“That song started with me on the MPC [drum machine]. I just looped a beat.” Usually when someone explains that’s how they began writing a song, it’s a hip-hop producer like Kanye West or Pharrell Williams, not blues singer/guitarist Gary Clark Jr. But that’s just how he began fleshing out “Down to Ride,” the standout closing track of his brand new album, The Story of Sonny Boy Slim.
From there, he went to his Korg SV1 keyboard to lay down some sinuous synth swirls straight outta Minneapolis, then broke out his Stratocaster guitar and inserted a funky scratching rhythm that you’d swear came from Nile Rodgers. The end result is an “outer space” slow jam, a far cry from down home love pleas like “Please Come Home,” from his 2012 debut, Blak & Blu.
“I just wanted to do something different that you wouldn’t really expect,” says Clark. That expectation comes from a deeper ideal of the monolithic Black musician, and music fan. Hip-hop and R&B is our lane and rock and blues belongs to White people, so the story goes. This context has never been an issue with Clark. Whether from the horn heavy, social outcry of “Hold On,” the bruising roller-skating jam that is “Can’t Sleep,” or the gentility of “Church,” it’s clear that blues may be the face of Clark’s artistry, but its head and heart is everything else.
The story of Sonny Boy Slim begins and ends in Austin, Texas, where 31-year-old Clark has called home virtually his entire life. In a region full of rich blues music, Clark’s inspiration was more sponge than sieve, soaking up all that surrounded him. “People might expect that I listen to certain things, straight-ahead blues, rock,” Clark says. “[But] I grew up listening to Chi-Lites, Al Green, Smokey Robinson and the Brothers Johnson.”
Music played a big role in his life as a child, but he wasn’t particularly invested in learning to play music until he saw a neighbor playing an electric six-string in her garage. He was awestruck.
“It went from that, to being a fan of the Jackson 5 and hearing guitar over those soul records,” Clark explains. The expansive triple guitar attack of “I Want You Back” and the propulsive fuzz guitar of “ABC” put Gary over the top to pursue guitar seriously. “Guitar always stood out to me; it was the only instrument that could go from here to there. As soon as I picked it up, that was it for me.”
Austin is the place that molded Clark from the curious kid with a guitar to the Grammy-winning artist we know now. His aforementioned influences notwithstanding, it was the local musicians—Derek O’Brien, Mike Keller, Tony Redman and others—who served as Clark’s professors in his journey to guitar scholarship. The impact of seeing these vets play the same songs differently one night after the next fed his musical hunger.
“I learned everything from them,” Clark admits. “I learned how to play guitar solos, rhythm guitar, because I could see it right there. I’d ask, ‘What is that? What chord is that? How do you bend that from here to there?’ ” The seeds of the squealing, hulking improvisations we hear on “Bright Lights,” “When My Train Rolls In” and “Numb” were all sown in Austin, and play a big part of new Sonny Boy Slim tracks like “Wings,” “Star” and “Shake.”
Clark comes from a long line of guitarists who fused rock and soul to lasting effect. Jimi Hendrix cut his teeth with Little Richard and the Isley Brothers before melting the mold with the strike of his upside down Strat. That informed guitarist Ernie Isley to bring the rock essence to his band’s provocative work in the 1970s. The late Eddie Hazel’s contribution to Funkadelic was the centerpiece for what separated them from the typical funk band. Today, like his predecessors, Clark’s aesthetic relies on his fusion of several genres, enhanced by his bluesy presentation.
When in the studio, Clark told his band he wanted an album that “sounds like John Lee Hooker, OutKast, Curtis Mayfield, and throw in a little folk, country, blues.” It’s quite an eclectic cauldron of styles, but he contends they’re all connected. “When I first started playing guitar, I was listening to Albert King and then I’d listen to Wu-Tang and hear an Albert King lick in a sample, you know? It all comes from the same place,” he says.
Just listen to Sonny Boy Slim’s “Star.” Its brooding bass line faintly gives that same smoky haze that RZA blessed with best work. Those hip-hop musings played a huge role in Clark’s introduction to the music world at large. While in his early 20s, touring with the likes of Jimmy Vaughn (brother of guitar legend Stevie Ray Vaughn) he tried to assimilate into Austin’s hip-hop scene. “I had my turntables, drum machine, thinking I could jump in that way,” Clark remembers. “So I was making beats for local hip-hop artists that would come by my house. We got tapes and tapes of me doing that, outside of me playing guitar.”
During this period, he was always creating demos of his own work. After recording a blues album at 17, Worry No More, Clark started experimenting with traditional blues, rockabilly and hip-hop. Those demos turned into a 2004 EP called 110. His home studio was modest at best, equipped with a Fostex MRA 10-Track digital recorder, Shure SM58 handheld mics and a CD recorder. No pre-amp. No soundboard. Clark played everything himself. He almost didn’t even release it. Not until a mutual friend introduced him to Cody Chesnutt, the man behind underground lo-fi classic The Headphone Masterpiece.
“I didn’t share  with anybody. I just told [Chesnutt] ‘I got songs I’ve been working on that don’t sound like anything anybody would expect. I’m really passionate about it,’ ” Clark remembers. “He said, ‘You gotta do it, you just gotta put it out.’ From there, I really looked up to him.” Regardless of 110’s lo-fidelity recording, songs like “Things Are Changin’,” “Numb” and “Travis County” showed Clark’s individuality, and later found themselves updated for Blak & Blu.
It was that same one-man idiom that made Sonny Boy Slim a defining moment in Clark’s career. Although his three-member road band served as co-producers and some session work, Clark played all the instruments on “70 percent” of the album. There’s no disputing his prowess as a guitarist. But Clark’s penchant for other instruments began as child—playing drums, his cousin’s bass and his dad’s keyboard when nobody was home, making guide tracks to help him practice guitar solos. This led Clark to look to projects like Shuggie Otis’s Inspiration Information to help guide him.
“While practicing, I didn’t realize I was learning those instruments, trying to fill the void,” Clark recalls. “But then, learning about Prince, Shuggie Otis and Stevie Wonder and having all the technology around me, I thought one day I’d like to try that, see what I could come up with.”
What he came up with is an album that (like the work of Prince and Otis) challenges Black musical conventions, refusing to fall victim to popular trends. His decision to recruit genre-benders like Robert Glasper, Bilal and Alice Smith for his 2014 remix project, Blak & Blu: The Mixtape, foreshadowed that Clark isn’t here just to wave the flag of the blues. After the success and praise for Blak & Blu, surely the pressure was on. But it was self-inflicted, fueled by Clark’s desire to challenge himself. He believes in staying with what got him to the top.
“I feel like everything disappears when we elevate,” Clark proclaims. “If I was to try to do a certain thing, listen to the opinions and everything everybody wants to say and go that route, I’d be a little more bothered by that. I don’t care what y’all say, I like this.” The Story of Sonny Boy Slim cracked the Billboard 200 top 10, so Clark isn’t the only one who likes it.
Walking that fine line between self-fulfillment and universal acceptance isn’t easy, but Clark has nimble feet. “Of course you’re going to want to make records that connect with people,” he says, “and you have to be sensitive and aware of that. But at the end of the day, I play music for that feeling I got when I first started playing in that garage.”
Matthew Allen is a Brooklyn-based broadcast professional and music journalist whose work can be found in The Village Voice, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. Follow Allen on Twitter @headphoneaddict, and visit his music blog, The Well-Dressed Headphone Addict.