First-round Grammy voting is currently underway, and running through October 10th. For our 2020 Grammy preview, we asked a series of likely contenders to reflect on their past experiences at the ceremony, look ahead to the future, and break down the albums and singles that could earn them a statue come February.
Gary Clark Jr. has only fragmented memories of watching the Grammys as a child in the 1980s. “I have a vision of Lionel Richie and his big Afro,” he says. “I remember seeing Little Richard, Ray Charles, Cyndi Lauper, sparkly costumes, and big trophies. It was the excitement of someone’s name being announced and the whole room lighting up.” He never could have imagined his name would be the one to light up the room, but in 2014 he found himself at the ceremony after his debut LP, Blak and Blu, racked up nominations for Best Rock Song and Best Traditional R&B Performance. It remains one of the most amazing nights of his life.
Tell me about learning you had been nominated for two Grammys. It must have been shocking.
Yeah. I was absolutely shocked. I never thought … Of course, I wanted to be there and I always dreamed of it, but I didn’t think on my first album I’d be nominated for two Grammys in two totally different categories. I always knew I wanted to be a diverse artist and kind of be respected for that, doing whatever I wanted to do, so to be acknowledged by the Academy like that, I was like … “Wow. This is happening.”
It’s the ultimate validation.
Actually, when I found out I was nominated, I got to be honest with you, I felt like I could breathe a little bit. I was confident in myself, obviously, because I love doing it. I didn’t care what anyone thinks, but I was trying to make a life out of it and kind of be a rebel with a cause — or without a cause, depending on who you are. People were like, “I don’t know what to do with you. I don’t know who that is or who you’re trying to be.” And here I was. This was the Recording Academy, the Grammys. They see what’s up, so screw you all [laughs].
Tell me about walking the red carpet and what it was like to be at the ceremony the first time.
I was really nervous. I’m getting nervous thinking about me being nervous right now. I was a hot mess, all sweaty on the carpet. Everyone is around. I was being acknowledged. Artists I’d seen forever were near me, like Jill Scott. I was like, “What the hell is happening?” And then doing interviews on the red carpet. I had never done anything that major, so I was like, “Try not to say anything stupid. Make sure you don’t have anything on your face. Try to be cool. You’re in here. Try to enjoy the moment.” I was a nervous wreck.
You were up for Best Rock Performance against Muse, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and the surviving members of Nirvana with Paul McCartney. That’s a crazy group of people to be competing against.
Yeah [laughs]. I knew I wasn’t going to get that one [laughs]. I knew that was not going down, but I was looking up there at the screen where they had everyone’s face. I was like, “I can’t believe this.” There were boxes of us sitting there when they said, “And the nominees are …” And I was up there with Dave Grohl and Paul McCartney. “My face is up there with their faces.” It was crazy, but it was awesome.
And the entire country is looking at your facial expression.
Yeah. I don’t know if I played it cool. I knew I wasn’t going to win that award. I don’t know if my face did, though.
You did win Best Traditional R&B Performance. What was it like when they read your name?
Man, that was crazy. That was unbelievable. I wasn’t expecting to win. … When you hear them say “and the Grammy goes to” and they call your name, I was in shock. Everything kind of went slow-motion for a little bit. I was looking around at everyone in my row, like my family, everyone that worked on the label and kept pushing. Everything just kind of slowed down and I flashed back to being on the road in the van with a trailer and traveling all over, traveling this album, the first time I got my guitar. And then Jimmy Jam was handing me my Grammy.
I remember thinking, “I don’t know what to say.” My manager Scooter [Weintraub] was like, “You know, everyone has a speech prepared just in case because people kind of get wrapped up in the moment. It might seem crazy, but you might want to do that.” I was like, “No, thats kind of a douche move.” And so I went up there. I don’t know what I said. I was probably a hot mess. I thanked a few people, but probably not everybody. My knees were shaking. I was like, “Try and get out of here before you faint.”
Then you played with Keith Urban that same night.
Yeah! That was crazy, man. That was … I was just nervous. I try to be as cool as I was, but I was like, “I’m performing at the Grammys and I’m performing with Keith Urban. He’s this country artist, a major artist, and I’m just some dude from Texas.” I was playing one of his songs and I didn’t know the words. We just had one rehearsal. I was worried I would mess it up, and sure enough I did. I flubbed one of the lyrics. … I survived it. The worst thing that could happen is you mess up a lyric on the Grammys. And I did.
The next few years, they kept calling you back. You did the B.B. King tribute, the Albert King tribute, the Fats Domino tribute. You became their go-to tribute guy.
Yeah. It has been incredible to honor those artists. Whenever they call me, I try to be as respectful as I can and show my appreciation.
I was watching the MusiCares Grammy tribute to Tom Petty where you’re playing one of his songs and he’s watching from the side of the stage. That must have been amazing.
Oh, yeah. It’s also intimidating. I gotta be honest about it. You’re performing a song by one of the greatest songwriters of all time and they’re there watching. You’re just like, “Shit. I don’t want to be here, man. I do not want you standing there.”
And then the Grammy Beatles salute when you played a Beatles song to Paul and Ringo.
Yeah. Those are really cool moments when you get through them and you don’t mess them up. It’s just wild, man, to be performing these people’s songs in front of them. It was cool to be with Joe Walsh and Dave Grohl. They made everything so easy and so fun. I love those guys.
I would love to see you do “This Land” or another one of your originals at the next Grammys and not another cover song.
Yeah. Being a tribute dude is cool, but, shit, I don’t know anybody that doesn’t want to perform their own records at the Grammys. I’m ready.
I think this album is it. It’s gotten a really good response. You must be feeling that.
Yeah. [These songs] have been incredible to play live. They keep getting more powerful. I’m ready if they are.
Are thinking yet about your next record, or can you not think that far ahead yet?
I went straight from doing the record to being out on tour. I’m always doing something creative. I’ve got ideas, but I’m not even thinking about putting another album together. Right now, at the moment, when I get a little bit of time, I’ll see what I got and put something together. But I’m in the moment right now. I’m on tour and trying to make the band as tight as possible.
You seem to take a nice step up with each album.
Yeah. I think it’s just a natural progression of being older and trying to be better. Luckily, it’s been a great response. It’s been a trip going from small clubs to amphitheaters to bigger festivals and having these slots. I’m enjoying the moment now. It’s feeling good.
You’re proving you don’t need a big Top 10 hit to play these big venues. There are other ways to do it.
True. But, you know, if I could get one in the Top 10, that wouldn’t hurt.
But radio is so tough these days. It’s for teenagers.
Yeah, but for me, it was the same way. When I was a kid listening to the radio, my folks were like, “What the hell is that?” It took me to be exposed to live shows and be exposed to music venues and hanging out with other people that listened to other music to open up my eyes. I think the radio is a great way to introduce people to the idea of music. There’s levels to it. I’m trying to be on all of it.