If you’re at all familiar with my writing, you know that I spend an inordinate amount of time (for a grown man) complaining about the lack of great guitar players currently inhabiting the upper levels of the pop culture scene. More than ever before, I’m terrified for the future of the instrument. Cobain killed the guitar solo in the early nineties and things haven’t gotten any better since. Which is why I was surprised when, during this year’s Grammys, blues guitarist Gary Clark Jr. made an appearance alongside Beyoncé and Ed Sheeran for a live tribute to Stevie Wonder. Clark was introduced about halfway through, stealing the spotlight from the underwhelming and even more underdressed Ed Sheeran (and also making Sheeran look like the awkward, uninvited nerd sitting at the cool kid’s table for three minutes as Clark and Beyoncé tore through an electrified “Higher Ground”). But as exciting as it was to watch a master guitarist strut his stuff in front of one of the biggest television audiences of the year, it got me thinking: I’m worried about Gary Clark Jr. I’m worried because of his latest release—a cover of the most covered rock song of all time, “Come Together”—is basically nothing more than him vamping over what sounds like a cheesy action movie soundtrack for three minutes. And trust me, I’m not being too harsh. It sounds that way because that’s exactly what he’s doing, since the music video is literally just an advertisement for the new Justice League movie. I’m worried this master blues guitarist will become more Jimmy Buffett than Jimi Hendrix, especially if his desire is more than just to write and perform some amazing blues records. I’m worried Gary Clark Jr. wants to become a celebrity, and I’m worried that may be the end of him.
I’ll admit right out of the gate that Gary Clark Jr. has been one of my favorite guitar players ever since the release of his 2012 album Blak and Blu. He’s as close as this generation is ever going to get to producing another Jimi Hendrix—a true master of his instrument with a distinctive style and effortless cool. So I really don’t want to go too hard on him here. A part of me wants to just give him a pass—he probably got payed a private jet stuffed with money just to stand in front of a green screen, wear some kind of gothic-space-cowboy costume and pretend-play guitar for an afternoon. That music video alone more than likely just paid for a permanent vacation home in Paris. In other words, beats my job.
But Gary Clark Jr’s. raw blues style in defiance of an industry oversaturated with synths and auto-tune always made his records feel like a genuine breath of fresh air. He may not have reinvented the wheel, but he definitely slapped some Ray-Bans on it and made the wheel cool again. And why would you reinvent something that works so perfectly well? Whereas bands like The White Stripes turned the blues on its head and almost spoofed the genre, Gary Clark Jr.’s no-frills approach always made him feel like a man without an agenda. He’s not playing the blues to be cool, he’s cool because he plays the blues. It’s just what he does. Which is what makes his potential plunge into the all-too-vapid pop culture inner-circle so terrifying. Nine minute guitar jam tracks just won’t fly anymore. Just ask John Mayer, perhaps the single most underrated blues guitarist in the world considering you’ve all heard his name but never heard him play a solo. Honestly, it must be impossible to stay fresh when you’re forced to stop thinking like a musician and begin thinking like Coca-Cola or General Electric (ugh, I sound so much like a hippie I want to take a shower).
Hippie sentimentality notwithstanding, there’s a big part of me that hates this notion that talented musicians can’t also be pop stars. Who says the two are mutually exclusive? Despite their often too-polished appearances, most pop stars actually are talented in their craft. In a lot of cases, that craft just happens to be entertainment—be it putting on an amazing show or expertly dominating social media—and not the actual music itself. But while that may be true for Taylor Swift, it certainly wasn’t the case for Prince, or Elton John, or David Bowie. But those legends were more the exception than the standard.
Gary Clark Jr. has something that many guitar players don’t: a voice. Like a signature, his playing is instantly recognizable and almost impossible to accurately reproduce. This is the kind of trait possessed by all of the greats. When Simon and Garfunkel are singing on the radio, you immediately know it’s them. Same goes for Sting, U2, Van Halen, AC/DC, etc., there is simply no confusing them for anyone else. Slash could solo over a local auto repair shop ad jingle and you’d still know it was him (who knows, it feels like something he’d do at this point in his career). And while the notion of “selling-out” doesn’t have the same impact as it once did years ago—considering the state of the music industry as a whole it’s now considered almost necessary for one to make money in any way they can—I’m worried that if Gary Clark Jr. begins caring more about becoming a celebrity than just playing some fantastic blues, we might lose one of the next greats. The world already has enough paparazzi fodder. We don’t need another reality TV show. So stick to the studio, master your craft, forward that “guest solo during Katy Perry Super Bowl performance” email to Slash’s people and keep doing what you’re doing, Gary.
Illustration by Dan Dinsmore