Raised on blues, musician Gary Clark Jr. embraces full palette of sounds


AMNA NAWAZ: Blues, rock, and soul artist Gary
Clark Jr. opened the 45th season of PBS’ “Austin
City Limits” on Saturday night.
The hometown favorite has gained a worldwide
following in just the last couple of years.
Jeffrey Brown recently joined Clark on the
road in Richmond, Virginia, to see how the
Grammy winner keeps capturing fans and headlines.
It’s part of our ongoing series on arts and
culture, Canvas.
JEFFREY BROWN: In the title song of his latest
album, “This Land,” Gary Clark Jr. sounds
an angry cry about the racism and hatred he
sees in America today, and a confrontation
he himself had with a white neighbor after
he bought a new ranch outside his hometown
of Austin, Texas.
GARY CLARK JR., Musician: Basically, “This
Land” is me saying, yes, there’s all this
around, but forget everybody.
Nobody can bring you down in your head.
Nobody can make you feel less than.
Nobody can make you feel not equal to.
Be strong, be proud, be humble, but don’t
let them break you.
JEFFREY BROWN: Clark is on tour singing “This
Land.”
We joined him at a concert at the historic
National Theater in Richmond, Virginia.
But the song’s tense sound and lyrics are
just one emotional tone for a man now reaching
ever-larger audiences with his guitar and
musical wizardry.
On the tour bus, it turns out, the band relaxes
watching golf tournaments.
Do you like this life, the traveling life?
GARY CLARK JR.: Yes.
I mean, I used to go to concerts all the time.
I would see the bus pull up and the band hopped
off the bus.
And what goes on in there?
(LAUGHTER)
GARY CLARK JR.: You know, golf.
(LAUGHTER)
JEFFREY BROWN: Golf.
(LAUGHTER)
JEFFREY BROWN: Clark is a proud product of
Austin’s famed 6th Street music scene, one
club after another, a wide variety of live
music.
He got his first guitar at 12 and was quickly
grabbed by the sound of the blues, where,
still in middle school, he found an immediate
home.
GARY CLARK JR.: It had this raw thing, and
there was guitar players up front, and there
was lead guitar playing.
There was improvisation.
And when I saw these people playing blues,
and when I went down to that blues club, it
was filled up with smoke, and those old guys
are cool with their leather jackets and their
Stratocasters and their Amps, I was like,
man, I want to be part of this.
And they welcomed us, being 14 years old,
to have your elders welcome you and be excited.
JEFFREY BROWN: They probably didn’t have too
many 14-year-olds coming to…
GARY CLARK JR.: They didn’t have any at all,
really.
JEFFREY BROWN: The welcoming into the blues
community would culminate some years later
in 2010, when Clark was invited by Eric Clapton
to perform at his legendary Crossroads Festival.
GARY CLARK JR.: It meant something to me.
I felt like I was a part of something.
JEFFREY BROWN: A brilliant guitarist.
But backstage during sound check in Richmond,
the 35-year-old Clark told me he’d never actually
taken a formal lesson, and much of his education
came from watching guitar greats on the venerable
PBS program “Austin City Limits.”
GARY CLARK JR.: Yes, just dub the tape and
just watch it over, pause, rewind, see what
the chord shapes were, play it in slow motion.
JEFFREY BROWN: And who were you listening
to?
Who were you watching?
GARY CLARK JR.: I was watching Stevie Ray
Vaughan, Jimmie Vaughan, and Eric Clapton,
B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Robert Cray, and Bonnie
Raitt.
JEFFREY BROWN: He would play at the White
House in 2012, win a Grammy two years later.
But Clark never saw himself as limited to
the blues and had begun to feel constrained
by what the world expected or wanted from
him.
His newest album, his third studio recording,
is his most varied statement yet, a broad
palette of sounds, including reggae, a Prince-like
falsetto, straight ahead Chuck Berry rock
‘n’ roll riffs.
GARY CLARK JR.: It was just pick a color and
start painting.
Let’s see what happens.
I felt like I was just ready to just bust
out running and let’s what else is out there.
So, I just took that approach.
JEFFREY BROWN: These days, Clark is paying
back his Austin roots, mentoring younger local
musicians like the Peterson Brothers, who
he took on the road with him as an opening
act.
And also now, in his music, the hopes and
fears of being a parent.
Clark and his wife, Nicole, have two young
children.
He says that and the world they’re growing
up make him want his music to reach deeper
and have greater impact.
GARY CLARK JR.: It’s because of this tension
and the social climate, race relations, and
fear, and the unknown.
How do I maneuver through that and teach my
kids how to be strong, teach my kids how to
be loving in a world that can be so cruel?
JEFFREY BROWN: For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m
Jeffrey Brown in Richmond, Virginia.

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