Gary Clark Jr.: A Blues Wunderkind Grows Up, Breaks Out

Oct 25, 2012
Originally published on October 26, 2012 6:05 am

It's been a while since pop-music writers have heaped praise on a blues guitarist as the next big thing. But that's what's happened with Gary Clark Jr., who's just put out his first full-length album on a major label. It's called Blak and Blu.

While the album is new, Clark is not. In fact, he might be the worst-kept, best secret in Austin, Texas. Clark, 28, spent his early teens playing blues clubs in the vibrant 6th Street music scene of downtown Austin, learning from — and impressing — blues legends along the way.

"I was 14 years old when I first played an Austin club," Clark tells NPR's Audie Cornish. "I was hanging out with a friend of mine for her birthday; she wanted to go to this blues bar. They were having this blues jam, and she was like, 'You should get up on stage.' And I went with it."

Clark says the biggest hurdle of that first performance was just understanding what the other musicians were saying.

"The phrases that they used, I wasn't ready for that," he says. "They called out something like, 'We're gonna play a shuffle in the key of G; start from the five.'" And I was like, 'What is that?' I spent the first half of the song just trying to get familiar [and] figure out exactly what they meant."

Clark continued playing around town and quickly picked up a reputation. By the time he was 17, the mayor had declared a "Gary Clark Jr. Day" in Austin. Two years ago, Clark broke out on the national stage when he played at Eric Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival.

Here, Clark chats with Audie Cornish about his double life as a high-school student and local music sensation, and tells the stories behind a few of the tracks on Blak and Blu.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

And it's been a while since pop music writers have heaped praise on a blues guitarist as the next big thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: But they're doing that with Gary Clark, Jr. This track is from his major label, debut album titled "Blak and Blu."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

GARY CLARK JR.: (Singing) Well, I don't know. Yeah, woman, I can't feel a thing...

CORNISH: While the music is new, Clark is not. In fact, he might be the worst best kept secret in Texas. Clark spent his early teens playing blues clubs in the vibrant 6th Street music scene of Austin, learning from and impressing blues legends along the way.

JR.: I was 14 years old when I first played an Austin club. I was hanging out with a friend of mine. For her birthday, she wanted to go to this blues bar. They were having a blues jam, and she was like, you should get up on stage. And I went with it.

CORNISH: Did you actually know how to play at that point?

JR.: I thought I did. You know, it was funny, like, the phrases that they used, you know, I wasn't ready for that. I think they called out something like, yeah, we're going to play a shuffle in the key of G; start from the five. And I was like what is that?

(LAUGHTER)

JR.: And so, I spent the, like, first half of the song just trying to get familiar, figure out exactly what they meant. By the end of it, I still didn't get it, but I was familiar with the phrasing.

CORNISH: Are there songs on this album or is there a particular song on this album that when you play it, it kind of brings you back to those early days of being on stage, being in a club and playing with the big names you were playing with?

JR.: Yeah, some of them on the album that kind of take me back, a song like "When My Train Pulls In." That was one of the first songs that I ever started to write.

CORNISH: Really?

JR.: Yeah, it was one of the - it was actually the first song that I played live, you know, one of my originals.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN MY TRAIN PULLS IN")

CORNISH: Whoa, wait a second. Are you saying you wrote this when you were in high school?

JR.: Yeah, 16, 17...

CORNISH: Well, high school is pretty rough. So...

(LAUGHTER)

JR.: Yeah, and it was. You know...

CORNISH: If I can think of a time in my life when I could have wrote a blues song...

JR.: Yeah, I mean...

CORNISH: ...it definitely would have been high school.

JR.: That's a weird time. A bunch of weird kids going through a lot of stuff.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN MY TRAIN PULLS IN")

CORNISH: How did the kids at school react to what you were up to on the weekends?

JR.: The kids didn't care what I was doing on the weekends. They were more concerned with, like, why aren't you hanging out, you know, at this party and this and this, and so and so is going to be there. And I was like, yeah, I've got this gig on 6th Street. You know, like whatever. They weren't really that interested. So I would go down there and I would hang out with, like, Jimmy Vaughn or Hubert Sumlin, you know, Pinetop Perkins, all these great guitar players and blues musicians. And I would come back and tell these guys and they were like, who.

You know? It was like have you heard the latest Dave Matthews record? And they're like, I'm listening to Outkast now or whatever. And so, that's what kids were listening to. They didn't really pay much attention.

CORNISH: Did it give you a little bit of a split personality? I mean, were you listening to Outkast and, you know, R&B at the time, too? Because I hear some of that influence on the album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LIFE")

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LIFE")

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: Now your name is being used in the same breath as Eric Clapton or Stevie Ray Vaughn, or Jimi Hendrix. And, yeah, how do you respond to that?

JR.: With a smile and, you know, I just keep doing my thing. It's kind of - it's strange. I mean, those guys are all the guys that I was listening to as a kid, I had their posters on my wall and all this. It's nice to be compared to those great, great, great artists of all time. But there's a little bit of pressure in that, and I don't know if I'm up for standing up to that pressure. I'm just trying to do me and do the best I can with what I've got.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRIGHT LIGHTS")

CORNISH: Gary Clark, Jr., thank you so much for speaking with us.

JR.: Thank you for having me, much appreciated.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRIGHT LIGHTS")

CORNISH: Gary Clark Jr.'s new album is called "Blak and Blu."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRIGHT LIGHTS")

CORNISH: This is NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.