Photo ©Peter Lodder
Summing up Gary Clark Jr. becomes more challenging every day. He’s a musical universe unto himself, expanding at a nearly immeasurable rate, and is ever becoming harder to define—as a mind-blowing guitarist, a dazzling songwriter and engagingly soulful singer.
With his debut album Blak And Blu he has just become the first artist to be recognized by the Recording Academy with GRAMMY® Award nominations in both the Rock and R&B categories for the same album in the same year, winning the latter: Best Traditional R&B Performance for “Please Come Home.” The day after claiming those honors he provided one of the highlights of the highlight-filled “The Night That Changed America: A Grammy Salute to the Beatles,” with sparks flying as he dueled with Joe Walsh on an incendiary “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” Dave Grohl behind them pounding the drums.
But that barely scratches the surface. The album’s a rocket ride from the Mississippi Delta of a century ago to multiple points still out beyond the horizon. Rock and R&B sure, but blues, soul, pop, psychedelia, punk, and hip-hop are also in Clark’s expansive musical embrace and insatiable hunger for inspiration, which he’s internalized into music all his own. And his two acoustic blues performances on the soundtrack album for the acclaimed movie 12 Years a Slave show the distinct talent and personality he brings to his music.
That, in turn, has been inspirational to others—including some who inspired him. Just ask Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Jay-Z, Jimmy Page, Alicia Keys, the Roots, Buddy Guy, Dave Matthews, Roger Waters, Keith Urban, Sheryl Crow, and Jeff Beck—among the many who hailed his arrival as a major talent and cherished chances to perform with him. It’s no accident that he was invited to make more “special guest” appearances on the Stones’ recent 50th anniversary tour than any other artist, including the concluding Hyde Park blowout in which Gary and his band also were the opening act.
Or ask President Barack Obama himself, who seeing Clark command the stage of the PBS White House concert honoring the blues—with Jagger, Beck, B.B. King, and Buddy Guy among the veterans performing—declared of the young man, “He’s the future.”
Rolling Stone dubbed Clark “The King of the Summer Festivals” as he captivated audiences from Coachella to Glastonbury, Lollapalooza to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, from Metallica’s Orion Festival to Jay-Z’s Made in America, and of course, his hometown Austin City Limits Festival, where he his band set a daytime attendance record. He’s dominated late night and daytime TV with multiple appearances on Leno, Letterman, Kimmel, Conan, Fallon, Arsenio Hall, Queen Latifah, Today, CBS This Morning, and so on. Guitar Player magazine made him the first emerging artist to grace its cover in more than 15 years. Rolling Stone proclaimed him no less than “The Chosen One.”
It’s a lot to live up to, but through it all his musical ambition and reach continue to grow. New songs he’s previewed to delighted audiences show him exploring ever further combinations of sounds and styles, all with his distinct stamp.
A man of few words, he’s quietly grateful that the music he makes his way has connected with so many. “To think a weird idea I noodled on at the house has gone to something 40,000 people might hear at a festival is an indescribable feeling,” he told Esquire recently. “As cool as I might try to be, I think, ‘Oh my God, this is real!’”