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Grammy-winning blues, rock and soul artist Gary Clark Jr. is reaching ever-larger audiences with his guitar and musical wizardry. A proud product of Austin, Texas' music scene, his newest album, "This Land," is his most varied statement yet, touching on the racism and hatred he sees in America today. Jeffrey Brown meets up with Clark on tour in Richmond, Virginia.
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.
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.
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?
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?
You know, golf.
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.
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.
They probably didn't have too many 14-year-olds coming to…
They didn't have any at all, really.
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.
It meant something to me. I felt like I was a part of something.
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."
Yes, just dub the tape and just watch it over, pause, rewind, see what the chord shapes were, play it in slow motion.
And who were you listening to? Who were you watching?
I was watching Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimmie Vaughan, and Eric Clapton, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Robert Cray, and Bonnie Raitt.
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.
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.
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.
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?
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Richmond, Virginia.
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In his more than 30-year career with the NewsHour, Brown has served as co-anchor, studio moderator, and field reporter on a wide range of national and international issues, with work taking him around the country and to many parts of the globe. As arts correspondent he has profiled many of the world's leading writers, musicians, actors and other artists. Among his signature works at the NewsHour: a multi-year series, “Culture at Risk,” about threatened cultural heritage in the United States and abroad; the creation of the NewsHour’s online “Art Beat”; and hosting the monthly book club, “Now Read This,” a collaboration with The New York Times.
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