A Modern Bluesman’s Political Awakening
Gary Clark Jr. holds nothing back on his third album This Land
In the years following Gary Clark Jr.’s step onto the world stage at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival in 2010, the Austin, Texas-based guitarist has gained a reputation for being quiet and humble—which made the joke he posted to his Facebook page about requiring “only blue m&ms in my dressing room” after his first Saturday Night Live performance on February 16 all the more hilarious.
For Clark, the SNL gig represented the breakthrough he’s been longing for since his ambitious 2012 debut Blak and Blu hit the industry with a dissatisfying thud. Sure, the music was good—but what exactly was it? Fans and critics approached the release expecting an introductory artistic statement from the man anointed by Clifford Antone (the venue owner who’d mentored the Vaughan brothers and is credited with giving the Chicago blues a stage at Antone’s in Austin) as the next guitar god who would “save the blues”—by which they meant someone who would thrust the genre back into the spotlight, as rock ’n’ roll artists did during the 1950s. Instead, they heard a little blues, a little soul, a little funk and a little of a lot of other things.
Writing for Rolling Stone, Jon Pareles described Blak and Blu as “a bumpy ride,” Consequence of Sound’s Chris Coplan claimed Clark “buckles under the pressure” of expectations from start to finish, and most other reviewers agreed with their assessments. Clark’s 2015 follow-up The Story of Sonny Boy Slim didn’t improve Clark’s standing. While blues fans raved over his soloing and nods to blues legends like Jimmy Reed and Otis Rush, most critics applauded Clark’s prowess on guitar while questioning his lack of clear artistic direction.
The general assumption was that Clark would step into the “guitar god” role, but he had other plans. He’d grown up surrounded by blues music and honed his guitar chops playing it, but as a child of the mid-1980s, he’d also listened to hip hop and funk and soul, music that was more in touch with his generation than with those that came before. The uncertainty of how to classify Clark’s music and what to expect from each new release is the conundrum Clark was facing as he approached his third album; and it was time to change course. Clark was standing at his very own musical crossroads.
Fast forward to January 10, 2019. “This Land” premiered as the first single from Clark’s new album of the same title, dropping with a music video that drew immediate comparisons in tone and message to other recent works of political art, most notably Childish Gambino’s “This is America” from 2018 and Beyonce’s “Formation” in 2016. The music video for “This Land” is a piece all its own—as Clark plays guitar and sings from the second-story balcony of what looks like a mansion straight out of the Antebellum South, children wander the plantation grounds, inspect a noose hanging from a tall tree branch and stand on top of Confederate flags in a formation all their own. A Confederate flag is seen burning near the end of the video, but Clark’s relationship to the American flag is different; it flutters in the breeze as Clark delivers the song’s mantra: “I’m America’s son / This is where I come from / This land is mine.”
The power of the video’s visual imagery is an appropriate match for its lyrics. When asked about the inspiration behind the song, Clark has told several publications about a recent incident in which a neighbor aggressively questioned whether or not Clark has a right to the land he owns and lives on with his wife, Nicole Trunfio, and their children, Zion and Gia. The suggestion that Clark as a black man couldn’t own such a piece of land had a devastating impact that followed him into the studio once he began composing This Land. Though the lyrics mention “Trump country” in the first verse, the song as a whole and its corresponding video expand the scope of Clark’s message far beyond the MAGA era—after all, the scenes he describes have been a reality for black Americans for generations. “‘N— run, n— run / Go back where you come from / We don’t want, we don’t want your kind / We think you’s a dog born’ / F— you, I’m America’s son / This is where I come from.” It’s a story and sentiment that’s as old as time in America—and with enough biting truth to shame the country that still fosters this kind of bone-deep racism. While the blues genre has long been tied to political messaging, this is Clark’s first real stab at making a strong political statement.
“This Land” has been leading the conversation about Clark’s political awakening, but it exists in good company on the album, which Clark produced alongside engineer Jacob Sciba. “What About Us” follows the declarative tone set by album-opener “This Land” with lyrics that are a bit more general and subdued, as Clark questions the fate of those who are left behind or forgotten. “Feed the Babies” follows in this vein, serving as a reminder of the importance of teaching younger generations to stand up for their beliefs, rather than a distinct call to action. Clark brings specificity back into his lyrics in “The Governor,” the album’s second strongest political song that alludes to prejudiced judicial decisions. “You can meet my friend the governor / He’s the one that makes the law / If you meet him face-to-face / You’re going to be the one at fault,” Clark sings over a rolling 12-bar blues rhythm.
Clark has gained tons of attention for the political messaging in these songs, but the overtly political lyrics only represent a small percentage of the album’s whole. Clocking in at well over an hour with 17 tracks (including two bonus tracks, “Highway 71” and “Did Dat”), This Land is notable for the way it balances agenda-driven songs with tracks that are more reflective and personal, like Clark’s tribute to his mother in “Pearl Cadillac” and his ode to the loved ones he misses while on the road in the catchy “When I’m Gone.” There’s mention of the artist’s struggle in “The Guitar Man” (which opens with “Baby it’s candlelight by choice now”) and “Low Down Rolling Stone,” which feature elements of funk and blues, respectively, and contrast nicely with the horns that appear throughout “Got to Get Up” and the rapid-fire pacing of “Gotta Get Into Something,” which sounds like it could have been an alternate B-side to Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.”
As Clark told Rolling Stone’s Patrick Doyle before the release of This Land, “You’ll never know where you’re going if you don’t know where you came from.” That said, it’s not surprising that the album brings some traditional blues into the fold—but it sure is rewarding. “Dirty Dishes Blues,” the album’s final official track, is a slow, rumbling blues song that appears to have benefited from the broken hand Clark endured near the end of the album’s recording process and the three-finger playing style he had to adopt while recovering. Though the first of the album’s two bonus tracks, “Highway 71,” features a mix that’s clearly studio-enhanced, the song is blues at its core, giving Clark space to practice the guitar wizardry he’s known for and twist his musical roots into something that’s distinctly his own.
Clark’s performance at age 15 of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Pride and Joy” at Antone’s has become an important part of his lore as a musician, and while Clark does credit Vaughan as an early influence, he has spent years carefully explaining that his goal is to create beyond the confines of a single genre. Clark’s ties to the Austin blues scene have pros and cons for his recording career—and he knows it. But instead of turning his back on his beginnings, Clark’s trying to recognize his past and what he wants his future to hold simultaneously.
It’s no easy task, and it hasn’t worked on either of Clark’s two previous studio albums. But This Land feels different. Clark took significant creative and personal risks in making this record, betting high in the hope of finding a wider audience for his material and creating music that will have a real impact on those who take the time to listen. In early 2019’s politics and culture, American audiences are primed to hear what Clark has to say, and he proves on This Land that he’s finally ready to bring voice to issues that matter.
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