“I said I wasn’t going to get into this because it makes me emotional,” Gary Clark Jr. said on a recent evening at Austin’s Arlyn Studios. His voice was quavering as he talked about his new song “This Land,” a brutally honest account of the racism he endured growing up in the American South. The emotions behind the track were so raw that Clark had not planned to discuss them at all.
But he did, resulting in a powerful story about what it’s like to be black in America at a time when “we’re sliding backwards,” as Clark puts it. In the first installment of our new How I Wrote This series, Clark speaks for the first time about the reality of his youth, “getting dogshit in the mailbox, people writing ‘nigger’ on my fence outside my parent’s house, riding around in trucks [putting] Confederate flags over my fence. That was a regular occurrence.”
The election of Donald Trump, police shootings, the deadly 2017 Charlottesville rally and more headlines brought those feelings to the surface for Clark — as did a personal encounter with a neighbor at his home outside Austin. Clark remembers being approached by a local near the 50-acre home he recently bought with his wife Nicole Trunfio to raise their two kids. “My neighbor comes to me and says, ‘Who owns this house? There’s no way you can live here – who’s the owner?” says Clark, who responded that he was indeed the owner. “Maybe it wasn’t racial,” Clark says. “But in my mind I was thinking of that. And I’m tired of having to think that way.”
Clark also describes one of his several trips to the Lorraine Motel, the site of assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., which is now the National Civil Rights Museum. “My people have been through a lot. And I haven’t been through shit compared to them. So if I can do anything with my opportunity and the work that they put in, the least I can do is say thank you for your sacrifice. Thank you Dr. Martin Luther King for sacrificing your life so I can get up and have a microphone. I’m not taking this for granted.”
Clark then gives a highly-charged performance of the song in the same room where he recorded it. He sings about about living on “50 acres with a Model A/Right in the middle of Trump country,” next to a neighbor who “can’t wait to call the police on me” between fiery solos. Clark releases his third album, This Land, on March 1st. “I wanted every not and lyric to mean something,” Clark recently told Rolling Stone.