Gary Clark Jr. has been hailed as the future of the blues, but unlike contemporaries who have helped revitalize traditional black music forms such as Janelle Monaé and Anthony Hamilton, he keeps a very low public profile. The singer and guitarist’s social media is filled with shoutouts and shadowy live shots instead of big political statements or attacks on other artists. The 31-year-old does few interviews and he reveals very little in them—with the exception of this one in Vanity Fair where he explains the importance of the blues:
Well, for a black male, the sound of the blues is pre–Civil Rights. It’s oppression. In high school I had a friend who asked me why I played the blues, that black people don’t play blues. And for the most part, he was right. But I said, [‘How] can you abandon what we come from? All the stuff that you’re jamming to [now] came from this foundation.[‘] Jimmy Reed sang “Big Boss Man,” and, as a black man, he sang that because he couldn’t say it in the workplace. He sang that and had people dancing to it. If guys like that were ballsy enough to put that out, how can you deny it? That was the foundation to be able to say whatever the fuck you want.
Given the current white domination of blues music, Clark could’ve been forever doomed to playing for aging Boomers who wonder why black musicians “don’t sound like this anymore.” But his new album, “The Return of Sonny Boy Slim,” out last* week on Warner Bros., is yelling out a message of liberation. Liberation from the white-normative “bluesman” box placed around the Austin-bred musician. Liberation from expectations. Liberation for black artists like him to be who they want to be.
“This is something you can’t touch, this is something you feel/for some people it’s too much, for some people it heals” he cries on the “The Healing,” the driving opening track. The album’s aural tapestry, more perfect than any other contemporary blues-rock, shows Clark staking his own path. As “The Healing” begins with a disintegrating chant from skeptical soldiers wondering why they’re giving so much to fight, so is Clark wondering what’s come of his previous fame.
“The Story of Sunny Boy Slim,” whose name comes from Clark’s character in the 2007 film “Honeydripper,” had seeds in some of the songs from his 2012 breakout “Blak and Blu.” In particular, the title track had a pop-rock D’Angelo vibe, showing the otherwise-rudimentary bluesman experimenting with samples and elaborate harmonies.
D’Angelo must have noticed, since Clark was selected to open for R&B’s most experimental superstar at New York’s Forest Hills Stadium in June. That concert, along with Clark’s co-headlining slot at Afropunk, was an important litmus test for his appeal past whatever hype the “blues revival” label has provided. The new album, his sixth, traverses a lot of territory, with lyrics that could be open for widespread interpretation. But over repeat listens they paint a picture of an artist trying to realize himself through reinterpretations of the past.
That said, “The Story of Sunny Boy Slim” is a remarkably contemporary-sounding work, a modern counterpoint to the blues greats but with lyrics that reflect today’s struggles.
“I’m not out to steal your money, I don’t want to take your time/I do deserve a little respect so, I’m gon’ get what is mine,” Clark affirms on “Hold On,” a cathartic and ultimately uplifting lament to the chaos of the contemporary world. He appears to be appealing to those who might see him as threatening because of his race but also older fans who pigeonholed him. But even if Clark is trying to distance himself from his blues upbringing—he’s played in Austin blues clubs ever since childhood—his style is firmly entrenched in the genre.
His sound is modern yet old. “The Story of Sonny Boy Slim” is the kind of album that a young person and their parents (and hell, even their grandparents) could simultaneously enjoy. But this isn’t the end of Clark’s winning streak—if anything, this is a sign of what great things are left to come.
*Post has been updated since publication to reflect release schedue.