Gary Clark Jr. is a calm man in a furious world. Kicking back on a leather sofa in a dressing room in the Revention Music Centre in downtown Houston, Texas, he’s the picture of zen: six-feet-something of effortless cool in skinny jeans, slouchy beanie hat and defiantly non-hipster beard. A beaker holding a couple of fingers of Jameson’s whiskey sits on the table next to him – blues medicine to help get him in the mood for the show he’ll be playing in this 3,000-capacity venue in a couple of hours’ time.
But even someone as laid-back as Clark can struggle to stay calm in these demented times. The title track of his new album, This Land, is the most raging song any rock musician has recorded in a long time. In it, the usually placid Clark takes aim at the racism and violence of Trump-era America. Channelling the radical insurgency of modern hip-hop, he spits fury over a grinding guitar: ‘Nigga run, nigga run, go back where you come from.’ It ends with the livid refrain: ‘This land is mine.’
“I had a lot of questions, concerns, comments as far as the climate of the country,” he says. “All this stuff was happening in the news when I was in the studio: people not being allowed in the country; the KKK rally in North Carolina where the lady got killed; police killing young black and brown folks.”
He reaches for his Jameson’s and takes a sip. “Basically, what it comes down to is being black in America and growing up in the south of Texas. It’s an angry song. I’m not asking for acceptance any more. People were shackled to the bottom of boats, traded and sold, whipped and tortured, hanged for nothing. We built the farms and cotton fields and tobacco fields. So right now we are here through death and devastation, rape and pillage. We’re here now regardless of what we look like and where we come from. We are citizens. We should all have the right to make a living and to protect our family and not be bothered. That’s all there is to it.”
Blues musicians in 2019 aren’t supposed to open their albums with this kind of politically charged invective-come-call-to-arms. But then This Land is not a typical blues song, and the album it comes from is not a typical blues album. Most of all, Gary Clark Jr. is about as far from a typical blues musician as it gets. If you want to get rise out of Gary Clark Jr. – not an epic Donald Trump-level rise, but an eyerolling, ‘not this again’ rise – you just have to mention the term Saviour Of The Blues. That’s the honour he found bestowed upon him – or, as he sees it, was saddled with – after releasing his third album, 2013’s Blak And Blu.
“The saviour of the blues…” he says, trying to not to sigh. “That’s like people standing in front of the museum going: [throws arms wide across an imaginary door] ‘No, don’t bulldoze it.’ Look, there’s blues everywhere, it’s not going anywhere. It’s just not on top-forty radio, ‘cos it’s not what’s popular. The Saviour Of the Blues? It’s more like saviour of my youth. Which is not my responsibility.”
He says this good-naturedly. Clark is as in love with the blues as anybody. He came up through the vibrant blues scene in his home city of Austin, a liberal oasis in the conservative desert of Texas. But his tastes went beyond the usual suspects: he was just as likely to listen to rappers like 2Pac or Outkast as he was to Howlin’ Wolf or Muddy Waters; he loved Stevie Ray Vaughan, but he loved Kurt Cobain and Michael Jackson too. That broad musical bandwidth is reflected in This Land.
The title track provides a flashpoint, but elsewhere Clark digs deep into garage rock, modern soul, reggae and, on Pearl Cadillac, the kind of woozy funk that sounds like a deliberate nod to Prince (“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t,” he says with a grin). The latter is both an apology to his mother for being “a punkass kid, always sneaking out, stealing her car, getting into trouble” and a callback to a pivotal moment in Clark’s own career.
The car of the title is real. In 2003 he took off on tour with his friend and mentor Jimmie Vaughan (younger brother of Stevie Ray) in a pearl-coloured Cadillac his father had bought for him. He was still in his late teens and was dreaming of being a star. “I packed up my stuff, took off, trying to make something happen. I still got it, too. It’s my baby.”
Clark was already a veteran of the Austin scene by then. He’d fallen hard for the blues as an 11-year-old, when his best friend, Eve Monsees, got her first guitar. Clark followed her lead, and soon the two of them were listening to local blues stations and devouring as much music as they could: Stevie Ray Vaughan, Albert Collins, Freddie King, T-Bone Walker. “Me and Eve, we’d listen to the radio, and dub shows on Memorex D90 tapes then go back and listen to them. We’d sit and figure out licks.”
Clark was 14 when he played on stage for the first time. Monsees said she wanted to go to a blues jam on Austin’s Sixth Street – aka ‘Dirty Sixth Street’, home to many of the city’s clubs and bars – and Clark agreed. Together with a couple of friends, they hit a bar called Babes. It smelled of burgers and spilt beer and smoke. Clark had never been anywhere like it, never even seen a live band before. “First time I heard an amp turned up. First time I saw a Gibson Flying V. First time I saw a Fender P Bass. There was all these cool, weird-looking guys, old folks and young folks in cowboy hats and boots. It was Texas Blues 101, right there on a Sunday night.” The adults there welcomed these kids who had just stumbled through the doors.
It was an open-mic night, and they put their names down on the list to play. “We played Stevie Ray’s Pride And Joy. [Shrugs] It was okay, but the older people who were there would come up and say: ‘Wow, kid, you really are into this stuff. Come back next week.’”
They did come back next week, and the week after and the week after that. Other musicians would teach them songs, on stage in front of everyone. “You guys know San Jose by Freddie King? Come up here, we’ll show you.’”
They started getting gigs right away, playing in front of anything from six to 60 people. “We were 14, 15 years old. It was kind of to lure people into this dirty, nasty blues club: ‘Here’s Gary and Eve, the young kids.’”
Jimmie Vaughan was one early mentor, Clifford Antone was another. Antone was a big figure on the Austin scene. He had his own club, Antone’s, and a record store and label. “He would drive me and Eve to the store and grab piles of records. My whole CD collection was from him.”
The clubs became Clark’s second home. “As a kid, you’re trying to look for some place to go where you feel comfortable. We had something that nobody else had. I was out ‘til, like, two in the morning. I’d come in smelling of cigarettes and booze ‘cos some dude spilled his Glenlivet when he was teaching me the chords to whatever song. There was a danger to the fact that we weren’t supposed to be there.”
His skipped classes, and his grades nose-dived. He was busted smoking weed on school grounds and spent a couple of nights in jail. “I was a rebel with a cause, and the cause was music. I’m with the kids who are around the back with the acoustic guitars and the bongos and the smoke that smells funny. I learned how to drink early, hung out with older women. I learned a lot fast. It was blues university.”
By the time he was out of his teens, he’d already put out two albums: 2001’s Worry No More and 2004’s 110. But his personal life had become as unfocused as his academic life had been.
“I was out of school, I had no responsibilities, I had my own apartment – it was party time,” he says. “I was running around, having a good time, but I was also struggling to keep bills happening, trying to figure out how to make it as a musician…”
It was the morning after his electricity was cut off that Clark got the text that changed his life. “It was my friend Doyle Bramhall II,” he says, naming the Texas musician who’s played with everyone from Stevie Ray Vaughan to Roger Waters and Elton John. Bramhall said Clark could expect an offer from Eric Clapton to play the Crossroads Guitar Festival in Chicago, a series of music festivals and events founded by Clapton. “I’m like: ‘Don’t bullshit me,’ and he’s like: ‘No, this is going to happen.”
A few weeks later, Clark got a letter from Clapton formally inviting him to play the 2010 Crossroads Festival in Chicago in front of 20,000 people. He thought about his life, and how the fun had overtaken the ambition, and he came to a decision. “I’m, like: ‘I need to get my shit together,’” he remembers.
Clark did indeed get his shit together. The Crossroads was the point where his career properly achieved lift-off. Afterwards, Clapton wrote him another letter, this one saying that Clark had made him want to play guitar again. That papal blessing led to a major-label deal with Warners – and that whole Saviour Of The Blues thing that he’s spent the whole time since trying to shake off.
He says he doesn’t count Clapton as a friend so much as a passing acquaintance. Same goes for Jimmy Page, who has also sung his praises. Former US President Barack Obama doesn’t really even qualify as that, though the two men met when Clark was invited to play at the White House in 2012. “We talked about Chicago blues, Buddy Guy. Then all of a sudden I thought: ‘Man, he’s been talking to me for a little while. I should probably let him get back to making sure that this country is cool,’ you know what I mean?”
Still, there’s a sense of a torch being passed on. “For the sake of the story, yeah, I’ll go with that,” he says, not entirely convincingly. “But there was none of this [mimes being anointed]. I didn’t get that from Jimmie Vaughan or Doyle Bramhall either. But I felt like I was being accepted. It’s like when you’re a kid and you want to play with the big boys. I guess I’m part of the squad. They never said I was, but they keep calling me back.”
There’s a reason for that. In a form so hung up on tradition, Clarke is an innovator – to the point where classifying him as a ‘blues’ artist is a stretch. His multi-genre mash-up is a world away from the reverential approach of the Joes, Walters and Kenny Waynes of this world. Does he think the blues has been hijacked by white guys in shiny suits?
“Yes,” he says. Then he changes his mind. “Not hijacked. You can’t say that, because it comes from a love of it. But it’s definitely been borrowed and interpreted and put out in a different way.”
In a good way?
“In some ways. I think Stevie Ray Vaughan was the best thing that happened to the blues in a while. The Fabulous Thunderbirds [in which Jimmie Vaughan was the lead guitarist] were the best thing. Charlie Musselwhite, guys like that. The thing that bothers me is when guys think that they can make a career out of trying to step in somebody else’s shoes.”
How do you mean? “For me, you can’t make a record of Muddy Waters or Elmore James songs and say: ‘This is my record.’ No it’s not. It’s great to tip your hat, but I’m sorry, I don’t want to hear that… It’s like: ‘I don’t want to hear that version, I want to hear Muddy’s version.’”
Who are you talking about?
“You want me to name names?” he asks, laughing. “Man, I’m not going to do all that.”
For all his iconoclasm and forward-thinking momentum, Clark still sees himself as a classic bluesman: “It’s at the heart of everything I do. Blues, R&B, soul music – that’s what I grew up on.”
But at the same time, he stands at the cutting edge of things. He’s a modern magpie, a one-man playlist of styles and genres, righteous fury and all. “The prize to me is there’s no prize,” he says. “It’s just a feeling of not feeling contained. Because at the end of the day, when I’m laid up in my deathbed, I don’t want to say I was a caricature. I was just a dude who rode a wave, and did whatever I felt cos that’s how I felt. Just natural and comfortable.”