5 Essential Songs by Gary Clark Jr.

Gary Clark Jr. came out of the same Austin, Texas, music scene as Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan. He cut his teeth at the legendary music club Antone’s and was hailed as a blues prodigy.

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Critics mentioned Jimi Hendrix and Prince when talking about Clark, and he not only lived up to the heavy expectations, but he’s also now an icon future guitarists will be compared to.

While carving his own sound, Clark has moved blues and soul music into the future. Moreover, the most impressive thing about Clark is how he can sound like the past and the future all at once. You can hear the anguish of early 20th-century American musicians who wrote songs for survival, not record deals.

However, Clark isn’t only a guitar virtuoso—though he’s certainly that too. But he uses his powerful voice to speak to issues facing his generation. You might think you’re showing up to watch a predictable blues guitarist, like some current form of Eric Clapton. But when Clark and his band drop the devastating synth that begins “This Land,” it sounds more like a revolution than a crossroads.

“Maktub,” from JPEG RAW (2024)

“Maktub” opens Clark’s newest album JPEG RAW and it’s a new kind of Texas boogie, taking Billy Gibbons’ swagger and turning it into a rolling psych-rock riff. According to Clark’s website, “Maktub” is named after an Arabic word meaning “fate” or “destiny.” Additionally, he said the song is a mission statement for the rest of the album. Musically, it follows the blues transformation Clark began on This Land and fuses his guitar with modern R&B elements.

You can’t stop the message, uh
Life’s for sale, pay attention
This just is so suspicious
Don’t wanna be another victim

“Pearl Cadillac,” from This Land (2019)

“Pearl Cadillac” is a dedication to Clark’s mother. It’s also a coming-of-age story set to a fuzzed-out gospel track, where Clark, as a young man, sets off into the world. He sings with a touching falsetto offset by his wailing Gibson SG. The music video was shot using 35mm black-and-white film and recreates Clark leaving home for the first time.

You say I owe you nothin’
If I could, I’d give you the world
You made somethin’ from nothin’
I thank God for such a beautiful girl
He brought in this world, yeah

“Low Down Rolling Stone,” from This Land (2019)

With blues music, the past can be both a blessing and a curse for modern artists. Especially with guitarists, the music is often stubbornly tethered to rehashing the Brits reinterpretation of American blues or simply stuck in a pastiche of earlier blues guitar giants like Jimi Hendrix or Stevie Ray Vaughan. However, on This Land, Clark moved modern blues into the future and established his unique voice. “Low Down Rolling Stone” is proof that Clark’s music is worth more than just waiting around for the guitar solo.

So, fly like an eagle
Go be beautiful and free, girl
’Cause I’m better off on my own
Go save your soul
You don’t wanna go where I go
I’m just a low down rolling stone, barely hanging on

“This Land,” from This Land (2019)

The title track to This Land came from the easy racism the guitarist faced at his home outside of Austin, Texas. Clark had an incident with a neighbor who was shocked that a Black man could afford to buy a large ranch. So, he took his anger, borrowed inspiration from Woodie Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” and turned it into a timeless blues song.

I told you, “There goes a neighborhood”
Now Mister Williams ain’t so funny
I see you looking out your window
Can’t wait to call the police on me

“Bright Lights” from Blak and Blu (2012)

“Bright Lights” follows Clark in New York City. Though it sounds like a familiar blues groove, Clark’s buzzsaw guitar and dynamic voice sound more at home with The Black Keys than SRV. It’s the kind of groove you wouldn’t mind if it carried on for 10 minutes. In fact, when Clark performed at Glastonbury in 2016, he dragged the slow-burn groove near the 10-minute mark. “Bright Lights,” like many Clark songs, is built for a live setting and it’s not surprising he’s frequently followed his studio albums with live recordings.

Start off with the bottle, ended up with the bottle
Taking shots, waiting on tomorrow
Tryin’ to fill up what’s hollow

You gonna know my name
You gonna know my name

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Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

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