There's a good chance your blues career is on the right track if, at 27, you can count Eric Clapton as a fan.
Gary Clark Jr., the prodigious guitar player from Austin, Texas, even counts the six-string legend as a friend. Last June, Clapton picked Clark as the lone newcomer on his Crossroads Guitar Festival bill. His blazing performance in Chicago was the talk of the show and left many of the 20,000 in attendance wondering, "Who is this guy?"
Listen to reviewers and they'll say Clark, who plays a sold-out show at the 8x10 on Friday, is the man capable of bringing blues back to the mainstream, thanks to his virtuosic ability and a genuine aura of cool that never appears manufactured. Ask Clark what he thinks of the hype, and he'll nervously search for an answer, only to eventually laugh it off.
"I've heard that a little bit. It's kind of strange," Clark said. "It's cool that people are feeling what I'm doing, but I don't sit around and think about that too much."
He's been busy since Crossroads, signing a deal with Warner Bros. and releasing "The Bright Lights EP," a four-song introduction that will hold fans over until the release of Clark's currently untitled debut album. Rolling Stone, which ran a four-star review of the EP in August, named "Bright Lights" the 40th-best recording of the year.
Growing up in Austin, one of the country's longtime hot spots for live music, Clark immersed himself in blues culture at an early age. He said he often hung around local venues and "soaked up" the different types of music being performed on a daily basis.
"In Austin, you can find a blues bar next door to a DJ spinning underground whatever, and then there's Top 40 and a bluegrass band," he said. "You can go to the supermarket and there's a band playing outside of it. It was always something I was around, and I didn't think much of it until I left and saw it wasn't like that everywhere else."
It wasn't long before Clark asked his parents for a guitar. In sixth grade, he begged until, on Christmas, they gave him a black Ibanez Blazer electric guitar. It hangs on his wall today.
"[They asked,] 'What the hell are you going to do with that?' I didn't know, but it felt like something I needed in my life," Clark said.
It seems Clark's hunch has paid off. Clapton's admiration landed the young singer-songwriter the opening gig on Clapton's South American tour this past fall.
"He came back to the dressing room and said, 'Keep being confident and doing what you do,'" Clark said. "That was pretty amazing for me as a kid from Texas who loves playing guitar. I was feeling pretty confident that night on stage."
Clark remains tight-lipped about details on his upcoming album, only willing to say he's been in the studio with veteran producer Rob Cavallo and that he hopes to release it in the middle of next year. He said one of the most important aspects of the record is capturing the blues' rawness on tape — where imperfections can add character and excessive studio sheen can sterilize.
"When it comes to the studio, we just lay it down straight and we work with what we got from there," he said. "There's definitely a live element to it."
He might not have asked for to be a genre's torchbearer, but it's a responsibility Clark doesn't take lightly. His voice, typically languid and soft, gains new, even slightly agitated life when he is asked whether blues is a forgotten genre.
"The blues is the foundation for a lot of things," Clark said. "Things have branched off. It's cool how music grows, but the foundation is always there. It's not going anywhere. The blues is always going to be relevant."
If you go
Gary Clark Jr. performs Friday at the 8x10, 10 E. Cross St. Doors open at 8 p.m. Venue information: 410-625-2000 or the8x10.com. The show is sold out.