He is a native son of Greenville, South Carolina, and fourth generation musician. Marcus King picked up the guitar at age four. By 11, he was playing professionally. His talent is cut from his family’s paternal cloth—his grandfather was a country artist, and his father, Marvin King, continues to perform live.
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The young artist garnered growing attention after a 2014 YouTube video of him jamming in a Los Angeles guitar shop went viral. While still a teenager, King developed a working relationship with Warren Haynes, who signed him to his label, Evil Teen.
By age 20, he was cited as a “guitar phenom.” He became one of Chris Stapleton’s favorite musicians and Eric Clapton’s hand selection to perform at his Crossroads Festival.
According to Dan Auerbach—who produced the young artist’s 2020 solo debut, El Dorado—King is “regularly the best player in the room” and a “naturally gifted writer.” Most recently, The Recording Academy nodded their approval, nominating El Dorado for “Best Americana Album.”
The 12-track collection introduces Marcus King in his purest form. Dodging electric-guitar-induced escapism, El Dorado is a coming of age story that proves the artist wise beyond his 24 years.
Yet, all famed affiliations aside, the Grammy-nominated guitar virtuoso feels he is “a person, just like everybody else.”
“I am vulnerable, depressed at times, and have anxieties too,” King tells American Songwriter. “The part that’s a blessing is that I’m able to spin it all into a positive, release it all through something that makes me feel free.”
King was 13 years old when he lost his first love to a tragic car accident.
“That was a really hard one to process fully,” he shares, adding, “she was the first girl I ever really cared about.”
From then on, things became more difficult.
“You have these moments that you never fully address,” he explains, citing his parents’ divorce and difficulties navigating undiagnosed bipolar disorder and mismatched interests with peers.
“When I started writing, that was the last straw. I knew I needed another outlet, outside of the guitar, that was more representative of what was going on inside of me.”
As he began writing, his voice grew into an indefinable sound that only comes around every few decades. But sharing his inner-most vulnerabilities was a slow development. Throughout his last few record cycles, King grew more confident in his moniker as a singer-songwriter.
“Before that, I just felt like a guitarist that happened to do those other things. It’s something you build over time,” he says. “The beautiful thing is that now, I don’t just do it for myself. I do it so others feel they are not alone, while also giving myself some peace of mind.”
His solo debut follows the 2018 Dave Cobb-produced Carolina Confessions—his third and final release with The Marcus King Band.
Stripped-back might not be the right word for the dynamic soul-funk production, but El Dorado stands apart in its lyrical emphasis. This record marks a shift away from King’s guitar-driven approach to focusing on lyrics and vocal delivery.
These 12 songs were born on the road while King was traveling nearly 200 days of the year. He and his girlfriend were flirting with the idea of heading to Music City full-time, and King had plans to link up with Dan Auerbach at his Easy Eye Studio in Nashville.
Legendary writers joined them in the studio, including Paul Overstreet, Ronnie Bowman, and Pat McLaughlin. Auerbach also enlisted some of the most revered studio musicians in country and soul music history for El Dorado, including drummer Gene Chrisman and keyboard player Bobby Wood, two of the original members of the Memphis Boys, the house band at Chips Moman’s famed American Sound Studio. Their work includes Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man,” Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds,” and hits by Bobby Womack, Joe Tex, and many others.
The artist describes what happened there as “supernatural.”
“There was just a fluid nature to it,” King explains. “They pulled so much out of me that I didn’t even realize was in there.”
“Sweet Mariona” is a byproduct of some of that paranormal activity. King and Bowman built this track with a name and a melody from an instrumental song he formed a few years back following the loss of an ex-girlfriend’s grandmother. It was Bowman who suggested the secondary line “from California.”
“He threw it out there instinctually, not knowing the backstory,” King explains. “But that’s where Mariona was born and where she died.”
The soothing tribute captures the unexpected impact of her passing.
“Mariona was a feisty Italian woman,” he explains. “She was always very warm and kind to me, and she passed untimely. I always thought that it was a beautiful name, and she was a beautiful human being.”
He refers to Dan and other writers who joined them on the project as “wise architects that helped me build what I had already conceptualized in my head, but with a much sturdier foundation.”
Album closer, “No Pain” exemplifies this construction. Written in his dressing room on a dreary day in Toronto, the song tells the story of someone at their wit’s end, done weighing the consequences of their lethal vices. King brought the song to Nashville with only the bones after road-testing the track a few times on tour. Auerbach and McLaughlin enthusiastically approved, effortlessly lending the finishing touches.
The artist has been told many of his songs are “bummers.” He doesn’t disagree. His discography details hardship. Even on his new record, some of his song stories are of survival.
“Break,” written with Wood, resounds the turbulence of mutual emotional instability. With a well-suited harmonic nod to the great Willie Nelson, “Too Much Whiskey” is a sneakily sorrowful drinking tune. Bowman’s prints cover the raw riffs on “The Well”—a blue-collar rock anthem.
But a few shine through with unprecedented optimism.
“Love Song” hones in on his enviable lyricism with clear cut vocal delivery.
“I’ve never lived in a love song before,” he sings repeatedly throughout.
“What I was trying to say with that was I’ve never written a love song that was this cut and dry,” says King. “I’ve alluded to it or being homesick or even lovesick, but I’ve never directly said it. To me, music is the perfect way to convey your love for someone.”
The full-bodied album is a slow-burning, stage scorching build off King’s opening line.
He begins singing, “I left home when I was seventeen,” from the album-opener “Young Man’s Dream.”
The uncharacteristically gentle meditation marks a pivotal moment for King’s career. He reflects thoughtfully on his arrival to the present moment with ease, offering perspective as an undoubtedly defining voice of his generation.
To put it simply, Marcus King makes music “from the soul, for the soul.”
“I’ve always described it as soul food for the ears,” the artist explains of his sound many fumble to assign.
“It’s intended for people to listen to to get them out of a tough situation, or make something good even better—those are the hopes. I make music because it makes me happy, and if I can offer someone even a tenth of the joy that music brings me, I’ve done my job correctly.”
Listen to Marcus King’s Grammy-nominated solo debut, El Dorado, below. The 63rd annual Grammy Awards will be held on Sunday, January 31, and will be broadcast on CBS.