Last week's Crossroads Guitar Festival featured blistering sets from road veterans like B.B. King, Eric Clapton and Buddy Guy, but some of the biggest cheers of the festival went to a kid who is still in middle school: 14-year-old Quinn Sullivan. The young player traded fiery licks with Guy on highlights like "Damn Right I Got the Blues" and joined Clapton, Jimmie Vaughan, Robbie Robertson and more during the finale jam.
"It was so surreal," Sullivan tells Rolling Stone. "I'll never forget it: Madison Square Garden, the standing ovations. It was crazy."
The festival was a milestone for Sullivan, who became interested in the blues after seeing the 2004 Crossroads Guitar Festival on DVD. He started playing at age three, when his parents gave him a First Act acoustic guitar; by six, his skills landed him an appearance on Ellen. The next year, when Sullivan's hero Buddy Guy played a gig in New Bedford, Massachusetts, a family friend brought Sullivan backstage to get his guitar signed. "I just did a few licks and Buddy told me, 'You be ready when I call you,'" says Sullivan. "I was like, 'What?"
Guy regularly gives young players a shot onstage during his shows, but this was different. "I had to unplug his amplifier to make sure it was him," Guy marvels now to Rolling Stone about that night. "I'm like, "There's no way in the world you can play these notes. He was hitting Eric Clapton, he was hitting me, Stevie, Jimi Hendrix. I couldn't even play a radio when I was seven or eight years old! Players like him come along once in a lifetime. I said, 'I need to let the world know about you.'"
In the last few years, Guy has invited Sullivan onstage for several high-profile gigs, including sitting in with B.B. King, playing Connecticut's Gathering of the Vibes festival and joining Keith Richards and Clapton at Hubert Sumlin's memorial concert at the Apollo Theater. Sullivan even played on Guy's 2008 album, Skin Deep. Guy admits he's received some backlash: "[Some media] think you're not a blues player until you hit 100 years old," says Guy. "That's the crap I've been getting about Quinn: he's too young to play the blues, but that's what they said about me when I joined Muddy Waters' band! If you listen to him, you'll have a different attitude."
Sullivan says his practice regimen isn't too intense – "I don't practice six hours a day, just when I feel like it" – and he has a pretty regular teenage life, including hanging out with friends and watching comedies like Family Guy and Modern Family. He keeps A's and B's in school, and if he has a gig, he meets with teachers to make up his work. "I had to miss two days for Crossroads, but it was pretty worth it," he says. What do his friends think? "I mean I don't think they get the full aspect of what I'm doing," he says. "It's kind of hard, I guess; if you're not living it, it's kind of hard to picture it."
The teen is also getting an invaluable education from his mentor. "Buddy tells me a story every single time I'm with him," he says. "Just being with him kind of teaches me a lot about his background and, you know, his history. . . He says, 'Don't get a bad record deal; just try to get a good person with you that's not ripping you off.' That type of stuff."
Sullivan is set to release his debut album, Getting There, on June 18th. It was recorded in Nashville with producer and co-writer Tom Hambridge, and Sullivan hopes it will jump-start a long recording career. "I kind of [want to] keep doing what I'm doing but full-time and hopefully selling a lot of records. That's kind of my dream," he says. "I'm always just trying to keep listening, keep my ears open – listening to different people and always trying to get better, you know?"