Whether he's a modern-day bluesman or rock 'n' roll guitar slinger, Gary Clark Jr. is a musician whose stock is on the rise. The Texas guitarist, 28, has been playing out since his teens and now counts Eric Clapton, Alicia Keys and the Rolling Stones among his high-profile fans. Clark's first major-label album, Blak and Blu, released in October, debuted at No. 6 on The Billboard 200 and has sold 84,000 copies. Ain't Messin' 'Round, a slab of fuzztone-slathered funk peppered with rock 'n' soul horns, is No. 22 on USA TODAY's Triple A airplay chart.
Who's bad? The first concert Clark attended -- the Denver stop on Michael Jackson's Bad tour in 1988 -- set the then 4-year-old on his life path. "That's one of my first memories, really," he says. "I just remember thinking, 'I want to do that.'" He got his first guitar, an Ibanez RX20, at age 12. His primary instrument these days is a cherry-red Epiphone Casino. "I like the versatility of it," he says of the hollow-body electric guitar. "It can be mellow and lowdown, kind of jazzy, or you can crank it up. It's got a little bite to it. I love the sound of the P-90 (pickups) -- when you crank them up and you can get a little feedback, get it to scream at you the right way, it can be kind of cool. And it looks good."
All blues. Blak and Blu uses the blues as a launching pad for an exploration of musical styles ranging from slide-guitar Delta blues (Next Door Neighbor Blues) to punky rock 'n' roll (Travis County) to the title track's hip-hop- and Miles Davis-influenced R&B. "When I was growing up, I would go hang out with older guys at night in blues clubs. We would play Albert King, Freddie King or T-Bone Walker," he says. "Then I would hang out with friends who were my age, and we'd listen to a Wu-Tang Clan record with an Albert King guitar lick as a sample. They wouldn't connect, but, me, I was making the connection. There's a common thread in all this stuff. I'm for throwing in some modern stuff and going back, too, taking elements from guys who did it a while ago."
Not the new Hendrix. Clark shrugs off the "new Jimi Hendrix" designation with which some fans and critics have saddled him. "There's no comparison, so I don't even give it any thought," he says. "I shut it down immediately, because I've got too much respect for the guy." Blak and Blu, however, does contain a medley of Hendrix's Third Stone From the Sun and If You Love Me Like You Say, a staple of the late bluesman Albert Collins' repertoire. "The first guitar albums that I got were Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Albert Collins," he says. "Those were major influences that changed the way I listened to music. I wanted, in my own little way, to say thank you, like a tip of the hat. If I could have done it, I would have thrown a Stevie Ray Vaughan song in that medley."
Showcasing with superstars. Clark has landed several high-profile gigs recently. He guests on Alicia Keys' new album, playing on her Fire We Make duet with Maxwell. His tribute to Buddy Guy during the 35th annual Kennedy Center Honors in Washington will be part of a television special airing Dec. 26 (9 p.m. ET/PT, CBS). He also played with the Rolling Stones during one of their Brooklyn shows earlier this month. "I had a couple friends say they'd never seen me smile like that on stage," Clark says. "I usually keep it pretty cool, but I lost all cool points on that gig."
Going down to the Crossroads. Clark is booked to play Eric Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival in April at New York's Madison Square Garden. His appearance at Clapton's festival in 2010 served as his national introduction. "That was definitely a moment where I thought to myself, 'You better keep practicing. There are a lot of eyes on you now,'" he says. Some of those eyes belonged to executives at Warner Bros. Records who eventually signed him to a deal. Highlights like that significantly improved what otherwise could have been a very bad day, since Clark also got a call from his cable company informing him they were about to disconnect his service for non-payment. "I was like, 'You know what? I'm fine. I'm about to get up and play on stage with Eric Clapton, B.B. King and Buddy Guy. I'm not really worried about that today.'"