Interview with Gary Clark, Jr., at X Games Austin

Highlights from X Games Austin musical performances

Grammy-award winning guitarist Gary Clark, Jr., is easily one of the finest guitarists of this generation. His expansive and prolific guitar work along with his deeply soulful lyrics and vocals, honed over years of playing Austin nightclubs, has established him as "the future of the blues." At only 30 years old, Clark has recorded three full-length albums, including 2012's critically acclaimed Blak and Blu (Warner Bros.), and shared the stage with rock n' roll legends such as B.B. King, Jeff Beck, Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page. On Sunday, Clark performed a special hometown show at X Games Austin, shredding through a set of rock, R&B, blues, soul, pop and psychedelia. Afterwards, caught up with the humble guitarist. What's it like coming back to your hometown?
Gary Clark, Jr.: It's always great. I feel invigorated, refreshed.

You moved to New York a while back. How is that city treating you?
I like New York. When I first got there, I felt like I needed to keep up. I was moving too slow, and after a couple of months I decided I'm just going to do me. It has worked out better for me not to pretend I'm a New Yorker. I'm definitely a Texas boy.

You began playing guitar when you were 12. When did you know deep down that playing music was what you wanted to do?
When I went to see Michael Jackson when I was five; I pretty much knew that's what I wanted to do.

Tom Zuccareno/ESPN Images

Gary Clark, Jr., performs for a hometown crowd at X Games Austin 2014.

You decided to skip college and play music full-time. How did you explain your decision to your parents?
That was a bit of a rough time, but I was old enough to make a decision about what I was going to do. I told them, I love it, I don't want to do anything else, I couldn't see myself doing anything else, and I think they understand that now.

Was it a little scary to be that young and make a decision like that?
I was a proud rebellious punk, so I had no problem saying, I'm doing this. Then the real world sunk in ... but it has all been worth it. The highs and lows of trying to figure it out -- I wouldn't change it for anything in the world. I kind of just let everything go and let the higher power and the earth take over. Things have worked out OK.

How many hours a day do you play guitar?
I don't play enough anymore. There really is no time. It's kind of frustrating to not find the time to do the one thing I love and the thing that got me into all of this. I used to wake up and play all day, only stopping for food.

What is it like to play with your heroes?
It's weird, to be quite honest. We were playing the other day in Portugal, and the Rolling Stones asked me to sit in. I'm standing up there and all of these guys are looking at me, and I'm singing in the same microphone as Mick Jagger, and I cannot believe it. I have to play it cool and be professional, but inside I'm freaking out because I can't believe it's happening. It's a dream come true. I didn't think it would actually happen. For a kid from Texas who just loved to play guitar, it's incredible. There is nothing like that. I'm very blessed and grateful.

How much of success is based on natural talent, hard work and dedication versus being in the right place at the right time?
I think it's all of the above. I definitely put in the hours and had some sort of goal, but being from Austin and doing the type of music I play, routed in blues, I was fortunate to have people like Jimmie Vaughn, Doyle Bramhall and Pinetop Perkins take me under their wing, really support me and give me a big push. They kind of set me up, loaded the bases for me and put me in.

Hopefully there is some young kid you are doing the same for?
It's pretty wild, I was in Germany and met this 5-year-old kid named Quincy, and he just started playing guitar because he liked my music. It was crazy to see the look on his face when he was looking at me -- that's how I felt when I was his age. There are no words when you see that little face looking up at you, saying, 'Oh, I play guitar like you.'

You were a guitarist first and a singer/songwriter second, so what kind of songs and stories can you can tell with one instrument that you can't with another?
That's a good one. I think you stumped me. I don't know, but I do know that I cannot and will not sing without my guitar in my hand. I got an incomplete in public speaking when I was a kid. I just didn't show up because it scared me to death to have to get in front of these people and speak. I was a choir boy in school and the teacher liked my voice and wanted me to do solos and I was just too shy to do it, I'd be shaking, literally. I picked up the guitar and it just worked. I felt more comfortable that this was the complete outlet, the expression of what I wanted to do.

What does it physically feel like to get out on stage and perform to tens of thousands of people?
It varies from night to night, depending on amps, tubes, strings. It really gets down to technicalities, but once I get over that, everything is cool, and there is this zone. It is like taking off in a plane and trying to get to 30,000 feet where you are just cruising and can lean the seat back and get comfortable. That's what it feels like for me. Everything is at peace, and towards the end, you come down for landing and you hope it's smooth. It's a nice, wild ride for an hour and a half or two hours. There is just something about letting go and being in the moment, as loud as it is, and as wild as it is with the lights and everything, it calms me more than anything else in the world.

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