Warner Brothers Records

I’m writing this the day after we found out the policeman who killed Eric Garner wouldn’t be indicted. The day after we found out the only person indicted in the case would be the man filming the altercation. The day after we realized that body cameras on cops won’t do a damn thing. The day after protests again swept the nation. The day after our social networks exploded in a churning mess of cross-racial rage. But today’s a good day for me, because today’s the day I discovered Gary Clark Jr. Maybe today’s the day you’ll discover Gary Clark Jr, or maybe you’re already on to his jumped-up mix of Mississippi hill-country trance beats, burning Chicago electric blues guitar riffs, smooth-as-fuckin-silk crooning mixed with a heart-piercing vocal wail, and a kind of detached possession that might have been there at the birth of the cool.

I hate to open a review of Gary Clark Jr’s music by talking about the aftermath of Ferguson in our nation, but there’s just no other way. Because white people own the blues. Have for years, hell maybe they owned it back when they were first recording it. It’s funny, I used to work at a big folk music festival, and when we programmed blues showcases, we’d joke that we should call the show “White Guys with Mustaches.” Because that’s what the blues is today. White guys with mustaches. And that’s sad, and that’s depressing, because the blues was meant to transcend race, it was meant to get your sad ass off the floor, drinking and dancing, but it wasn’t meant to be owned and it wasn’t meant to be controlled. But how else can you explain how few African-American artists there are in the blues game these days, let alone record label heads, writers, publicists, etc etc… How else can you explain the struggle Clark has expressing his music? There’s a great Rolling Stone interview with him from last year where he talks about trying to communicate how Texas twang comes out in his music, how his relatively comfortable upbringing clashes with the poor bluesman trope, how the Jimi Hendrix comparison is sad and annoyingly common, and how a lot of people want him to stay as raw as a backcountry guitarist from rural Mississippi. It seems that there’s a weight on him, a weight born from the expectations of all the people that buy, consume, and propagate the blues, who are mainly white, who mainly don’t get it. Sorry to be blunt, but there’s a long long long history of appropriation behind the blues and it’s gotten to the point where the term has almost no meaning now. So yeah, he’s gonna reach, he’s gonna bring in all kinds of ideas from jazz, soul, RnB and especially hip-hop. Because he’s an artist. I’m sure that Gary Clark Jr is tired of the blues label, I’m sure he probably wouldn’t like this article that much, since I myself struggle to get past this label when listening to his music or when describing what he does. But in a post-Ferguson America, I’m not sure we get a say in how people perceive us anymore. There may not be much hope on that front. But I’ll tell you this: Gary Clark Jr’s music may be tied in many ways to old traditions, but it’s got all the strength and rage of my generation today. Ignore it at your peril.

Devon Leger

About Devon Leger

Devon Leger has been working in roots music for about a decade now, as a publicist, music supervisor, freelance writer, and event/festival producer. After getting an MA in Ethnomusicology from the University of Washington, he became the lead booker for the annual Northwest Folklife Festival (the largest community festival in the nation). While there he worked to connect a new generation of roots musicians with this veteran event. Now he works on his arts promotion agency, Hearth Music, promoting awesome albums, planning concerts, and blogging. In 2013, he created KITHFOLK, a quarterly digital roots music magazine. In his spare time he's studying the nearly-lost traditions of Acadian fiddling, researching the music in archives and tracking down older fiddlers. He also writes for No Depression, The Bluegrass Situation, fRoots, KEXP, Magnet Magazine, TradConnect, and American Standard Time.

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