Gary Clark Jr. stakes his claim and makes his promise on 'This Land'
“Well no noI won’t stop nowWell no noYou can’t stop me nowI’m gonna rise to the topYou can’t hold me down.”
It’s hanging out there as a long-forgotten artifact: a brief clip of 19-year-old Gary Clark Jr. playing solo acoustic on the rooftop of Channel 8 during South by Southwest in 2003. Clark’s most-watched YouTube videos pass the 10 million mark; this one has just a few hundred views. But in two minutes, it captures Clark’s essence almost perfectly: a gifted player and singer who's soft-spoken and kind, yet determined and undeterred.
The song he performs, “Worry No More,” was the title track from his 2001 debut album. “I guess we could say local blues phenom,” rooftop host Andy Langer suggests in a brief introduction, asking Clark what he’ll do to stand out at what was his first SXSW gig. “I’m not going to change anything too much,” Clark responds. “Just do a normal set, and hopefully it’ll turn some heads.”
Fast-forward 16 years. The day after Clark’s 35th birthday, he’s on TV again, but this time the viewership is in the millions. He’s on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” to play two songs from “This Land,” Clark’s third studio album for Warner Bros. Records.
He saves the blistering title track for last, carefully steering around the words that won’t fly on a network broadcast but keeping the song’s forceful pushback against racism intact. The surprise is that Clark leads with “Pearl Cadillac,” singing in a sweetly soulful falsetto about the parents who raised him in Austin.
“I’m searching for some kind of way to pay you back/For your love, your love, your love,” Clark reaches out, before letting his guitar find the feelings for him in a blazing, uplifting solo. At the end, he brings it back around with a heartfelt sentiment — “You say I owe you nothing, but if I could I’d give you the world.”
As the song ends, he adds an off-mic “Hi Mom,” glancing toward the studio audience. Gary Clark Jr. has arrived, and he's brought the family.
RELEASED FRIDAY, “This Land” is a grand statement for Clark, a 16-track, 66-minute opus that builds upon his previous work but also rockets toward parts unknown. The classic blues that launched Clark out of the Antone’s community in his teenage years remains a foundation, but “This Land” is far broader in its ambitions.
The title track, with a striking video that’s already tallied nearly 2 million YouTube views, has gotten most of the attention so far, and for good reason. The N-words and F-bombs in the unedited version aren’t gratuitous, but rather an essential part of the song’s emotion and substance. An encounter at his home outside of Austin motivated Clark to address racism head-on.
But that’s just the starting point for an album that consistently pushes Clark’s boundaries outward, as if to declare, "Hey, I can be whatever I choose to be." The densely packed sonic wall of “What About Us” mixes bits of anthemic rock, hard-hitting hip-hop and furious funk into something ultimately uncategorizable. The island groove to “Feeling Like a Million” reveals the clear influence of reggae on Clark’s musical outlook, while the blitzkrieg charge of “Gotta Get Into Something” indicates he’s done time with plenty of punk records, too. “When I’m Gone” mainlines a classic R&B vein, coaxing Clark’s most melodically rich vocal performance on an album where he sometimes sounds like several distinctly different singers.
“I think this all goes together,” Clark says as we discuss the record in late January at his home base of Antone’s, the storied Austin club of which Clark is now part-owner. “My platform was the blues, but I just had piles and piles of records and demos that were from this other world of music that I didn’t want to show anybody, because I felt like I couldn’t necessarily do that onstage at Antone’s.”
Clark smiles when he recalls the last time he saw the late Clifford Antone, founder of the club that still bears his name. Clark was onstage playing an adventurous tune that was “on the verge of breaking out. And he walks up to me and goes, ‘Play Jimmy Reed!’ So I felt that pressure, in my young life, to do that.
“But as you get older and you start to see it’s not just about you and your little world, I just branched off and did other things,” he continues. He settled on a way forward: “Let’s just put the digital with the analog together, and quit going crazy in my mind about what I should do, and just be what I am. Just make music for the sake of making music.”
One thing that becomes apparent in conversation with Clark is that he’s quick to credit everyone who has been part of his success. This goes double for all the Austin musicians who played a part in bursting Clark’s perspective as an artist wide open.
“Since 1998 I’ve been running around up and down these streets, and seeing everything,” he says, stressing that last word. “I had a chance to jam onstage with Bavu Blakes, D-Madness, Ephraim Owens, Warren Hood. I used to open up for Jon Dee Graham and James McMurtry, so I would hear songwriting and Americana music, and Alejandro Escovedo. Of course, all the blues guys were around: Alan Haynes, Derek O’Brien, Miss Lavelle White. I soaked all this stuff up, and I’d go back and take all these records and just learn it all.”
ANOTHER ROLL CALL comes later, when we’re discussing Clark’s part in the 2016 reopening of Antone’s. A few days before his trip to New York for “Saturday Night Live,” Clark played a triumphant set at the downtown club for a couple hundred of his closest friends and some lucky fans who won tickets. It’s clearly a special place for Clark.
“Jimmie Vaughan saw me at Antone’s,” he begins. “I saw Doug Sahm, I saw Buddy Guy and Bobby Blue Bland. Pinetop Perkins, James Cotton, Willie Big Eyes Smith, George Rains, Riley Osbourn, Roscoe Beck, Brannen Temple, Ruthie Foster, W.C. Clark, Carolyn Wonderland, and even Bob Schneider and people you wouldn’t expect. In one way or another, all these people affected my life in a way where doors have opened up. Just by word of mouth, being a part of a club. We lifted each other up."
Clark spent most of 2013 on tour behind his Warner Bros. debut “Blak and Blu,” and he found it unsettling when he returned to an Austin without Antone’s, which closed in December 2013 after a short-lived relocation to East Riverside Drive. “I felt like there was a void,” he says. “People had been kind of dispersed, and it just felt like it wasn’t right. It’s like coming back to Austin and the University of Texas is gone, or the Capitol building is gone.”
In 2014, Clark and his old Austin High School friend Will Bridges had what Bridges described as a “fateful meeting” at Deep Eddy Cabaret where they discussed the possibility of helping to bring Antone’s back in a new location. “I was giving him the full lowdown and saying, ‘What do you think — are we being too nostalgic?'” Bridges recalls. “'Should we just move on without it, or do we have to save that name?'
“And Gary, when he wants to, can be incredibly articulate. He really thought about it and said, ‘I think the answer is both. Yes, we’ve got to save it. Because the name represents the culture we inherited from Clifford; we wouldn’t be doing this without him. But we’ve got to reinvent it in a way that is a rebirth, not just a continuation.’”
Clark also remembers that meeting well. “I said, ‘Man, if you need me for anything, I’m down with whatever I can do, because it’s important to me.’ I thought we needed it. I needed it. Maybe it was selfish, but it feels great to be a part of it."
He cites in particular his long friendship with Eve Monsees, who helped turn Clark onto Austin music in their early teen years. Monsees now owns Antone’s Record Shop with her husband, Mike Buck, and performs regularly at the club.
“She’s the one who pushed records on me and introduced me to who Clifford Antone was,” Clark recalls. “We went to his record store and he’d just drop piles and piles of records on me, and be all, ‘You need to learn this.’ So for her to now be owner of the record shop and me be part of the club is like, the kids grew up and came back home to rock with the family business. Which is a great feeling.”
COMING HOME TO AUSTIN was important for Clark, who lived with his wife, Australian model Nicole Trunfio, in Los Angeles for a stretch while they were starting a family. Their son, Zion, was born in January 2015; a daughter, Gia, arrived in January 2018.
They eventually moved back, settling on the eastern outskirts of town. “I tried being a New Yorker or a Californian, but I just don’t know how to do that,” he says with a smile. “When I’m off the road, I’m in Texas; I’m home. That’s where my family is; that’s where my people are.”
Among his people are the staff at Arlyn Studios, where some of the best records ever to come out of Austin have been made. Clark recorded “The Story of Sonny Boy Slim” there in 2015, and he returned to make “This Land” with engineers Jacob Sciba and Joseph Holguin.
He relied more heavily on their guidance this time around, especially Sciba, who’s credited as co-producer with Clark. “Last time I didn’t want anybody to tell me what to do,” he says. “I wanted to make a record where I could express myself fully and have my ideas realized. But on this record, I was like, ‘This is bigger than me.’
“I told them, ‘Look, you guys let me do what I wanted to do last time; I know you kept your mouth shut. If this sucks, tell me it sucks! Look me in my face, tell me it sucks. If I’m singing a vocal and this verse is not flowing, shut it down, call me out.’ So I really trusted them, and we had fun.”
It was Holguin who suggested calling Sheila E. when they needed to add percussion on a few songs. The longtime Prince collaborator, a niece of Clark’s friend Alejandro Escovedo, ended up contributing to half the album’s tracks, recording her parts in Los Angeles with Clark and his crew on hand.
“She brought in this beautiful energy,” he says. “She could tell I was a little nervous, so she grabbed us in a circle and said a prayer, and she moved the whole energy of the session. I didn’t know that we needed her, but when she left, we were like, ‘Man, we miss her.’”
Another intriguing wrinkle on “This Land” is the inclusion of samples and interpolations on several tracks. During the stretch when he and his young family lived in Los Angeles, Clark says, “they would go to sleep at night, and every night I would stay up and just be on my headphones grabbing these samples.”
One came from an important and intriguing source. The late, great soul singer Sharon Jones had recorded a splendid soul-funk version of Woody Guthrie’s folk classic “This Land Is Your Land” with her band the Dap-Kings, and Clark chopped a sample that later fit right into “This Land” after he’d written what became the album’s title track.
“THIS LAND IS MINE” is the defiant refrain tied to the Dap-Kings take, and it’s central to the song's theme. “This Land” was written about an encounter with a neighbor who questioned Clark’s ownership of his 50-acre property, he explained in a video interview with Rolling Stone.
Clark says he thinks the song “was kind of bubbling up for a little while” and drew upon everything from the election of Donald Trump and subsequent racial violence in Charlottesville, Va., to childhood memories of racist epithets written on the fence of his parents’ home.
He pauses to clarify his message and intent. “I wasn’t looking for inspiration to write a song like that. And to be quite honest, I’m not even sure if I took the right approach by even coming up with this song. It’s not something that I wanted to be talking about or singing about.
“I’m not a politician, I don’t claim to be. I’m just an artist. I have something to say. And unfortunately, I was approached at my house in front of my child, in a situation where I was meant to feel not equal to somebody else, in front of him. And it wouldn’t have bothered me, but I dealt with that stuff when I was growing up, and I didn’t want to have to explain to my kid at 3 years old. So that’s what made me angry.”
Clark says his initial instinct was, “I’m going to suppress this. I’m going to let it go, because that’s how I was taught by my parents: sticks and stones. But it wasn’t about me. People are hurting. People are being denied their rights, being denied access. I’m thinking, what are we going to do for our kids?
“So I think ‘This Land’ is just me kind of snapping, and being like, enough already: This is where I come from,” he continues. “I’m out in front of my house, my place that I’ve worked for my whole life, I spent 20 years in this town trying to work and make it, make my parents proud, and be able to have something that I can pass down to my children, and they’re proud of me. Like the American dream. But for all that hard work, to be insulted right out in front of my front door pissed me off, and I felt like I needed to say something.
“Maybe I didn’t need to say something. But I couldn’t just let it go that easy.”
IN TWO WEEKS, Clark will head out on a monthlong U.S. tour in support of “This Land” before a run through his wife’s home country of Australia and a series of festival dates in New Orleans, Atlanta and Memphis. But first comes another momentous TV engagement: On March 5, he’ll be at ACL Live to tape “Austin City Limits” for the third time.
It’s a long way up from the little rooftop video of 16 years ago, but it’s worth revisiting that clip one more time, to see how far Clark has come — and to note just how true he has remained to his own promise.
Watch, through the time warp, as Clark picks a simple blues riff on an acoustic guitar and casually taps his sneakers along to the beat. He concludes, in the song’s final verse:
"Well no noI refuse to back downWell no noI refuse to back downYeah I shall not be movedI’m gonna stand my ground."