival in Chicago in 2010, it was just the validation he needed.
“That was a moment when I was like, okay, it’s all been worth it for those guys to say, ‘That was pretty good.’ That’s all I needed. To get up there and have Keb’ Mo’, Eric Clapton, Robert Cray be complimentary, these are guys I grew up watching, so that was a turning point. I figured I was making the right decision sticking with this.”
And, of course, by the time he got that exposure, he was mature enough to handle the success, and had done enough living to have something to sing about.
“Yeah, I definitely lived,” he laughs. “I had a lot of good times, a lot of not-so-good times, but I actually turned down a few record contracts back then because I didn’t feel I was ready. I just wanted to be able to live my teens and early 20s and figure things out on my own rather than being in the public eye or anything like that because even back then, I saw a lot of young artists struggle with that and I didn’t wanna be a statistic. This is not a business for weak-minded or weak-hearted people. So I had to get strong before I could even think about looking to take things to the next level.
“In those early years I developed a thick skin, got confident in my own abilities, clear about what I wanted to do and how I wanted to go about it, and by the time Crossroads came along and I was offered a major deal, it was perfect timing – 26 years old, okay, it’s time to go now. Go be that man that my pops told me to be. Get out of here, go do something!”
Clark has said that The Story Of Sonny Boy Slim has “an underlying tone of faith and hope”, and listening to the new album, there’s also an underlying theme of a man seeking solace from life’s troubles in the soothing powers of music-making – a pursuit that can pretty much sum up the blues’ raison d’être, you could argue.
“I definitely get a lot out of the spiritual side of the blues,” he says. “Growing up in church, hearing gospel music – ‘We shaaaall not, we shall not be mooooved’ – the blues is like that, because these are songs of hard times, despair and hope, you know?”
The lead single and the opening track is* The Healing*, a grinding, gospel-tinged testament to music’s redemptive qualities. ‘This music is my healing,’ he sings pleadingly, ‘Lord knows I need some healing/Cos when this world upsets me, this music sets me free, yeah.’
So what exactly has this Grammy Award winner, with a model fiancée and a baby son at home, promoting an album he’s been allowed to self-produce on a major label by travelling the world playing with his lifelong idols, got to feel upset about? Well, we can mock, but it was partly a feeling of creative frustration, and also the nonspecific sense of emptiness that often afflicts those in the most apparently enviable of situations. The album’s only acoustic number, Church, laments, ‘I’m drunk and stoned, miles from home/Lord, I need your helping hand.’ The flipside of the rock’n’roll lifestyle?
“Yeah,” he says. “Being on the road, as amazing and as great as it is, when all the lights are off and everyone’s gone and the after-party’s over, I shake hands with all my dudes and I’m back in the hotel room, got a nice little buzz going, and I’m suddenly like, ‘Okay, is that it? On to the next one, I guess.’ It’s disposable, this moment is just gone, and being on the road for seven or eight weeks, I get homesick and miss those closest to me. I don’t know how people tour for a year straight and never go home.
“I have these moments where I’m sitting there alone… you know, I’ve lost family members while I’ve been out on the road, I’ve missed big events with family and friends. So now and then you feel like, ‘Is it worth it?’ And I’ve got no one else to turn to but the man upstairs or whatever you choose to call it – God or Lord – just looking for answers in a place of confusion.
“For me to sing a song like The Healing, it’s just about me sitting down and listening back to all this music that really affected me, changed my life, and tuning back into what this music is talking about. It really is my healing – listening to music is like going to church for me.”
The conflicted emotions that arise from following your dreams but making personal sacrifices have only intensified since the birth of Clark’s son Zion at the turn of the year.
“Even on the plane over here, I had the feeling, I wonder what would happen if I asked the pilot, ‘Can you turn it around real quick, I just wanna see my boy one more time?’ So I think about it and it’s hard, but I’m trying to lay a foundation – being able to go round the world and play music is really a beautiful thing, it’s really a blessing. So hopefully he’ll understand and appreciate it some day. I’m in too deep now – I’ve been doing it for 20 years now and this is what I do. When he gets older, I’ll bring him along and hang with the guys, but for now, I won’t be able to see him as often as I’d like to.”
Meanwhile, another source of angst came from a different side of the 31-year-old. “We’d been on the road so much and I was used to playing music all day, on any instruments I could get my hands on. I felt like I was neglecting that and I wasn’t really being creative any more. I was just performing, not creating. So I really just wanted to get in the studio and make some extra space and get rid of some of these extra sounds and songs I had in my head and just play music.”
That itch to get back to his creative roots was part of the reason why last year Clark chose to relocate back his hometown of Austin, Texas – which he’d left for LA and then New York a few years previously – and record at his local studio Arlyn: “I could see it from my house, and walk there every day instead of being stuck in traffic in LA like last time.” And it was this proximity to his old haunts that led to a reflective theme that runs through The Story Of Sonny Boy Slim.
“Coming home, I felt like I could breathe,” he says. “I could catch up with my family and friends and just feel at home. I got to reflect about being a kid growing up here, and my son was about to be born so it was really bringing it home. I was thinking about growing up there, and Sonny Boy was the name my mom gave me. Slim was what the guys called me, so the name of the album came from me reflecting on my own story, I guess. Sonny Boy Slim were just two names that sounded the best out of all the nicknames people called me. You know, it could have been ‘Shithead Q-Tip’, but I didn’t think that would have been appropriate, you know what I mean?”
And thus the world was deprived of what would have been one of music history’s more diverting album titles. But then this is a man who has never needed much in the way of gimmicks, image consultancy, hotshot production or marketing spin to get our attention.
That might be why, when he decided to write and produce his own second album, playing many of the instruments on it himself, his label didn’t insist on twisting his arm and parachuting in a big name for the studio hot seat, along with a team of songwriters to bolster the record’s commercial potential. Besides, as it turns out, Clark has spent much of his career quietly becoming something of a musical polymath.
“I know what I wanna hear,” he says, looking me in the eye as a smile plays at his lips, as if he knows he might sound like just a bit of a control freak at this point. “I know how I want the drums to sound, I know how I want the bass tone to be, and I’ve spent a lot of my time in studios looking over the shoulder of the engineer and producer trying to figure out what knob does what.
“I already got pretty familiar with Pro Tools over the years, and I did a lot of my demos that way, so with Blak And Blu, a lot of those songs were re-recorded from demos at my house, where I’d figure it out and play all the instruments. That was just a natural process, and after that album, I thought things were getting a little bit away from me. I mean, I’m open to collaboration but at the end of the day, if it’s going to have my name on it, I’d like to be involved centrally. I respect producers so much, but that’s why I’d like to be Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson!”
It sounded to a lot of Clark’s fans that* Blak And Blu*, despite boasting no shortage of highlights, suffered a little from the more abrasive edges of his sound being smoothed off and ritzed up, presumably to aid its radio-friendly qualities. No such complaints with this follow-up: gravelly rockers such as Grinder and Shake will get traditionalists’ pulses racing, while funkier cuts like Can’t Sleep have a biting groove underpinning them, and even the vintage soul of Hold On is shot through with a gutsy, righteous ire.
“I listen to all my previous records [he made two albums on his own label] and I would do a lot of things differently, but you learn and grow. Let that be a moment, live with it and learn from it. The thing I learned from the last album was to trust my gut – I know what I’m doing. Not being too cocky, but I think I’ve got an idea – let me behind the wheel and see where I can take it!”
That pure confidence comes from a lifetime of watching and learning – something that served him well when it came to developing his own guitar style, from the day he first saw Tito playing guitar in the Jackson 5 and then mimicking everyone from local hero Stevie Ray Vaughan to Jimi Hendrix. At the same time, though, his musical education wasn’t restricted to six strings.
“The guitar playing was what I did publicly,” he says. “At home, though, I wanted to really get behind the scenes and understand how the recording process worked. I was really into jazz – trumpet players, horn players, trying to figure trumpet out. I was playing about with turntables, trying to cut and scratch, trying to do my DJ thing with records, playing drums, and I would play these gigs and play guitar and then save whatever money I had and get an eight-track recorder. Then I traded it in to get a 12-track recorder, and then I finally managed to get a computer, and then I got to work out how to do the Pro Tools thing, so all this was bubbling under what I was in public – this blues-playing teenager.”
The result, as with Blak And Blu, is a record firmly rooted in the blues, but taking that as its starting point from which to explore a lifetime’s worth of R&B influences. Inevitably, that won’t necessarily be music to the ears of all The Blues’ readers. Take a quick look at the consumer reviews of his albums online and you’ll see how his eclectic tastes in songwriting don’t always square with the more conservative sections of his audience.
While most artists naturally resist being boxed into one generic corner, and would never want to join any party that would have them as a member, the blues has become something of an exception to that rule, with many blues players keen to stay somehow ‘true’ to the genre’s roots, even if that means rejecting the chance to spread their wings creatively. This despite the fact that many a blues great has explored a huge range of musical styles, from Clapton’s reggae excursions (in fact, is there any genre Clapton hasn’t played?) to BB King’s penchant for country and Albert King’s feel for funk.
Then again, any serious music fan likes to feel a sense of ownership over their favourite artists, and sometimes when they fly the nest and reach a much wider audience than us early adopters, we feel a sense of betrayal rather than pride at their achievements. Meanwhile, for a man billed as a saviour of the blues, is there a fear that one of our biggest hopes is going to desert the blues ghetto for more commercially favourable climes?
“I can definitely feel that sense of ownership,” Clark admits, taking his hat off to scratch his head – perhaps his first signs of discomfort during our conversation. “That responsibility, because the blues is the roots, of course, the foundation for a lot of music – and people say blues is dying, legends are dying off, which is very true, and we need someone to keep it alive. I definitely felt that weight on my shoulders when I was younger, but I also always felt like if I was to only do that, I would be denying a huge part of myself.
“I remember once talking to [southern indie-soul maverick] Cody Chesnutt and I was telling him I was having this struggle about playing straight-ahead blues. I had these demos that were soul, funk and R&B-ish, you know? He just said: ‘You just gotta put it out, man. What good is it doing sitting there getting dusty? You gotta put it out and be true to who you are.’ And I really took that seriously, so that was when I made a decision, at age 21, 22, that I gotta express this side of me.
“The truth is, I’ll never be Freddie King, I’ll never be Robert Johnson, I’ll never be Muddy Waters, I’ll never recreate BB King Live At The Regal. It won’t happen. I’ll always love getting down and playing straight-ahead 1-4-5 blues, but I like my soul stuff too – I can’t help it, that’s my pops’ influence.”
So on the one hand, the prospect of emulating the blues legends is off the table. Yet didn’t he just say he wanted to be both Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones? Still a smidgeon of ambition, then…
“I was just exposed to a lot of different music early on. My first concert was Michael Jackson on the Bad tour, so if that didn’t affect me in any way then I wouldn’t be paying attention. My dad was real into Parliament, Funkadelic, Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, so all that stuff was playing in my house. I grew up in the 90s too, so R&B and hip-hop was blowing up, the grunge thing from Seattle was everywhere, and playing guitar, if you weren’t into that then you weren’t really cool. I was just influenced by all those things. And when I was introduced to the blues I started to understand the history of everything I’d been listening to and it all made sense, the evolution of it all. So to me it makes sense to play blues as well as all those other styles of music, because it all stems from the blues anyway.”
It’s highly ironic, then, that when Clark began to gain a reputation in Austin in the late 1990s, his choice of genre met with dismay from a seemingly unlikely source.
“It was a little bit like it wasn’t considered black music any more. One time I had this young black guy ask me, ‘Yo, G, why you playin’ blues? Black people don’t play blues!’ And it kinda blew my mind – I mean, what the hell are you talking about? What’s wrong with you?
“It’s kinda funny but it shows something kinda sad actually. It’s very clear when I’m at the blues jams, I’m one of the few blacks on stage, y’know? Go to a blues festival and there’s not a lot of us, which is quite strange.”
As it is, the diverse ingredients that go into Gary Clark Jr’s sound have made for a record that will have a pretty broad appeal. And while much has been made of his talent for emotive, soulful guitar playing, that voice is a charismatic part of his sound too. Or should I say ‘voices’, since his Al Green-style falsetto is in evidence more than ever on …Sonny Boy Slim.
“I learned to sing in the choir in middle school,” he admits. “I was a choirboy and the guys on the basketball team would give me hell about it. But I learned a lot about vocal control, falsetto, my middle range and using my diaphragm, breathing, and understanding range and pitch and all these things, so I’m very conscious of that as a singer. And I love the falsetto stuff – it evokes a certain emotion, a sad, sultry, sometimes sexy thing. It’s easier for me to do that than sing like Barry White!
“I grew up with singers that would sing like that – Marvin Gaye, Prince, Al Green, Temptations – and I remember driving to school with my dad and I’d be like, ‘Why’s he singing like a girl?’ Heh heh! My dad would say, ‘You’ll get it one day, son.’” It turns out we have a middle-school music teacher to thank for the rising star we see today, though, because young Gary wasn’t a natural show-off.
“I always knew I could sing but I was too nervous,’ he admits. “There were these two guys in my class, Robbie Sutherland and Jason Malding, who had the most beautiful voices and weren’t shy about singing with them at all. The teacher always called them up to sing solo and I always thought, ‘I could do that,’ but I was too nervous. I’d shake so much I thought I’d pass out! So finally she helped me feel more comfortable about my voice, and I think if I hadn’t had that training, I don’t know if I would have opened up my mouth and sang at all, ever.
“Even now, though, I definitely feel super-awkward without a guitar. Something doesn’t feel right. The guitar was always like my reinforcement – a shield, and a battle-axe too at the same time.” You know that stuff about him being born cool and confident? Maybe we should qualify that… So how did his nerves feel when he was first invited to share a stage with Clapton and co at the Crossroads festival five years ago?
“I was definitely nervous but Doyle [Bramhall II] was really cool about it – he and Jimmie Vaughan brought me on and when I’m there saying, ‘Why the hell am I here? I hope I don’t mess this up,’ with 30,000 people waiting out there, they’re like, ‘You’re here to do what you do – you’re here for a reason.’
“Now I only get nerves occasionally, like when I’m doing something like a TV thing and playing in front of real heroes. I’ve done a couple of things, like a tribute to The Beatles, a tribute to Stevie Wonder, and those guys are sitting in the audience right in front of me, and I’m like, ‘Aw, shit, better not mess this up! Oh man, Paul and Ringo are looking right at me – woah!’ It’s kind of a trip.”
If that kind of attention can be unnerving, it’s ultimately welcome, of course. Unlike the kind that provoked Clark to write one of the more striking lyrics on the new record. Cold Blooded vows: ‘I gave her my heart and soul/She wants more/I will shoot her down in cold blood/It’s gone too far.’
Thankfully, his words aren’t to be taken literally. But there’s a curious story behind them nonetheless.
“That track was already done and I needed some lyrics for it, and then Harry Styles, from One Direction, started following me on Twitter! No problem, right? But then my whole Twitter feed suddenly filled up with Directioners – these crazy young girls! And they were just blowing up my page – ‘Can you get me to meet Harry?’ ‘Can you get me a picture?’ ‘Can you pass on a message?’ It was insane, people coming from all angles to get to this dude who is, at the end of the day, just a dude, right? He’s just a young man, and I couldn’t imagine what that must feel like to have that level of fame. So I started singing, ‘I gave you my heart, I gave you my soul’ – meaning I sing to you every night like I’m giving it up to you, and you still want more! So I took this idea and twisted it to imagine this superfan hanging outside the house, waiting to get a glimpse. I was imagining what it would be like to be that guy, unable to leave your house, and it’s my imagination running wild, which was really funny to me.
“But shoot you down didn’t mean literally, with a gun. It was, ‘I love you, I really do, but I can’t give you the time that you want, so I’m gonna have to be cold with you. I don’t want you to feel dissed in any way but that’s just my reality.’ So that song is kind of like my day in the life of Harry Styles!”
If that unlikely scenario nonetheless betrays certain fears our hero has about letting the whole fame game get the better of him, you sense he feels in a pretty good place otherwise, and unlikely to fall prey to the destructive extracurricular temptations that have laid some of his blues forefathers low. Now engaged to his girlfriend of three years, Australian model Nicole Trunfio, the mother of his baby son, you get the feeling he’s unlikely to provide us with many riotous tales of rock’n’roll debauchery in the near future.
Even the album’s one ‘my woman done me wrong’ tune tells a tale from Clark’s past, one that will be familiar to many. Can’t Sleep’s urgent guitar funk tells of one relationship’s detrimental effect on his mental health.
“It’s about one in particular,” he grins. “This was me in my early 20s. It’s actually the only song on the album that was written a long time ago, about this girl and this situation. I was young, dumb, falling in love with girls who fall in love with other folks all at the same time, and I think I’m the only one! My buddy Brian Smith heard the demo years ago and he actually had ‘can’t sleep’ tattooed on him. Ever since, he’s been like, ‘When are you gonna release it? I got that stupid thing tattooed on me!’ I’m like, ‘I didn’t tell you to do it!’ Anyway, this one’s for him. Sure, it’s my-woman-done-me-wrong, but you can dance to it.”
Of course, any high-profile individual will find sooner or later that people treat them differently to the average man on the street. Much of it might be positive – attention from the opposite sex, the best tables at restaurants – but there are also the inevitable few that decide you’re fair game to be harassed and abused, whether online or in public.
“I’m lucky in that way,” he says, “because every time I get noticed or people talk to me after a show, it’s because they dig my music, and there’s always this eye contact – people are really genuine and sweet and I love that. It feels like a deeper connection than that two-dimensional fame or fan thing. But it is kind of a trip, when I think about it, to have people react to me and think they know me just because of my music. But it’s all love, man, and it’s better than someone coming up and punching me in the face, right?”
Evidently, though, for any such challenges life throws at us, we’ll always have music to back us up. Especially the blues, which for Clark has always provided the strength he needs to soldier on and get him where he is now. One key song addressing that theme on this album is Hold On, which confronts problems both personal and universal with initial despair, but ultimately a steely resolve.
‘Seems like the new news is just the old news from a different angle,’ he sings. *‘What am I gonna do? What am I gonna tell my babies? They don’t understand my pressure, my struggle, my demands/Back then I couldn’t understand when my pops came home saying that he couldn’t take it…’ *Yet he also continues, ‘I do deserve a little respect, I’m gonna get what’s mine/Hold on, we’re gonna make it.’
This attitude was instilled in Clark as much from his musical peers as from his friends and family.
“Life’s hard for everyone, and as I got older and saw what was happening in the world, having a child for me was like an eye-opening experience,” he explains. “There’s a realisation of what I have to be, and what I have to do to keep my family out of danger, keep them on the right path, give them the tools to make it out there. And at the end of the day, what it comes down to is not having anything shake you, anything break you at all. And that’s what the blues gave to me – it’s full of songs of strength. When these artists would sing those songs, it was like them saying to themselves: ‘We shall overcome. This music is going to help me get through this time, by expressing it this way and in front of all these people.’”
Clark played earlier this year with support by Songhoy Blues from Mali, who were forced to flee their homes due to a ban on playing music by their then-Islamic fundamentalist government. Now there’s a situation that puts our first-world problems into perspective…
“You look at those guys – they can’t play music any more,” he says. “I mean, can you imagine them just stopping? No way! They’re saying, ‘I’m not gonna let you shut me down, I’m not gonna let you bury me! You can’t close me in or tell me what my ceiling is. I’m knocking this motherfucker down!’ And that’s what it comes down to. You hear that all through the blues. Listen to songs like Son House’s *Death Letter *and Lead Belly’s Take This Hammer – ‘I’m not gonna let you break me!’ That’s the underlying theme for me.”
As his management politely call time on our conversation and remind him that he’s already late for a planned BBC radio session (“Aw man! I was just about to kill it, right there!” he jokes as they step in to intervene and wrap up our conversation), there doesn’t look to be any grave danger of Gary Clark Jr’s path to prominence being ‘broken’ any time soon. But you have to suspect that the bright spotlight on him is only going to intensify in the months and years to come, and the expectations loaded on his shoulders – from the blues world, from the showbiz world, and on a personal level – will only get heavier with time. But having made it this far by relying on little more than his own formidable talent, self-belief and determination, you’d back him to plough on through any challenges the world may throw at him. The story of Sonny Boy Slim may have only just begun.
The Story Of Sonny Boy Slim is out now via Warner Bros. See www.garyclarkjr.com for more information.
The rise of a great blues hope…
1996 Aged 12, he’s given his first guitar. “As soon as I got hold of a guitar, my grades suffered,” he has admitted. Schoolmate Eve Monsees is also learning guitar, and she introduces him to artists such as T-Bone Walker and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
1998 He and Monsees play for the first time at Texas blues club Antone’s. “We were kids, and our schoolmates would say, ‘What did you do last night?’ ‘You have no idea…’”
2001 Austin mayor Kirk Watson declares May 3 that year as ‘Gary Clark Jr Day’. “It was quite strange,” Clark recalls. “I didn’t really get it. All I remember is I was excited because I got to leave school early. They gave me a plaque, and I don’t know if it’s something they do every year, but it was cool to have the city showing me some love.” He self-releases his debut album, Worry No More.
2004 His second album, 110, is released. The same year, he’s voted Best Blues Musician at the Austin Music awards. (He’ll win again in 2008.)
2006 Clark pens the soundtrack to Jason Wiles’ indie movie Lenexa, 1 Mile (renamed Full Count).
2007 He stars alongside Danny Glover and Keb’ Mo’ in John Sayles’ movie Honeydripper, playing Sonny, an aspiring blues guitarist who helps save a club from closure in 1950s Alabama.
2010 Clark is invited onto the bill at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads festival, guesting on Doyle Bramhall II’s set. Despite power outages affecting the mid afternoon performance, the newcomer’s rendition of Bright Lights and Don’t Owe You A Thang make a big impression on the 29,000-strong crowd. A record contract with Warners soon follows.
2011 His first Warners release, the Bright Lights EP receives widespread acclaim.
2012 He performs at the Obama-hosted Red, White And Blues event at The White House, with Mick Jagger, BB King and Jeff Beck. He guests with the Stones at two of their US tour dates. Blak And Blu is released and reaches No.6 in the Billboard charts.
2013 He opens up for Eric Clapton on his UK tour, plays Glastonbury, and makes his first appearance on Later… With Jools Holland.
2014 A Grammy Award for Best Traditional R&B Performance goes to Please Come Home. In September, his double live album, Gary Clark Jr Live, is released. Meanwhile, his interest in wider R&B styles is reflected in the release of Blak And Blu The Mixtape, featuring urban flavoured remixes of selected album tracks.
2015 The Story of Sonny Boy Slim is released.
Five other guitarists who rebooted blues…
Stevie Ray Vaughan When SRV and his band Double Trouble released their debut Texas Flood in 1983, its impact was seismic. With influences such as Albert King and Larry Davis, Vaughan’s revitalised take on a traditional genre attracted a new generation to the blues, and the album stayed in the charts for the best part of a year.
Kenny Wayne Shepherd This self-taught teenage guitar whizz put blues rock back onto commercial radio for the first time since Vaughan when his debut Ledbetter Heights came out in 1995. While he stuck fairly faithfully to traditional blues stylings, the energy and urgency of his playing galvanised the songs to new heights.
Robert Cray SRV’s contemporary from Georgia showed how successfully the smoother soul and funk sounds that dominated black music in the early 80s could be married with traditional blues. His albums Bad Influence and False Accusations grew his audience on both sides of the Atlantic before his 1986 set *Strong Persuader *won him a Grammy.
Jack White Although the attention Detroit garage rockers The White Stripes received at the turn of the millennium focused on the DIY, art-punk aspects of their sonic template, White’s love of American roots music was something he was keen to stress. Their red and white colour scheme might have been designed to distract attention from two white kids playing the blues, but anyone who saw White play guitar would attest that his rough, raw, slide-strewn style was as vital and thrilling as any of his contemporaries’ conventional takes on the genre.
Joe Bonamassa Although he was a child guitar prodigy, opening for BB King at the age of eight and touring with his first band at 12, it wasn’t until 2000 that his solo career took off with debut album A New Day Yesterday. Although he was marketed as the next Shepherd, the influence of prog and metal were more prominent in his playing. He has since carved out an even more diverse career path, from his soul-oriented outings with Beth Hart to the hard rock of Black Country Communion and the jazz-funk of new supergroup Rock Candy Funk Party.