Six years ago, Marcus King felt lost. A long-haired, pot-smoking kid going to school in the small town of Piedmont, South Carolina, he struggled to fit in — he hated sports and missed enough classes to nearly be expelled for truancy. “I have nothing good to say about Piedmont, no good memories,” says the guitarist. “They were trying to put me away, trying to put me into a juvenile detention center, trying to shave my head, put me in a jail. And I was like, ‘I didn’t do anything. I just missed a couple days of class.’ ”
But it all turned out OK. King started taking classes at a local music school to study jazz, leading him to where he is now: one of the most exciting guitarists to break through in years. With a gruff, soulful rumble of a voice, a deep love of Muscle Shoals, and a fluid, rapid-fire guitar style that recalls both Duane Allman and Mountain’s Leslie West, King has been blowing minds at events like Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival and headlining big rooms like New York’s Beacon Theatre on his own. King is about to release an excellent album, El Dorado, produced and co-written with the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, who had been wanting to work with him for a few years. “It’s staggering how good he is, how crazy-good his vocals are, how he can go anywhere on guitar,” says Auerbach.
King is a big, soft-spoken guy who talks with the battered wisdom of a veteran touring musician (“I love soul food, but you can’t eat that shit every day”). He comes from a long line of music lifers in South Carolina; his grandfather was a country guitarist who played with Charley Pride, and his dad was a local blues hero. “His granddad had a Gibson, his dad had a Gibson, and now Marcus has a Gibson — it’s all ingrained in his brain,” says Auerbach.
King says that music “was medicine for my family.” It turns out he means this literally: “My grandfather started having really bad ulcers, so the doctor suggested he start playing again. He never stopped again until he died.” King was playing as early as three years old, and his instrument became an important tool as he dealt with his mental health. “I’ve struggled with it since I was a kid: depression, parts of bipolar disorders, obsessive-compulsive, chronic anxiety, all this stuff,” he says. Playing especially helped him get through the death of one of his close friends in middle school. “I had no way to get it out,” he says. “I needed to speak to somebody, even if it was [myself].”
King started the Marcus King Band at age 15. Within just a few years, Warren Haynes released the group’s first album. When Auerbach heard King, though, he thought his sound could translate even beyond the jam-band world. He invited King to Nashville, pushed him to record solo, and wrote songs with him on the acoustic guitar. “I think it was really nice for him to get into the studio and let his guard down, mix it up with some different musicians,” says Auerbach. “We wrote as many songs as we possibly could and just let the cream rise to the top.”
“I feel really proud of it,” King says of the new album. He talks about other highlights from the past year, including rising to the occasion at the Crossroads Festival, where he met Bill Murray, Bonnie Raitt, and Clapton, who embraced King and told him how much he loves his music. “It still doesn’t feel real at all,” King says.
King is touring throughout 2020, including opening some dates for Chris Stapleton. As his career takes off, one of his goals is to raise awareness about mental health, especially in music. “I guarantee you Otis Redding did not go to a therapist,” King says. “A lot of us tend to use music as our therapist. But sometimes it’s good to talk to a professional.”
Still, he acknowledges the strange healing effect of his guitar. “Music is kinda like your dog sometimes,” King says. “You feel like it’s the only thing that’s never hurt you. The only thing you can really trust.”