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A young man's blues come out of the bedroom

Michael Corcoran/American-Statesman Staff
Guitarist Gary Clark Jr. at age 17.

Originally published October 24, 2002

'That guitar playing upstairs," a recent guest asked, "is that going on all the time? How can you watch TV or anything?" Sandi Clark hadn't even noticed the racket coming from her son, 18-year-old blues guitarist Gary Clark Jr.

"He's been practicing almost nonstop for six years," she says later. Like folks who've lived by the freeway so long that they don't hear the cars, Gary Jr.'s parents and three sisters take his endless search for the right tone as part of the atmosphere.

"Every time I call Gary, you can hear the guitar get louder as his mom takes the phone up the stairs," says Bill Campbell, Clark's mentor and bassist, who's been playing blues in Austin since the early '60s.

"That kid's gotten rid of any phony notes by just working at it constantly. He's a lightning rod for the real soulful blues." Strong praise from a man who use to run with Freddy King and Albert Collins.

Clark has been banging around Sixth Street blues joints since he was 14, but last month, the 6-foot-4-inch blues disciple emerged as a star, tearing up an Austin City Limits Music Festival crowd that leapt to its feet after almost every song. "I was ready for it," says Clark, who also sings and writes songs. "After the first song was over, you could just feel the energy."

It was an opportunity for Clark to just wail away and bury the likes of Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Jonny Lang, but the kid who just graduated from Austin High is not a notes-per-second player. He goes for solos that complete a musical thought. "I've got a sound in my head that I'm trying to make come out of my amp," he says.

Clark is one of the few young African Americans in town playing a style invented by blacks. "He's not trying to be the next Stevie Ray," says Campbell, whom the younger Vaughan once looked up to. "He's tapping into the originators -- Albert King, Hound Dog Taylor. He's got tremendous respect for the tradition, but he's also real intent on getting his own style."

The more Clark learns about the blues, the further back he goes. "I've been listening to a lot of Leadbelly lately," says Clark, who discovered the legend only a couple years ago. "It's so dark and scary. Leadbelly really opens up the possibility of what songs can be about."

His mother says her son is "so shy, but he never gets nervous in front of a crowd." Sandi was anxious when Gary portrayed Prince Charming in a middle school play, but he was as calm as the guy whose job it was to draw the curtains. "He told me, 'Mom, I know my lines. We've rehearsed over and over. Don't worry.' And he was just perfect in the role."

Laid-back and determined are not words that run counter to each other when you're talking about Clark. "This kid's so calm and focused," says Campbell. "He knows that if he puts in the hours of preparation, the rewards are going to come."

And lest some music biz shark sees this kid as the key to a bigger house, he or she should know that Gary Clark Sr. is a car salesman who attends almost all his son's shows. "He's real good at reading people," Campbell says of the elder Clark.

Clark's parents gave him his first guitar at age 12; he was playing songs that first week. As a freshman at Austin High, Gary and guitarist Eve Monsees, his friend since third grade, started dropping in at the Walter Higgs blues jam at Babe's. Clark says he couldn't hold his own with veteran players so he spent the next few months sitting on the edge of his bed, guitar in hand, before he played in public again. At age 17, a mightily improved Clark impressed the likes of Jimmie Vaughan and Muddy Waters' longtime guitarist Bob Margolin, who both called him up to jam.

Then, two summers ago, Clark practically stole a Victory Grill show from Bobby "Blue" Bland. This year, he produced an album of originals called "Worry No More," which his mother sent to Stubb's owner Charles Attal, hoping to get a booking at the club. Instead, Attal slotted him into the high-profile debut of last month's ACL Music Fest.

"He had this look in his eyes when he came out onstage," says Sandi Clark. "It was a look I'd seen before that says he's completely in control." That Prince Charming look.

The best athletes want the ball in their hands when the game's on the line. The best performers thrive in the spotlight. For them, stress is just pressure they're prepared for.

mcorcoran@statesman.com; 445-3652

Gary Clark Jr. plays tonight at the Continental Club.