Praised by Rolling Stone magazine, Eric Clapton and Alicia Keys, contemporary bluesman Gary Clark Jr.’s career has propelled quite nicely since his big-label debut Blak and Blu was released in 2012. Since then, the 31-year-old Austin, Texas native has toured the world, boogied with Beyoncé, and opened for D’Angelo while also managing to record one of the most dynamic albums this year, The Story of Sonny Boy Slim, due out September 11th. Although schooled by the blues from the age of 12, Clark is also down with the bop of hip-hop, the bottom of fierce funk, and the dramatics of classic rock.
Last year, Clark earned his first Grammy Award for Best Traditional R&B performance for “Please Come Home.” However, as talented as he has proven to be (even making inroads with his producing game as can be heard on the sonically wonderful Sonny Boy Slim), we expect that won’t be the only prize he receives.
Read on for Michael A. Gonzales’ recent discussion with Clark about his musical inspirations, and be sure to pick up a copy of The Story of Sonny Boy Slim when it arrives in stores later this month.
soulhead: What is the Texas blues sound?
Gary Clark Jr.: The way I grew up hearing it is it’s like the Delta and Louisiana sound mixed. Everyone says it’s a blues jam and then it has a shuffle, it’s the Texas shuffle. That’s what it is to me. When I think of Texas blues, I think of Albert Collins, T-Bone Walker and Lightnin’ Hopkins. It’s just low down roots blues music to me.
soulhead: Antone’s is the famous Austin blues club where you began your career. Please tell me about that legendary place.
GCJ: Well, I missed twenty years of Antone’s, which owner Clifford Antone opened on July 15, 1975. He was from South Texas, but came to Austin with the dream of exposing people to this music. He brought in guys from Chicago like Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters and B.B. King, and laid the foundation of what it became. I just kind of got the tail-end of that experience.
soulhead: Is it closed?
GCJ: Well, it’s closed for now, but me and a couple of friends have gotten together and plan on re-opening it later this year, because we feel it’s important to the city. I showed up there when I was a teacher still listening to Boyz II Men and dancing around to Michael Jackson. The first time I showed up, Buddy Guy was playing and the power of that music just hit me. It hit a lot of people who built this culture around it. I can’t really speak enough about it or express how I feel.
soulhead: Who are some of the old school soul artists that you like?
GCJ: My mother and father had lots of old records. I remember looking at a Brothers Johnson album cover, them dressed in polyester with these big ‘fros, and I thought, these cats are doing it. There is a clip I saw of the Jackson 5 performing the Isaac Hayes version of ‘Walk on By’ with Tito playing guitar and I loved it; it was crazy. I also listen to a lot of Curtis Mayfield and Rick James. Other artists who influenced me when I was starting out included Usher with My Way, which is very guitar heavy. Also, 2Pac’s The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory has a lot of guitars; “To Live and Die in L.A.” was my favorite.
soulhead: You mentioned Curtis Mayfield before?
GCJ: Yes, I listen to a lot of Curtis, with “People Hold On” being a favorite, but I also listen to a lot of Willie Hutch, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, and Bob Marley. Music to me, hits me on different levels. Sometimes I hear a song and it makes me change how I go about my day.
soulhead: I know that Stevie Ray Vaughan, who was also from Texas and died in a 1990 helicopter accident, is one of your guitar heroes. Tell me a little about him.
GCJ: Growing up on the blues scene, if you didn’t know anything about Stevie Ray Vaughn then you didn’t have any business being around. 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.
soulhead: Please talk a little about the making of your latest album, The Story of Sonny Boy Slim.
GCJ: When I was making this record, I was watching the news and seeing things—very dark things. Brothers getting killed, just crazy things happening in our country. I was thinking about my kid (Zion, born in January 2014) and what we are doing to help the next generation.
soulhead: Talk a little about the first single “Grinder.”
GCJ: That song came from living in New York City, from just walking down the street and seeing how people move here. I recently moved to California and the pace is just so different.
GCJ: Man, that record is major for me. I put that on and it’s like going to church. I feel a responsibility to let people know what’s happening, but I don’t want to come across as preachy. There’s nothing wrong with being real; we need to have some kind of awareness together.
soulhead: You mentioned earlier about your love for Jimi Hendrix. The song ”Star” has a little bit of that Hendrix psychedelic feel to it.
GCJ: “Star” to me was talking about when I was younger and the importance of having my pops around. He inspired me as a young man to have confidence in a world that can be so cruel. Becoming a father this year, I realize I want to be able to give the same thing to my son. There are so many beautiful things you can say to a child to make him realize he is a star.