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Blues Brother: Gary Clark Jr.

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Photography by Jonathan Mannion for Wax Poetics

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Mentored on the axe by Stevie Ray Vaughan’s brother Jimmy and on the music business by friend Cody Chesnutt, Austin guitarist Gary Clark Jr. was hailed as blues music’s second coming after a couple of self-released records and his Grammy-winning, major-label debut, Blak and Blu. But not wanting to be put in a box, Clark took a cue from Chesnutt’sThe Headphone Masterpiece and set out to record and self-produce a wide-ranging yet personal album from his own perspective. The result, The Story of Sonny Boy Slim, sees Clark bridging the gap between genres while creating his own thing.

Dark clouds drifted past the half moon hanging in the Brooklyn sky as lanky, thirty-one-year-old Gary Clark Jr. strutted onto the stage of the annual Afropunk Festival on the third weekend in August. An Austin, Texas, native, Clark was no stranger to the big city since he briefly lived in the East Village before moving to California earlier this year. Dressed in a country-boy felt hat, short-sleeved shirt, and black jeans, he held his Epiphone Casino guitar tightly. As the twenty-first-century bluesman prepared to take the crowd on an electric expedition, he stared at the audience consisting of thousands of mostly Black folks from various social classes and fashion senses as they applauded loudly. Still, while Clark was anointed “The Chosen One” by Rolling Stone magazine in 2013; won a Grammy Award in 2014 for Best Traditional R&B performance for “Please Come Home,” a standout track from his big-record-company debut, 2013’s Blak and Blu (Warner Bros.); performed for President Obama; and played beside Beyoncé during a Stevie Wonder tribute in February, 2015, on the Grammy Awards, there are still more than few who have never heard his name.

 

Originally published in Wax Poetics Issue 63

 

“Don’t let anybody shake you or break you,” Clark’s salesman daddy schooled him back when the guitar slinger was just a small boy. As he eyeballed the crowd, one got the feeling that Big Gary’s words were exactly what he was thinking as he took the Afropunkers back to their nappy roots. For the next forty-five minutes, Clark laid down a soulful sound that owed as much to Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lightnin’ Hopkins as it did to Sly Stone and Carlos Santana. Launching into his hard-beat “Bright Lights,” whose lyrics included the spooky words “you’re going to know my name by the end of the night,” Clark was preaching the truth as he pulled the audience deeper into his fusion of head-nodding mojo music. Later, Clark and his band played a wild-out version of “When My Train Pulls In,” another superb track from Blak and Blu. By the end of the song, Clark was in complete control of a crowd on the verge of losing theirs.

“Now that was hot,” a twenty-something millennial screamed as though she were testifying under a revival tent. Looking around at the crowd that consisted of mohawk-haired kids, veteran musician James Mtume, silver-haired ladies, fashionable transsexuals, cultural critics Greg Tate and Nelson George, and countless other gleeful folks enjoying Clark’s joyful noise, the only thing that mattered that summer night was that he sang as though devoted, as though music was his only mission, as though what he did was no mere job, but surely his destiny.

Much like Clark’s own ax-slinging heroes (Stevie Ray Vaughan, mentor Jimmy Vaughan, Curtis Mayfield, Rick James, Buddy Guy, Jimmy Page), he wielded his instrument with authority. Watching him do his thing onstage, it’s evident that the kid wasn’t a poseur. While Afropunk headliner Lenny Kravitz was playing that same stage afterwards, it was obvious that that blues-playing upstart was trying to burn the mutha down to the ground first.

“Gary Clark is the real deal,” says record producer Brian Michel Bacchus (Norah Jones, Gregory Porter). “He brings a certain energy to performance that is never half-ass. He’s got that rock-and-roll/blues thing down, and that raises the ante for anyone he’s sharing the bill with.” Onstage, brother Clark was a Black hurricane blowing away the competition. Yet, away from the screaming crowd, Clark was soft-spoken and gentle. “When Rolling Stone called me ‘The Chosen One,’ it was scary and inspiring at the same time,” Clark tells me a few weeks before as he sits in his favorite New York City vintage instruments shop, Rivington Guitars. “But I’ve always wanted to be able to break out of Austin and play music on a national and international level. So it might’ve felt like pressure at first; at the same time, I knew it was time to step the game up.”

Three weeks after the Afropunk explosion, Gary Clark Jr. released his second Warner Bros. disc, The Story of Sonny Boy Slim. Unlike Blak and Blu, which was produced by Mike Elizondo and Rob Cavallo in Los Angeles, Clark chose to helm the boards himself. “Elizondo was cool,” Clark recalls. “Before we worked together, he came to a show and we talked about Miles Davis and Coltrane, hip-hop and rock. I knew his work with Dr. Dre and Fiona Apple, and he eliminated the fears I had about working with a producer. I really got to see how that process works. But, I tried it and enjoyed it for the first record. But I realized that I know what I’m doing.”

Returning to Austin over the course of a year-plus, Clark worked out of Arlyn Studios. Open since 1984, Bonnie Raitt, Childish Gambino, James Cotton, and Clark’s buddy Cody Chesnutt have recorded there. In 2014, Clark and Chesnutt used the studio to collaborate on “Gunpowder on the Letter,” a somber salute to veterans that appeared on the latter’s Landing on a Hundred: B Sides and Remixes (2014). With Clark having met the lo-fi auteur back when he’d just released The Headphone Masterpiece in 2002, it was Chesnutt who encouraged Clark to produce himself early on in his career.

“I thought Headphone Masterpiece was amazing, and I wanted to try something similar,” Clark recalls. “I told him I had all these demos, but I didn’t know what to do with them. I was trying all kinds of stuff, but people in Austin knew me as being this blues artist, which I didn’t want to break, but I still wanted to be true to myself. Cody told me, ‘Brother, you just have to do it.’ He said, “Those aren’t demos; those are messages you got from somewhere, and you have to release them. You going to beat yourself up if you don’t share it. Just be free and let it loose.’ When he said that, I knew what I had to do.”

Gary Clark Jr. by Jonathan Mannion

Clark soon set up the indie label Hotwire Unlimited, producing his own albums including 110 (2004) and Worry No More (2008). “110 was the number of my apartment when I moved out of my parents’ house,” he says. “I had a twelve-track digital recorder in my little bedroom, set up the drums on the side of the bed, and recorded my vocals in the closet. Those songs became the 110 album; and if I hadn’t talked to Cody, it would’ve been just another demo CD thrown on the pile. His advice was the fire I needed.”

After signing to Warner Bros. in 2010 by legendary A&R man/record executive Lenny Waronker, the label insisted on him using an established producer and brought in Mike Elizondo. “Being in Los Angeles at the studio [Lightning Sound], I felt a sense of freedom I’d never experienced before,” Clark remembers. “I had always been on a tight budget and had to record quickly. Then all of a sudden, I’m in a plush spot where I could jam for hours. The only fear I had concerning working with a producer was the fear that we would clash, but working with Mike, I learnt a lot about producing and arranging in a timely, non-stressful fashion. Elizondo and I developed a real friendship, but I knew this time, I wanted to do it alone.”

Between Clark’s hectic schedule, which included getting engaged to fashion model Nicole Trunfio (who gave birth to their son, Zion, in January 2015); opening a show for D’Angelo in Forest Hills, Queens; and playing in Europe; as well as various side projects and television appearances (at the 2015 BET Awards, he and fellow dusty-road traveler Anthony Hamilton performed a moving tribute to B.B. King, Ben E. King, and Percy Sledge), he somehow allotted time to hole up with engineer Jacob Sciba (Willie Nelson) and worked hard on The Story of Sonny Boy Slim.

“For this record, I felt vulnerable as I began telling my story from my perspective,” Clark said. “I’m always standing or running, but at Arlyn Studios, I could sit down and think. All the songs were written in the studio.” Clark wrote his first song when he was twelve, a ditty about his seventh-grade girlfriend Ester Shaw called “Find Somebody Else.” Back then, he scribbled lyrics in a notebook, but these days, he doesn’t write his lyrics on paper. “I just come up with an idea, things that are going through my head and then edit them. It’s a long process, but if it sticks, then it was meant to be; if not, then it’s not.”

In all, thirteen tracks made the final mix of The Story of Sonny Boy Slim including the hip-hop-vibed “The Healing,” the psychedelica journey of “Star,” the gospel moan of “Church,” the old-school ’70s soul on Al Green tribute “Our Love,” and the maggot-brained, Eddie Hazel–inspired “Grinder.” Like fellow Texan musician Robert Glasper, with whom he collaborated on Blak and Blu: the Mixtape (presented by D-Nice, remixed by Big K.R.I.T.), Clark enjoys fusing musical styles in an attempt to create his own thing. “For me, it’s about trying to bridge the gap,” Clark says, “while also getting to the roots. These days, we are exposed to so many different types of music and information, and we soak it up. Regionalism in music is slipping away because of so much access. People are trying to figure out new ways to express themselves and not be put in a box. That’s just what time it is.”

When it’s mentioned that the music on “The Healing” could work as a backing track for Jay Z, he smiles knowingly. “I think sometimes I’d like to try my hand at being a hip-hop producer,” Clark says, citing RZA, DJ Premier, and J Dilla as favorites. “I wanted ‘The Healing’ to have a sense of danger, but I also wanted to say something about what music is; I mean, I play it all day long, but what does it actually mean? For me, it’s healing. Music changed my life. If I hadn’t picked up the guitar, I don’t know what I would be doing. I think I would be very lost.”

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Gary Clark Jr by Jonathan Mannion

 

In American popular culture, the stereotypical version of the bluesman has been firmly engrained in our consciousness, conjuring sepia-toned images of sharecropping Negroes, roadside chain gangs, selling souls at the crossroads, and moonshine-gulping gin joints, and the backwoods where a guitar picker can make a couple of dollars before vagabonding to the next town on the next train. Even usually smart filmmaker John Sayles, whose 2007 blues film Honeydripper (based on his short story “Keeping Time”) introduced Gary Clark Jr. to the world, played into the clichés as we saw the then twenty-three-year-old musician emerge from a freight train and wander into the town of Harmony. While the film was predictable and corny, Clark, playing a 1950s bluesman named Sonny, used his laid-back charm well; whether he was onstage pretending to be a Southern musician named Guitar Sam jamming on a homemade guitar or romancing the sickly daughter of his patron, the camera loved him.

“Austinite Gary Clark Jr. shines,” Austin Chronicle writer Louis Black reported in 2008, “but the blues end up winning out over everyone.” Unfortunately, Gary Clark’s backstory was a lot less dramatic than any Hollywood creation myth. “I didn’t crawl out of a shed or out of the swamp,” he laughs. “I grew up in a normal, middle-class family in a neighborhood with different ethnicities and backgrounds. Across the street was folks with money and down the block was a trailer park. I had friends who grew up in all that. It was a weird, funky place, and I loved it.”

Living on Morning Dew Drive with both parents and his sisters Shawn and Savannah (the same siblings also supplied backing vocals on The Story of Sonny Boy Slim) right in the middle of it, he was a normal kid who liked riding his bike and playing baseball. “My whole family was into music,” he says. “My parents introduced me to Funkadelic. My pops was the kind of guy who would tell people, ‘The party hasn’t started until some Hall & Oates comes on.’ My mom was into Diana Ross, the Jackson 5 [guitarist Tito Jackson made a lasting impression], and Whitney Houston, while my sisters was listening to Smashing Pumpkins and SWV. Then, when I went outside, my friends were listening to Nirvana and everything else.”

As a young boy, Clark’s first venture into music was being a member of a Jackson 5/Boys II Men–inspired group called Young Soul with his friend Robbie. “That guy was always singing, and girls were always hanging around him,” Clark laughs. “He kind of gave me confidence, because he was really the guy who had no fear. He was the front man, and I was in the background. We made demos using an analog tape player and made beats on my dad’s Casio keyboard.” Referring to what first attracted him to the the guitar, he continues, “My dad had these keyboards that had all of these synthesized sounds in it. The one that I liked said ‘mute guitar,’ which had a kind of funky, punchy rhythm-and-blues sound that stood out to me. I was curious about it, and I wanted to hear more of that.

“We entered the seventh-grade talent show in slamming shirts and jeans,” he remembers, “and, man, we just knew we were bad [as in good]. I thought that was the direction I was going to take, but Robbie moved to France, and then that guitar came into my life. A friend lent me the Hendrix collection The Ultimate Experience and Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Texas Flood, and that was it.

“I got my first guitar in 1996 as a Christmas present,” Clark continues. “It was a Ibanez RX20 with a little ten-watt amp. I said thanks, went up to my room, and shut the door. Everything I had heard and been influenced by up that point, I tried to re-create.” Hanging out with his friend and next-door neighbor Eve Monsees, the same friend who lent him Hendrix and Vaughan (both players’ versions of “Little Wing” are Gary’s favorites), they started playing together in her garage, practicing their guitar licks to old Stevie Ray Vaughan albums. Vaughan, who died in a helicopter crash in 1990, remains one of Gary Clark’s guitar heroes.

“Growing up on the blues scene, if you didn’t know anything about Stevie Ray Vaughan, then you didn’t have any business being around,” Gary explains. “He introduced a whole new generation to blues music, and when it was dying down, he gave it a whole new life. He was important in that way and just a fierce guitar player. From listening to his albums, you could hear that he was just fearless and didn’t have a problem turning it up and letting it out. As I get older, I realize it’s not easy to pull off being that open, free, and fierce. He was a bad dude.

“When I first jumped out and started doing things, the first person people would compare me to was Hendrix,” he continues. “It used to bother me, because it seemed so obvious. I love him, but I was inspired by so many other things as well.” Along with Monsees, he dared to venture inside the renowned blues club Antone’s while they were still teens. “The first time I went there, Buddy Guy ran offstage into the crowd and freaked everybody out,” Clark says. “His guitar had a one-hundred-foot chord and Jheri curl juice was dripping from his hair.” Gary and Eve, who later formed a group, also loved going to see Jimmy Vaughan, the elder brother of Stevie.

“Me and Eve would be in the front row, just watching this dude with the Stratocaster; he was low down, no B.S. with him. After a while, he kind of got wind of what I was doing; he’d come pick me up, take me to go eat, and then let me sit onstage. He told me stories, taught me how to play harmonica a little bit, and just guided me towards being a professional musician. Jimmy has always been in my corner.”

In 2010, after years of performing, Gary Clark Jr. was invited to play at the Crossroads Guitar Festival alongside B.B. King, Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, Steve Winwood, John Mayer, Sheryl Crow, Jeff Beck, and ZZ Top; later, he also played several original songs. “I was standing onstage looking at people I had only seen on television, people whose records I listened to when I was learning how to play, and then I was onstage playing with them in front of thirty thousand people,” he recalls. “For me, that was a game changer. After fifteen years of sitting in this room trying to figure it out, and finally getting a nod from them guys, well, man, it was heavy.”

Unlike hip-hop culture, which celebrates youth, the blues genre has always been a grown man’s game where the older you are, the better. Although The Story of Sonny Boy Slim is an truly accomplished work, the thirty-one-year-old wunderkind certainly has many more birthdays to celebrate and a few more heartbreaks to suffer through before he reaches that grizzled, grumpy state of a true bluesman. Now that we know his name, God willing, here’s to hoping that Gary Clark Jr. continues guitar strumming and blues wailing until his hair is gray, his girl is gone, and he ain’t got nothin’ left except hard times and a song.

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