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
Gary Clark Jr.
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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."

He scored a role in director John Sayles' 2007 film Honeydripper, a drama set in Fifties Alabama, where Clark played a soft-spoken guitarist who steps in for a blues legend at the last minute to save a dying juke joint. But auditions for other movies didn't pan out, and when Clark returned to Austin, his bassist had left to play with Kenny Wayne Shepherd. Clark started doing one-man shows, playing the bass drum with his foot. "I was sitting in my house, lights cut off, no gigs, like, 'What the hell am I doing?'" he says. "And I got a letter from Clapton in the mail."

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Clapton's guitarist Doyle Bramhall II (the drummer's son) had recommended Clark for a slot at the 2010 Crossroads. "[Eric] asked if I had any young guitarists for the bill," says Bramhall. "I said, 'I know one.'" Clark's performance of "Bright Lights," a stomping homage to Jimmy Reed's "Bright Lights, Big City," was nearly a disaster: The PA system lost power for half of the song. But Clark extended it until the sound kicked in, and the full performance, audio intact, came off as transcendent on the widely circulated video footage. "It was the lowest I've ever felt onstage, and then the highest," Clark says. For Clapton, it was a revelation: "I wrote him a letter," he said, "saying, 'Thank you – you make me want to play again.'"

Later that night, after Antone's, we drive through East Austin. Clark cues up a live version of Otis Redding's "I Can't Turn You Loose" from the front seat of his 12-passenger Chevy tour van. Cigarette burning, he taps furiously on the dashboard as we blaze past food trucks and neighborhood bars. We pull into the Sahara Lounge, a delightfully tacky one-story juke joint decked in Christmas lights. Untouched barbecue sits in tin containers on several empty tables, and Clark's old friends, a Texas blues-rock band named the Moeller Brothers, play their Monday-night set.

Here, it feels right; after a couple of beers, Clark tosses off his blazer, borrows a Stratocaster and launches into a short set of covers. He plays Reed's "Shame, Shame, Shame" at lightning speed, tugging the Strat toward his neck with each double-string jab. He's practically beaming afterward. "Man, I feel like we should be driving 500 miles right now!" he says, grinning on the cracked pavement of the parking lot. "Where we going? Norman, Oklahoma?"

"That was a bad idea," Clark says after guzzling his second shot of Jameson, slamming it on the table in a tourist-packed Manhattan hotel bar. He's due across the street at Madison Square Garden in two hours. "Trying to be all wasted, and it's not even dark yet," he says. With the ticket issue resolved and the set list finalized ("Numb" is out, "When My Train Pulls In" is in), he's getting loose.

In the past year, he's closed his office in Austin and moved to a Lower Manhattan apartment with girlfriend Nicole Trunfio. Somehow, he's skinnier than when we first met. His wardrobe is almost exclusively by designer John Varvatos (Clark even appeared in a Varvatos ad with Jimmy Page). He recently purchased a $6,800 Ernst Benz watch. "It's the most I've ever spent on something, but I'll have it forever," he says. Clark fell for Trunfio at Coachella in 2012. "I didn't think much of her, which is funny," he says. "And then we just kinda hit it off, man. I was, like, 'Yeah. I like this. A lot. I want this to be around, a lot, all the time.'"

Expectations were high for Blak and Blu, which came out last fall. Recorded in L.A. with Dr. Dre bassist-producer Mike Elizondo and drummer J.J. Johnson (and without Clark's touring band), it's hardly a blues album. It has been criticized as being too slick, with too many ideas, ill-advised rapping ("The Life") and neosoul ("Blak and Blu"). "In hindsight, I think there are things about the record he would like to be different," says Clark's manager Scooter Weintraub. "It would probably be more raw. But he made the right move. He did not want to be categorized as just the next guitar player. He doesn't want to be a one-trick pony."

"It was hard to go to L.A. and explain what Texas twang is," Clark says. "When you say 'twang' in Texas, people know what you mean." Still, Blak and Blu has sold 170,000 copies – impressive for an album without a hit single.

Clark struggled with the expectations of fans who wanted more of the guitar fireworks of his live shows. "If it were up to everybody else, I would do Hendrix covers all the time," he says. "I saw this comment from somebody online the other day, saying, 'We need you to play more Chicago or Louisiana blues – we want the raw shit.' Well, I'm not from Chicago or from Louisiana. I'm not from that time period." His voice rises over the chattering tourists. "There was segregation. That music was the popular music at the time. People were doing what they did in that moment in time to express themselves. It's a different time. So why am I going to pretend? I'm not some poor kid who grew up in the middle of nothing." The Hendrix comparison is an especially sore spot for Clark, according to Tucker. "It's an obvious, dare I say, lazy one without even getting into the racial undertones," he says.

"Have you ever met John Mayer?" Clark asks abruptly. The two played together at a Stones gig in Newark, New Jersey. "I'm curious about him. I was waiting for him to say some shit to piss me off. But he was really cool. I couldn't imagine being in the public eye like that and people are expecting the worst from you. It's so sad."

A Long Island dad approaches Clark with his cute 10-year-old kid, sporting a mini Afro, named Brandon. "He's going to play with you someday," the dad says, handing Clark an iPhone video of his son playing at a local festival. Clark watches the kid's impressive performances for several minutes. "That's crazy," Clark says. Clark's advice to the kid? "I don't have any advice," he says. "Don't steal my gigs." Then he gives Brandon a pick and his personal e-mail address. Clark heads outside to dinner with his crew, smoking a joint on 29th Street in the sun before changing his plan and heading back to the Garden without them.

A few hours later, the Garden is full. As Keb' Mo' and Taj Mahal play "Walking Blues," Clark is huddled behind the curtain with his band; they're due on in minutes, but the bass player is missing. "Where is he?" Clark barks. The lost bassist finally wanders back, and Clark gathers the band in a circle for a pep talk. After that, he steps over some wires to a dark backstage corner, holding and kissing Trunfio and whispering in her ear for a minute. He steps away to pick up his guitar, then stops, as if he forgot something, and they embrace one more time.

Seconds later, he's onstage. With his image projected on giant LED screens, he closes his eyes and unleashes a 10-minute assault on "When My Train Pulls In." Clark plays a series of piercing staccato flourishes, flicking his treble switch and producing an ocean of feedback while shaking his head violently. The crowd roars at the end of the set, giving him one of the few standing ovations of the night; Clark takes a modest bow, says "Bless you" and smiles for the first time. "The only place he's comfortable," says Trunfio, "is when he's onstage."

This story is from the August 1st, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1188: August 1, 2013