(From January 2008)
John Sayles’ new film “Honeydripper,” which centers on a small-town Alabama juke joint in 1950, is aswirl with thematic undercurrents, such as the hard-line choice between the devil (blues) and the lord (gospel) in the African American community. Opening with a shot of a rural black child stretching a screen door wire from a nail to make a slide guitar sound, the film is about having music inside you without the means of full release. It’s heavy with motifs of life in the Jim Crow deep South, but the film’s defining message is this: The electric guitar changed everything.
It’s a theme with which Gary Clark Jr., making his acting debut as musical protagonist Sonny Blake, can easily identify. Just 23, Clark was born in the aftermath of “Thriller” and had a vocal group at Covington Middle School in South Austin that was going to be the next Boyz II Men. But when he received an Ibanez RX-20 electric guitar for Christmas in 1996, he dove back into the blues. “I remember just holding that guitar and being transformed,” he says from his home/studio/rehearsal space just off Brodie Lane. As Blake, an itinerant freight train hopper who totes around a guitar and amplifier he made himself, Clark just wants the opportunity to show what he’s got.
He had the chance in real life at age 16 when he played an unbilled set before Bobby “Blue” Bland’s return to the Victory Grill in July 2001 that just destroyed the crowd. It’s a scene reprised at the end of “Honeydripper,” when Clark leads the band on Roy Brown’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” looking very much like the future of the blues. In 1950 and in 2008. All three Clark-sung tracks are on the “Honeydripper” soundtrack CD, which comes out Feb. 5 on Rhino.
The movie lines didn’t come quite as easily as the music scenes, though director Sayles says Clark showed some real acting chops once he got comfortable. “The hardest part was getting Gary to be cocky, because that’s not naturally the way he is,” says Sayles, who based the film, his 16th, on a short story he wrote years ago. Most of the cast, which includes Danny Glover, Charles Dutton and Yaya DaCosta as China Doll, the Clark character’s love interest, had no idea the lanky, 6-foot-5 Austinite could play the guitar until the film’s big musical finale. While Glover aped the piano playing that had been pre-recorded by a Los Angeles musician, Clark played his parts live on a clunky, primitive contraption made for the movie by axsmith Ted Crocker. “One of the young kids (in the opening scene) bet me that it wasn’t really me playing,” Clark says, with a laugh. “He still owes me that 10 dollars.”
‘Black folks don’t play the blues,’
Sayles was steered toward Clark at South By Southwest in 2005, when the guitarist had a showcase at the Continental Club. The director of such acclaimed films as “Baby It’s You,” “Eight Men Out” and “Lone Star” said he was looking for a young African American guitarist who could play the blues – not an easy role to fill given the genre’s current domination by white musicians. “We were blown away (by Clark’s playing) and felt very lucky to have found Gary,” says Sayles, who approached Clark after the set and asked him to read for “Honeydripper.”
Many great guitarists have an older brother to lead the way, like Stevie Ray Vaughan had with Jimmie. Clark’s earliest guitar mentor was a girl his age who lived down the street. He has known Eve Monsees, who now leads Eve and the Exiles, since they were in the third grade together. When they were in middle school, Monsees started playing electric guitar and getting really good at it. “I saw what Eve was doing and I said, ‘Man, I wanna do that, too,'” says Clark. He got his first guitar two months before he turned 13.
“Gary picked up on it right away,” Monsees says. “He has such an instinctive understanding of music that he can play all sorts of instruments, from the drums, bass and keyboards to violin and sax.” With an older sister and a younger sister playing bass and drums, respectively, Clark’s father, a salesman, tried to mold his offspring into a family band. “He thought he was going to be the next Joe Jackson,” Clark says, with a chuckle, in reference to the strict patriarch of the Jackson 5. But the Clark kids weren’t down with rehearsing together for hours. Gary Clark Jr. was more in tune with practicing alone in his room all day. There was a dent in the edge of the bed where he sat, playing along with Albert King, Eddie Taylor and Jimi Hendrix. At age 14, Clark and Monsees were playing regularly at Babe’s and Joe’s Generic on Sixth Street. At 15, they were called to the stage by Clifford Antone to jam with their hero, Howlin’ Wolf guitarist Hubert Sumlin.
“The main thing I learned from people like Jimmie Vaughan and Tony Redman was that it’s not about the flashy solos, it’s about the feel,” Clark says. “The tone is more important than how many notes you can play in 30 seconds.”
Clark says he never noticed that there was something different about him than most of the other young blues slingers in town until he was a sophomore at Austin High. A guard on the JV basketball team until he quit to concentrate on music, Clark had just finished practice one afternoon when he was approached by a fellow student. “This other black kid came up to me and said he heard I had a band,” Clark recalls. “He asked me what kind of music I played and when I said ‘blues’ he had a funny look on his face. ‘Black folks don’t play the blues,’ he said, and it kinda stunned me at first.”
The kid was right: It’s all about hip-hop to most young African Americans, who consider blues the music of their grandparents. But with the example of Clark, who piles elements of funk and soul to his blues foundation, there might be more kids stepping out of the Souljah Boy dance and into a musical instrument store in the future. An electric guitar can change everything.
When Clark and the rest of the Honeydripper All-Stars (including the great sax man Eddie Shaw) were playing the festival circuit over the summer, they stopped in St. Louis, where Clark got a chance to see 16-year-old African American hotshot Marquis Knox tear it up. “He was great, but it was a little depressing,” says Clark, who has self-released three CDs and will shop a fourth at this year’s SXSW. “I was thinking that I’ll never be that kid again, that 16-year-old that blows everybody away.” But being that kid once ain’t bad. Especially when you’re able to gradually refine and add texture to your sound, freshening up the blues in the 21st century.