Gary Clark Jr.: 'Music Is Medicine To Me'

Sep 12, 2015
Originally published on September 16, 2015 6:45 pm

Gary Clark Jr., the blues-guitar wunderkind from Austin, Texas, who grew up into a solo star, titled his latest LP The Story of Sonny Boy Slim in a nod to his own nickname and whirlwind ascent. But there's a song on the album whose name might better represent its overall tone: "The Healing."

"Music is medicine to me. I don't go to church, but when I was trying to figure out my way as a young man, I was listening to albums," Clark says. "I would listen to Marvin Gaye, What's Going On, or Curtis Mayfield; Outkast and 2Pac and Biggie; the lyrics of Kurt Cobain; Bob Dylan and Hendrix — and just, like, take something from it.

"It was more than just rocking out or guitar solos. I would really sit back and kind of reflect, try and understand somebody else's perspective, and also kind of understand where I was, and my place in all of it. So, it's very powerful to me. I'm sure I would lose it if I didn't have music in my life."

Though Clark remains a student of his predecessors, having found a mentor in Texas guitar legend Jimmie Vaughan, he says he's starting to get a feel for the other side of that relationship — especially as a new father. Hear more of his conversation with NPR's Arun Rath at the audio link above.

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GARY CLARK JR: (Singing) Yeah...


Gary Clark Jr. brings the funk. I mean, funk in its original base sense - funky and dirty, nasty, fuzzy sound.


CLARK: You know, sometimes I think, like, maybe there's too much fuzz and maybe it's too raw, maybe it's too dirty. But I don't know, that just feels like - that feels really good to me.

RATH: That sound infuses his new album "The Story Of Sonny Boy Slim." You might call that sound the Texas Fuzz. You hear it in acts from Janis Joplin to ZZ Top and Gary Clark Jr.'s mentor - Texas bluesman Jimmie Vaughan.

CLARK: Dude, you know, I try to hold it back when I see somebody like Jimmie Vaughan. He kind of took me under his wing. He brought me out on the road with him when I first started to travel and kind of showing me the ropes of how to be professional and cool. But so anytime I'm around him or anybody that's, like, in his camp, you know, I kind of feel weird about setting up my pedal board and stomping on them.

RATH: What's a song on this record you'd be most proud to show off to Jimmie Vaughan?

CLARK: I would have to say "Church."


CLARK: (Singing) Lord, my Lord, I need your helping hand.

Just because it's stripped-down, raw and folks, you know, around say, you know, all you need is three chords and the truth. And I feel like that's what it is. It's quite refreshing to just break it down to something so simple. And I kind of had the idea and kind of had some words in my head, but I just sat down and just cut it. You know, I put the harmonica rack on, and then it just kind of flowed out of me. And I was quite surprised when I heard it back. I would show him that no problem.

RATH: And you mentioned you have your sisters singing on this record, too. Did you...


RATH: ...Grow up singing with them?

CLARK: Yeah. I mean, my fondest memories growing up is being in the living room, putting on records and dancing with them and dressing up and singing all the parts to, you know, The Jackson 5 songs and The Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and - stuff that my - my parents were listening to when they would have family and friends over.


CLARK: (Singing) As we grow older, I become wiser. I won't let you down. I am devoted to see you shine on. Everywhere you go, just know that you're a star.

But the thing that really tripped me out that I forgot about was, you know, as professional as I was trying to be in the studio and producing the album, it's like we all reverted back to being, like, 10-year-olds, you know. And they were giving me a hard time, and there was a little bickering, a little arguing here. And I'm like oh, man.

RATH: (Laughter).

CLARK: I can't take y'all anywhere, you know. It was fun though.

RATH: I'm talking with guitarist and singer Gary Clark Jr. about his new album "The Story Of Sonny Boy Slim." And you mentioned that in some ways, this reflects a sort of feeling of coming home.

CLARK: I kind of miss coming home and being a grown man, and my mom calling me, you know, Sonny Boy. And after being on the road for - I mean, we've pretty much been going - 2010, 2011 kind of changed my life and my trajectory. I'm just busy all the time. So I finally got to be able to come back home and work on this album and life-changing things - my son was about to be born. He was born in the process of recording. I was home. I was around the people that I grew up with, walking in the same streets.

RATH: Well, having a child - you said you had a son...

CLARK: Yeah.

RATH: ...That's certainly a life-changing thing. Congratulations on that, by the way.

CLARK: Thank you, thank you. Yeah, that was a game-changer, so...

RATH: And there's some of that in this record. There's this - there's a kind of thing - I know I went through this, that a lot of new parents go through, where you think about your own parents and you kind of go, like, oh, I get it. And your song "Hold On" reflects that.


CLARK: (Singing) Back then, I didn't understand why my pops came home saying that he couldn't take it. But it's hard to be a good man knowing that a man's plan is to take what you making. And hold on...

You know, sitting around in the studio and there had been a lot of events in the news about, you know, unjustified killings and shootings of young people - young black men - it definitely made me think of what my father went through raising us to make sure that we, you know, being in those situations - or had the tools to get out of them, you know, and survive.


CLARK: (Singing) Seems like new news is the old news from a different angle. Another mother on TV, crying 'cause her boy didn't make it. She's saying, what am I going to do? What am I going to tell...

And then thinking about my son and - you know, it was just, like, oh, man, you know, the world is a crazy place, and I'm responsible for this life. So it got very real and very deep. And so that's where "Hold On" comes from.

RATH: The record is called "Story Of Sonny Boy Slim." But I feel like it almost could have taken its title very easily from the song that's called "The Healing." You seem to have this belief that music is like medicine.

CLARK: Music is medicine to me. It's like I don't go to church, but I feel like, you know, when I was trying to figure out my way and, you know, as a young man, I was listening to albums. You know, I would listen to Marvin Gaye "What's Going On?" or Curtis Mayfield and, you know, Outkast and Tupac, Biggie and listening, you know, lyrics of Kurt Cobain and, you know, Bob Dylan or Hendrix and just, like, take something from it. It was more than just rocking out or guitar solos. And I would really sit back and reflect and try and understand somebody else's perspective, kind of understand where I was and my place in all of this.


CLARK: (Singing) I've got something in motion, something you can't see. It requires devotion from those who truly believe. This is something you can't touch. This is something you feel.

For me, it's like if I can't understand it or process what I'm going through at a time, like, a song that can kind of put it all together for me and make me understand, and I can move on about my day and feel like there's some sort of resolve there. So yeah, it's very powerful to me. It's very important. I don't know if I - I mean, I might - I'm sure I would lose it if I didn't have music in my life, you know.

RATH: That's Gary Clark Jr. His new album is called "The Story Of Sonny Boy Slim." It's been great speaking with you. Thank you so much.

CLARK: Thanks for having me.


CLARK: (Singing) This music sets me free, yeah. Yeah. We stand in formation while they test and they see. They compile information and try... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.