As laptop DJs blare radio “hitz” and doormen hock suspect drink specials on every corner, most Austinites on Dirty Sixth are unlikely to stumble across enlightenment or soul.
Gary Clark Jr. is not most Austinites.
Over the past few years, Austin’s guitar great has become a superstar on the international festival circuit, but in 2014 he slowed his tour schedule and returned to his hometown for nearly a year to record his new album, “The Story of Sonny Boy Slim,” at Arlyn Studios in South Austin.
At the end of one night he found himself walking down Sixth Street. He had his headphones on, trying to sort out lyrics in his mind, when he was stopped by Christopher Copeland, an older gentleman, fatigued by a life spent on and off the streets.
“Hey man I’ve been seeing you. You’re doing your thing out here,” Clark remembers him saying. “Keep doing what you’re doing. It’s important and you’re a soldier out here.” Then he began to sing an old spiritual, “Hard Fighting Soldier.”
“I’m a hard fighting solider and I’m on the battlefield.
“Lord, I’m a hard fighting soldier and I’m on the battlefield.”
It was a strange time for Clark. His fiancee, Nicole Trunfio, was pregnant with his son. He was feeling creative and inspired but nervous about the future. The country was erupting with racial strife. Ferguson, Baltimore, it all weighed heavy on his mind. He was trying to process it the only way he knows, through music.
At the same time he was preparing to meet his child. He was haunted by the beautiful, terrifying sensation of formless, unfathomable love every parent knows. It affected everything. “Everything had to mean something. Every note that I played. Every lyric that I sang. Every note,” Clark says. “It had to really mean something, otherwise it wasn’t worth doing it.”
He had been meditating on the healing power of music, an idea that would become the guiding concept for the album. When Copeland started to sing on that dark, liquor-soaked street, something stirred. Clark, who was raised in the church, began to sing along, providing quiet, graceful harmonies to Copeland’s world-worn lead.
“I’m a hard fighting soldier and I’m on the battlefield.
“I keep bringing souls to Jesus, by the service.”
Clark took out his phone and there, on Austin’s avenue of stale vomit and endless regret, where sin trumps salvation every time, he recorded the religious invocation that would introduce the new album.
Torchbearer for Austin music
It’s a triple-digit scorcher at the end of August, but the punishing early evening heat doesn’t stop hordes of fans from lining up for two hours outside ACL Live to catch the hometown hero at his second headlining appearance on the city’s signature music show, “Austin City Limits.” Clark’s summer schedule has been stacked, and the taping was scheduled around festival slots and high-profile arena gigs.
Even before summer concert season it was a busy year: Clark’s work to to wrap up the record was interrupted by performances at a Stevie Wonder tribute with fellow Texan Beyoncé in February, a South by Southwest appearance at the Austin Music Awards with his old friend Eve Monsees in March, and the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony for Austin icon Stevie Ray Vaughan in April.
Clark, 31, was an obvious choice for the Vaughan tribute. His style of furious electric blues guitar work draws influence from the man whose distinctive spin on the sound put Austin music on the map. He taught himself to play listening to records and trying to recreate the sounds he heard, and Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan albums were his songbooks. Clark’s parents, Sandi and Gary, say they first became aware of the depth of their son’s talent at a family Thanksgiving celebration. Clark, 13 at the time, had been playing for less than a year. He was too shy to give his relatives a recital, but at some point in the evening he began to quietly to play along to music on the stereo. Clark’s aunts, uncles and cousins gathered around him, astonished, as he re-created “Little Wing,” a Jimi Hendrix song that was a staple of Stevie’s repertoire, lick for lick.
Backstage before the “ACL” taping, Clark underplayed his part in the Rock Hall performance, emphasizing the emotional turns from his mentors. “I was honored to be there, but I felt like my role in it was very insignificant seeing as how Jimmie Vaughan was there with Double Trouble,” he says. He also tips his hat to Doyle Bramhall II, who “grew up on Stevie’s lap,” and dismissed himself as “the new guy fan who grew up on TV, watching him with tons of others.”
Despite his humility, Clark embraces the role of Austin music ambassador. In late 2014, Freddy Fletcher, co-owner of Arlyn Studios and a principal at ACL Live, recorded a double-episode pilot for “Inside Arlyn,” a proposed music television show hosted by his uncle, Willie Nelson. Fletcher’s idea was to celebrate the energy that will drive Austin’s musical legacy forward. “Willie’s like the godfather and Gary Clark will be the guy who carries that torch,” he said at the time.
Clark nods thoughtfully while he listens to this story.
How does it feel to be the torchbearer for Austin music?
“To be very honest with you, it’s something that I always kind of wanted,” he says.
On the way to Crossroads
Clark’s ability to summon soul on Sixth is tied to his musical roots on the street. As a young teenager, he got his start playing blues jams at the shuttered dive Joe’s Generic Bar and the somewhat more respectable club Babe’s (now Friends). Later he would play gigs at the Austin branch of the Hard Rock Cafe chain (now Recess), where his first taste of success was selling out copies of the demo CD his parents helped him produce.
Initially his folks accompanied him to all gigs, but soon he found the supervised visits were not enough to satiate his appetite for live music. Among his friends he earned the name “Hotwire” by slipping off with his mom’s car after his folks were asleep. “He was sneaking out the house, going down to Antone’s to hear bands, and I’m snoozing,” Gary Clark Sr. says.
The clandestine nights at Antone’s were formative for Clark. He tapped the knowledge of local greats Jimmie Vaughan and Doyle Bramhall II and soaked up the sounds of visiting blues legends. He credits club owner Clifford Antone as a driving force in his career. “I wouldn’t have the musical education, the knowledge, if it wasn’t for that guy who allowed me to hang backstage with Hubert Sumlin and Pinetop Perkins and James Cotton, these guys telling me stories… and then (to) go listen to and really be able to feel it,” Clark says.
The seasoned blues men were similarly impressed by the young gun who was so serious about learning their craft. “What I remember so clearly is that the older guys, older blues musicians were just so awed by Gary and thought he was so great,” Susan Antone, Clifford’s sister, says.
Early on Clark was approached by small labels and management teams, but his parents were wary and hired a lawyer to review contracts that didn’t add up. Clark wasn’t ready to sign anyway. “He also didn’t think he was good enough,” his mother, Sandi Clark, says. “He was like, ‘I’ve got so much to learn.’”
When Clark graduated from Austin High School, he turned down a full-ride scholarship to study music at the University of Texas and instead threw himself into playing full time. By July 2003, when he was just 19, he landed at the Continental Club for the weekly Wednesday happy-hour residency he would hold for three years. During that time his talent blossomed.
He started as a one-man show, alone on the stage with his guitar and his voice. Sometimes he used a harmonica rack. He put a tack in his shoe and used a stomp board for percussion. He’d play acoustic guitar and sing, paying homage to the old-school blues tradition. Then he would switch to electric, an unusual move for a soloist, but Clark pulled it off. He was riveting, but also painfully shy.
“When he would play, he always had his eyes closed, and when he’d finish his song, he’d look up really quick and then look down again,” Dianne Scott, the club’s longtime publicist, says.
Even in the beginning, Scott knew there was something special about Clark. He had the fire, the magic. He was writing prolifically and his set rapidly developed from covers to original material. His solo act grew into a trio with Jay Moeller on drums and James Bullard on bass, and the additional players helped him relax.
Scott raved about Clark in the Continental Confidential, the club’s long-running email newsletter. “Gary is the real deal, and you’ll want to be able to say you ‘knew him when…’,” she wrote for the first time in October 2003. It was a refrain she’d repeat. Folks listened. Crowds at the club swelled.
“It got to the point where it was standing room only,” Sandi Clark says. “Steve (Wertheimer, the club’s owner) said to me one night, ‘I know I’m not going to be able to keep him here much longer.’”
The end of the run came in 2006. At the request of Austin Chronicle editor Louis Black, Scott introduced Clark to director John Sayles at the Continental Club one night. Sayles would cast Clark as the lead in the film “Honeydripper,” a story about a young blues guitarist. Excitement around Clark was building, but buzz doesn’t pay the bills. After the film wrapped he returned to Austin. Over the next few years he managed to eke out a living playing gigs at clubs around town, but money was tight. He was too proud to ask for help, so his mother would sometimes show up at his house unannounced with groceries or gas money. “Starving artist, that was Gary,” she says.
In 2010, organist Mike Flanigin briefly did a duo gig with Clark at Vino Vino, a wine bar on Guadalupe Street. “I remember we had like no attendance,” he says. “And then Gary, he had to take one week off, I remember, to go to the Crossroads Festival in Chicago.”
Everything was about to change.
Clark’s longtime friend, Doyle Bramhall II, was a frequent collaborator of Eric Clapton and passed Clark’s demo to Clapton, who hand-selected him as the only newcomer to play his Crossroads Guitar Festival that year. Clark dropped a scorching cover of Jimmy Reed’s “Bright Lights, Big City.” The 26-year-old guitar wiz was the talk of the event. For Clark, the experience was emotional and surreal.
“It was just really humbling to him that he was onstage with so many of his idols and he said, ‘Mom, I didn’t have a dime in my pocket,’” Sandi Clark says.
Shortly after the festival, Clark signed to Warner Bros. Records and released the “Bright Lights” EP. His mother says when he received his first royalties check, he cried.
Bringing it home
Clark hits the stage at ACL Live to raucous cheers from the hometown crowd. He stretches his fingers with a quiet phrase of dissonant harmonics before charging hard into the grimy riff from “Bright Lights.” The crowd goes wild.
He winds through “Ain’t Messin’ Around,” then unleashes guitar fury with “When My Train Comes In,” an eight-minute, slow-building burner with blistering solos that move through his body like a firestorm. The familiar material is received deliriously, but it’s the new songs — glorious R&B and soul numbers, resounding with warmth and profound love — that demonstrate Clark’s growth as an artist and an individual.
At the taping he is backed by the Hard Proof horns (members of a local Afrobeat crew) performing the same songs they play on the album. Also on the album are Clark’s old friends from Austin clubs, drummers J.J. Johnson and Jay Moeller and keyboardist Lewis Stephens.
Clark easily could have tapped a well-known vocalist for a high-profile guest spot on the album — one of his biggest cheerleaders for years has been R&B star Alicia Keys. Instead he brought in his sisters, Shawn and Savannah Clark, to back him on the powerful chorus of lead track “The Healing,” the Michael Jackson-esque pop song “Star” and the acoustic love song “Church.”
Savannah, the younger of the two, is a student at Texas State University. Her debut live performance was backing her brother at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. “(Gary) said, ‘I grew up with my sisters listening to music, and how cool would it be to have them on the stage where so many artists that we listened to have performed,’” Sandi Clark says.
He also invited Austin soul maven Tameca Jones to appear on the album. Her voice jumps an octave when she describes her excitement about the opportunity. “He could have asked anybody in the world. Anybody,” she says. She was honored and flattered. “(The fact) he wanted to put an Austin artist like me on there is just further proof that he wants to represent his hometown and get back to his roots.”
While he was in town recording, he played a free show at the Scoot Inn with high school buddies and rappers Zeale and Phranchyze, and recorded a guest spot on Flanigin’s excellent new album “The Drifter.” Flanigin was touched. “He didn’t have to be on this record. As a matter of fact, it was a hassle for him. … But he did, and in the midst of blowing up and playing with everybody in the world, he took the time.”
These days he lives out of a suitcase and recently bought a house in L.A., but Clark carries Austin in his heart. The point of recording the album here was “to just bring it back to the core, and understand it and appreciate it and be inspired by it,” he says.
In 2003, Clark played the first ACL Fest, an early afternoon set in the gospel tent. This year he returns as one of the fest’s top-billed acts. It’s set up to be the weekend’s most triumphant event, with guest spots from old friends and family and radiant love.
If you go
Gary Clark Jr. at 2015 ACL Fest
7 p.m. Oct. 2 and 9 on the HomeAway stage.
As an artist, Clark eschews flash for substance. His gift is an innate ability to translate emotion into sound with a rawness and urgency you feel deep in your body. When he played the Scoot Inn last year the audience was silent, leaning forward to listen intently as he churned out deep bucket blues that seeped into the foundation of the historic East Austin club, bleeding integrity into a corner of the city currently swept up in a struggle to save its own soul.
The Live Music Capital is in a difficult place right now, facing challenges that sometimes feel insurmountable, but Clark’s fest sets offer an opportunity to set the anxiety aside and lose yourself in soaring sound. As the sun sets over Zilker Park, Austin’s musical legacy will be blazing bright.
Peter Blackstock contributed to this story. Title photo by Jay Janner.