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Raised on blues, musician Gary Clark Jr. embraces full palette of sounds
Amna Nawaz: Blues, rock, and soul artist Gary Clark Jr. opened the 45th season of PBS' "Austin City Limits" on Saturday night.
The hometown favorite has gained a worldwide following in just the last couple of years.
Jeffrey Brown recently joined Clark on the road in Richmond, Virginia, to see how the Grammy winner keeps capturing fans and headlines.
It's part of our ongoing series on arts and culture, Canvas.
Jeffrey Brown: In the title song of his latest album, "This Land," Gary Clark Jr. sounds an angry cry about the racism and hatred he sees in America today, and a confrontation he himself had with a white neighbor after he bought a new ranch outside his hometown of Austin, Texas.
Gary Clark Jr.: Basically, "This Land" is me saying, yes, there's all this around, but forget everybody. Nobody can bring you down in your head. Nobody can make you feel less than. Nobody can make you feel not equal to. Be strong, be proud, be humble, but don't let them break you.
Jeffrey Brown: Clark is on tour singing "This Land." We joined him at a concert at the historic National Theater in Richmond, Virginia. But the song's tense sound and lyrics are just one emotional tone for a man now reaching ever-larger audiences with his guitar and musical wizardry.
On the tour bus, it turns out, the band relaxes watching golf tournaments.
Do you like this life, the traveling life?
Gary Clark Jr.: Yes. I mean, I used to go to concerts all the time. I would see the bus pull up and the band hopped off the bus. And what goes on in there?
Gary Clark Jr.: You know, golf.
Jeffrey Brown: Golf.
Jeffrey Brown: Clark is a proud product of Austin's famed 6th Street music scene, one club after another, a wide variety of live music.
He got his first guitar at 12 and was quickly grabbed by the sound of the blues, where, still in middle school, he found an immediate home.
Gary Clark Jr.: It had this raw thing, and there was guitar players up front, and there was lead guitar playing. There was improvisation.
And when I saw these people playing blues, and when I went down to that blues club, it was filled up with smoke, and those old guys are cool with their leather jackets and their Stratocasters and their Amps, I was like, man, I want to be part of this. And they welcomed us, being 14 years old, to have your elders welcome you and be excited.
Jeffrey Brown: They probably didn't have too many 14-year-olds coming to...
Gary Clark Jr.: They didn't have any at all, really.
Jeffrey Brown: The welcoming into the blues community would culminate some years later in 2010, when Clark was invited by Eric Clapton to perform at his legendary Crossroads Festival.
Gary Clark Jr.: It meant something to me. I felt like I was a part of something.
Jeffrey Brown: A brilliant guitarist. But backstage during sound check in Richmond, the 35-year-old Clark told me he'd never actually taken a formal lesson, and much of his education came from watching guitar greats on the venerable PBS program "Austin City Limits."
Gary Clark Jr.: Yes, just dub the tape and just watch it over, pause, rewind, see what the chord shapes were, play it in slow motion.
Jeffrey Brown: And who were you listening to? Who were you watching?
Gary Clark Jr.: I was watching Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimmie Vaughan, and Eric Clapton, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Robert Cray, and Bonnie Raitt.
Jeffrey Brown: He would play at the White House in 2012, win a Grammy two years later.
But Clark never saw himself as limited to the blues and had begun to feel constrained by what the world expected or wanted from him. His newest album, his third studio recording, is his most varied statement yet, a broad palette of sounds, including reggae, a Prince-like falsetto, straight ahead Chuck Berry rock 'n' roll riffs.
Gary Clark Jr.: It was just pick a color and start painting. Let's see what happens.
I felt like I was just ready to just bust out running and let's what else is out there. So, I just took that approach.
Jeffrey Brown: These days, Clark is paying back his Austin roots, mentoring younger local musicians like the Peterson Brothers, who he took on the road with him as an opening act.
And also now, in his music, the hopes and fears of being a parent. Clark and his wife, Nicole, have two young children. He says that and the world they're growing up make him want his music to reach deeper and have greater impact.
Gary Clark Jr.: It's because of this tension and the social climate, race relations, and fear, and the unknown. How do I maneuver through that and teach my kids how to be strong, teach my kids how to be loving in a world that can be so cruel?
Jeffrey Brown: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Richmond, Virginia.