Gary Clark Jr.: The Chosen One

He made Eric Clapton want to play again, and Buddy Guy thinks he might save the blues. But Gary Clark Jr. isn't so sure he wants to be the next great guitar hero

Gary Clark Jr.
Frank Maddocks
December 24, 2013 1:00 PM ET

Abone-rattling fuzz roars off the back walls of Madison Square Garden on a recent spring Saturday afternoon. Gary Clark Jr. stands onstage before 19,500 empty seats with his blue Epiphone hollow-body, playing the solo to "Numb" – a brooding blues song with ringing feedback, hazy harmonics and manic, octave-jumping squeals. He paces the stage, listening at all angles, before abruptly taking his guitar off to huddle with his manager. "See how Gary's twisting his hair?" Clark's road manager Blayne Tucker says from the side of the stage. "That means he's nervous."

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Clark is preparing for a late-night slot at Eric Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival, a gathering of three dozen of the world's biggest guitar heroes, including Keith Richards, Jeff Beck, the Allman Brothers Band, B.B. King, John Mayer and Buddy Guy. Clark, 29, is the only artist under 30 to score a full-band set. "There is pressure," he says quietly as the crew loads risers of amps onto the rotating stage. "Coming from Austin, there are so many guitar players there. And here I am playing the Garden. It still doesn't feel fair."

Clark has other things to worry about at the moment. His entire family traveled from Austin for the show, and their 10 VIP tickets went missing from the dressing room last night. "I had them in my bag, right here," Clark says, fumbling through his personal stuff on a backstage table. He thinks it might have been someone from the cleaning crew.

It's also not lost on Clark that he owes his career to Crossroads. His short set at the 2010 fest in Chicago propelled him from four-night-a-week residencies at Texas clubs to a deal with Warner Bros.; last October he released his major-label debut, Blak and Blu, and played packed gigs from Coachella to the Royal Albert Hall with Clapton; and his first major theater tour, which starts in September, is selling out. He's played with the Rolling Stones more than any other guest on their current tour. "He's billed as a kind of blues singer, but sometimes he sounds like early Bruce Springsteen," says Mick Jagger. "And I'm not putting it down!"

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"He's as good as it gets," says Guy. "Gary reminds me of T-Bone Walker more than anybody I've ever seen. We're all trying to do this to keep this music alive, because the blues is not being played."

Just a year and a half ago, well before he started dating an Australian Victoria's Secret model, Clark lived in a one-story home in South Austin. But he was still full of raw nerves. On an overcast November afternoon in 2011, when we first meet, he paces, chain-smoking Parliaments outside Antone's Nightclub in Austin. Antone's can lay claim to producing Austin's last guitar hero: It was here in the late Seventies that owner Clifford Antone persuaded Albert King to let a teenager named Stevie Ray Vaughan onstage.

This night, a crowd heavy on gray ponytails mingles inside, listening to Jimmie Vaughan play a twangy instrumental take on Little Richard's "Lucille," part of a memorial concert for Doyle Bramhall Sr., the late drummer for Jimmie and Stevie Ray. Clark had been asked to perform but begged off, spending most of the event outside, leaning against the plate-glass windows. "I'm just trying to lie low," he says. "It's cool they would ask me to do it. But it would be like, 'This motherfucker again, sitting in on that show?' I knew [Bramhall] as kind of a fan. All these guys played with him and know him. I just came to pay my respects. Stay out of the way."

Clark knows Antone's as well as anybody – he's been playing here since he was 15. He grew up in Austin's suburban Oak Hill neighborhood in a churchgoing Baptist family with three sisters, his mother an accountant, his dad a car salesman. He picked up the guitar in sixth grade to play with neighborhood girl Eve Monsees, spending afternoons learning Ramones songs in her garage. ("We just vibed," says Clark.) The duo played Stevie Ray Vaughan's "Pride and Joy" at the eighth-grade talent show and started performing as Gary and Eve at local Sixth Street dives. Then Antone invited them to one of the club's famous blues jams, bringing them onstage to play Walker's "T-Bone Shuffle," and they nailed the tricky twin-guitar harmony. "It caught my ear right away," says blues-harp great James Cotton. "He wasn't just playing that wah-wah guitar. He was really playing the blues. You don't hear much of that."

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Clark spent nights in his bedroom emulating heroes like Lightnin' Hopkins, Elmore James and six-fingered Chicago slide master Hound Dog Taylor. Taylor's frenetic style – gritty solos that can stray miles from the rhythm section – can still be heard in Clark's. "He played this wild, raw, nasty shit – as lowdown as you can get," Clark says in a greasy Mexican joint after the memorial. His dad would drive him after school to gigs, where Gary would get another education. "They would lay it all out for us," he says of the musicians at Antone's. "Hubert Sumlin would tell me about playing with Howlin' Wolf, and it's like, 'Oh, I gotta go home, and I got some algebra homework to do.'"

"Even being as good friends as we were, it was always sort of hard to read Gary," says Monsees, who now co-owns Antone's Record Shop. But he had little trouble fitting in: "I'd get wound up [before shows], just kind of nervous. He just seemed kind of laid-back."

By 17, Clark was playing with older pros and hanging out in "lots of smoky rooms." That year he was arrested for smoking weed on school grounds, which he sings about in his high-voltage rocker "Travis County." "I was high," he says. "But after sitting in [jail] for a while, I was like, 'Damn. This sucks. I don't ever want to come back here, ever.'" (He admits he did wind up in jail again. "I don't really want to get into all that," he says.)

To his parents' disappointment, Clark turned down a full scholarship at UT Austin, instead choosing to gig full-time, tour with Jimmie Vaughan and promote his first LP, Worry No More, a blues throwback album released on his own label. But Clark admits he was losing focus: "There was a lot of drinking and a lot of talking shit to people for no reason. There was a set or two where I was looking out with one eye trying really hard to keep it together.

"I tried playing a gig on mushrooms that went horribly," he adds. "It was awesome before it wasn't awesome anymore."

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