You should know about Gary Clark Jr.
I caught up with him in Austin recently, at what felt like a pivotal moment, and came away with an even higher opinion of him. The back story is in the piece, but I thought I’d fill in a few blanks here.
Clark is a real product of Austin, born and raised: he came up through that city’s intensely vibrant music culture, forming his voice on the bandstand in a way that most musicians don’t anymore. (New Orleans seems like only the other place in America where this still happens regularly, as a matter of course.) We talked about what that has meant for him, and some of his descriptions reminded me of testimonials from the jazz life, as it used to be lived:
One thing I love about Austin: there's a civic pride about live music, so that you're never just playing a gig, but also part of an ecosystem.
Yeah, definitely. This city shows a lot of love to its musicians. It’s a close community, so there’s always a feeling there. Like you said, it’s not just about the gig. Austin music culture — It’s constant, you can feel it just by walking around.
Is there a burden of expectation too?
Yeah, definitely. That’s something that I’ve always kept in mind. People I respect and look up to, they’re really really amazing. And they know the history not just of the city, but the Texas blues guys, they studied all of it. If someone calls out a Muddy Waters tune, you’ve gotta know it.
And not just the tune, but the inflection...
Right. If you don’t know a Freddy King song, and you’re trying to play Texas blues, you’re not quite there yet. Which is what I kind of figured out. They know the history, man.
Can you recall the moments when you felt you weren’t quite prepared?
Oh yeah, I still feel like that sometimes. Just a little bit more confident and relaxed about going into situations. I remember the first time I got up and someone called a minor blues. I was like, “What?” I didn’t know what that was. I’m playing these natural happy chords over this minor blues thing. People were looking at me, like [makes a face]. I like to learn onstage, helps you conquer your fears. All you can do is mess it up really bad, and play it a few times.
Clark told me at one point that all the songs on his new album, Blak and Blu, are autobiographical. So it’s interesting to consider “When My Train Pulls In,” his opener at the Austin City Limits Music Festival:
In case you missed them, here are the lyrics for the first verse:
Everyday nothing seems to change
Everywhere I go I keep seeing the same old thing
And I can’t take it no more.
Oh, I would leave this town but I ain’t got nowhere else to go
There’s obviously some poetic license at work here. But the sense of things being stalled somehow — that’s something many working musicians in Austin can relate to, and Clark owned up to it immediately. (More on this in the piece: see “velvet rut.”)
I was standing near the back of the stage during Clark’s set, and one of the words that I scrawled in my notebook during this performance was “Coltrane” — not for his choice of notes, but for the feeling, the intensity, and the sense of lift. So when we spoke, about an hour after the set ended, I asked about how he approaches improvisation, and what has guided his approach to shaping a solo. I also mentioned that I come from a jazz background, which probably explains some of the name-dropping in his reply:
I know the stuff that kind of moves me. Hendrix was a big influence on that, Stevie Ray Vaughan. Really when it comes to improv and playing solo, Grant Green, Wes Montgomery. I love horn players: I mean, Miles Davis, Lee Morgan, John Coltrane of course. Dizzy Gillespie. When you’re talking about how to express and tell a story without saying anything vocally? Jazz is a good place to go to. There’s this awesome trumpet player, Ephraim Owens. I remember seeing him all the time at the Continental Gallery. Doesn’t sing one word, but he’s so expressive, you feel that. So to be able to experience that up close at a place like the Continental Gallery, I took a lot from that. I had many nights coming home and going: “Wow, there are a lot of things he didn’t say [but got across].” Picked up a lot of stuff from that, for sure.
I love the nod to Ephraim Owens, another musician working night by night in Austin: somehow this influence seems more important to me than the stuff Clark extracted from old Blue Note albums. I could be wrong on that point, but I consider Clark a classic example of the good that can come from a strong local scene — and it’s satisfying to think that hearing live jazz right in his backyard, on a regular basis, helped shape him.
P.S. The photographer on assignment for the Times was Ben Sklar, who has known Gary since they were in Cub Scouts together. They both graduated from Austin High, reconnecting in recent years. Ben is not responsible for the grainy image at the top of this post — that's courtesy of my iPhone — so do yourself a favor and check out his work, which accompanies the piece.