It would be easy to peg Gary Clark Jr. as a blues man. But the 28-year-old singer-guitarist from Austin, Texas, is much more than that. Clark’s debut recording for Warner Bros. Records, an EP titled The Bright Lights, touches blues, rock, soul, rhythm-and-blues and more.
“I grew up listening to everything and I still listen to everything,” Clark said last week. “So those styles are bound to peek through.”
Austin, home of the annual South By Southwest Music and Media Conference, the long-lasting public television music series, Austin City Limits, the Austin City Limits Music Festival and nearly 200 music venues, influenced Clark deeply. The Texas capital’s eclecticism broadened his view of music far beyond narrow mainstream radio playlists.
“Growing up in Austin, I was surrounded by all types of music,” he said. “From blues to country to soul, rock, electronics and so on. I couldn’t help but soak it all in.”
But mainstream rap and contemporary rhythm-and-blues artists were important to him.
“There are really so many,” he said. “Tupac (Shakur) and D’Angelo for starters, but the list goes on for days. Those are my jams. Just can’t help but feel all of that even to this day.”
In his early hometown performances, blues became a musical foundation for Clark.
“When I first started getting around town going to blues jams, I couldn’t help but go along with it,” he said.
The late Clifford Antone, one of the important figures in the development of Austin’s music scene, showcased blues greats Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Buddy Guy and John Lee Hooker at his Antone’s Nightclub, as well as such up-and-coming acts as Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Ian Moore and Los Lonely Boys.
Clark benefited from knowing Antone, too.
After playing small engagements during his early teens, Clark met Antone and subsequently sat in with and learned from Jimmie Vaughan and other major music names.
“I consider Clifford family,” Clark said. “He was one of the most gracious, open-armed people around town. He would do just about anything to help even a stranger out. He’s been a big influence in many people’s lives.”
Clark’s local profile grew quickly. In 2001, at 17, Austin’s mayor honored him with a Gary Clark Jr. Day.
The singer-guitarist later acted and performed for writer-director John Sayles’ re-creation of the deep South’s early 1950s blues scene, 2007’s Honeydripper. Clark’s set at Eric Clapton’s 2010 Crossroads Guitar Festival got him noticed by Warner Bros. Records.
In February, Clark joined blues stars Buddy Guy and B.B. King, New Orleans’ Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, Mick Jagger, Jeff Beck and more for In Performance at the White House: Red, White and Blues.
“They were very nice and gracious to me,” he said of President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama. “Considering all the history we celebrated that night, it was indeed a special event.”
In the spring and summer of 2012, Clark is appearing at the United States’ biggest music festivals, including the Coachella and Bonnaroo festivals and New Orleans’ Jazz and Heritage and Essence festivals. Playing it by ear, Clark and his band tailor their festival sets to the occasion.
“The vibe is different each night, so we adjust accordingly, depending on the feel of the crowd,” he said. “Sometimes folks are more lively and sometimes more low-key. We just got to go with the wave, really.”
With recording sessions for Clark’s upcoming full-length album complete, mixing and mastering are next. The album is tentatively set to be released Sept. 11.
“I hope this one has a little something for everyone,” he said.