This article is part of our November 2017 issue, which features a comprehensive look at Texas music.
Inside Fort Worth’s Niles City Sound recording studio, just nine days after the summer’s violent rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, three young high-profile African American musicians gathered to re-record “Ohio”—Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s 1970 protest of the Kent State shootings. Though the Spotify-commissioned recording tied to Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s documentary series on the Vietnam War had been in the works for weeks, lines like “What if you knew her and found her dead on the ground?” rang with renewed intensity.
Leon Bridges and Gary Clark Jr. both faced a Steinway grand piano manned by their new friend Jon Batiste, the New Orleans–raised, Juilliard-trained bandleader of the Late Show With Stephen Colbert. As they rehearsed an understated arrangement, all three men locked in a soft harmony that verged on falsetto, then paused to check in.
“Do you like the whispery thing?” Bridges asked Batiste.
“Yeah, that jacket is tailored,” he responded. “Snug. Beautifully snug.”
Over the past year and a half, Bridges and Clark had been excitedly texting each other, trying to find time to collaborate. But the demands of two busy careers stood in the way. Bridges has checked off his bucket-list items at a dizzying clip: the success of his debut record, 2015’s Coming Home, transformed the former Fort Worth steakhouse dishwasher into a major music festival draw, securing him a Grammy nomination and multiple invites to play for President Obama. Clark’s rise has been no less meteoric: after cutting his teeth as a teenage prodigy around Austin’s blues scene, he signed to Warner Brothers records and quickly emerged as rock and roll’s preeminent guitar hero around the globe. (Eric Clapton once told Clark he’d inspired him to play again. So yeah.)
Since both Bridges and Clark are working on solo records for tentative 2018 release, fans will likely have to wait to hear the half a dozen originals the pair has worked up with Batiste—and discover whether the sum of this assembly is even greater than its prodigious parts.
We sat down with two of the state’s biggest exports for a candid discussion on the triumphs and trials of their careers so far.
Andy Langer: When did you guys meet for the first time?
Leon Bridges: We met very briefly at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony in 2015. I did the tribute to the “5” Royales and Gary was there for Stevie Ray Vaughan. It was surreal: At the end of the night, we’re all onstage with Paul McCartney, Ringo, Miley Cyrus, and Green Day. At one point Gary came over and introduced himself. We talked Texas for a minute. And I was like, “Whoa, Gary Clark Jr. just said ‘What’s up?’ to me.”
AL: At that point, your debut album was not even out yet. Six months earlier you had been washing dishes in a Fort Worth restaurant.
LB: Everything was new to me, everything was a first. I was just beginning to learn to do this music stuff and how to handle myself onstage and off. To go from restaurant work to people knowing who you are, debating your music, playing in front of huge crowds? It was a crazy transition.
AL: Gary, while your rise through the ranks was a little more subtle, I imagine you knew a little of what he was going through.
Gary Clark Jr.: I couldn’t begin to imagine it happening so fast, what it would be like to be in the center of that storm. I had years and years to try and build an audience in Austin, to kind of get familiar. So I was thinking about y’all, like, “You all right? You cool?” because, damn, that’s not an easy spot to be in.
LB: We came to find out pretty quickly that I had to get better at the simple things, like sitting for an interview. There also aren’t many books on how to put up a good show, how to entertain. In the beginning, whoever came probably recognized that I held back a lot. I was very shy, very awkward. But it’s dope that they saw my potential.
AL: You both work within genres that people expect certain things from and that both of you have expressed an interest in trying to radically break away from. That might be the real connection between you, right?
GC: I think that being rooted in a classic form of music—for us, the blues or R&B—is very important for an artist. But at the same time, I mean, it’s 2017, and we both grew up in an era of R&B and hip-hop. We were influenced by those sounds; we want to move that way, speak that way, and maybe have that kind of swag. So it’s hard for me to just stay in this “You are a blues guitar guy” box. I understand that people may want something they can digest easily, I get that, but it’s a little bit of a challenge and kind of frustrating, to want to think outside the box and be able to take a few turns without risking your audience and everything you did to get here. It’s a tightrope walk.
AL: How quickly did the blues guitar box start to feel too cramped for you?
GC: I was in Australia on my first record and we were riding to the venue. We passed all these promotional posters on the street with my face and the line “The next Hendrix.” And I was like, “Whoa. Shit! Hold on!” It made me angry, but in hindsight, I also understood their marketing angle. They needed a quick tagline, whereas mine would have been more nuanced, like, Hendrix is part of the foundation, part of the roots, but maybe you could also look at the branches and leaves? And since it’s all part of the same tree, I think I have permission to branch off however I’m inspired. Hate it or love it, I think that as an artist, it’s important to evolve and grow. In retrospect, I’ve learned that rather than frustrate yourself with how people perceive you, you’ve just got to accept it. But it should be more like taking a first meeting or a first date: maybe the first time you meet somebody, you might see them as this certain archetype, and the more you converse and open up, you get a broader perspective of who they are and hopefully they do the same. That’s what should happen with music.
AL: Leon, famously, “the Second Coming of Sam Cooke” thing was immediately thrust on you. And I think maybe everyone but the critics writing it knew that wasn’t necessarily going to be good for you.
LB: It’s flattering. But yeah, how could it be good for me? I was just off the jump. There’s no way I could hope to live up to that kind of comparison. But I also wasn’t trying to be Sam Cooke, so to have people remind me that I didn’t stack up was frustrating too. But there were so many people who saw the potential, who were curious what would happen next—that negates all the pressure. To know there are fans who are willing to grow with us as we kind of expand the sound is a blessing. Where’s the challenge in trying to make “Coming Home: Part 2”? I feel like that just wouldn’t be enough for me.
GC: Is that a slight reveal?
AL: If this new record of yours is a departure, I’m guessing there was a moment in the past year and a half where what you were doing became less satisfying to you?
LB: No moment in particular, but there’s been times I felt like I wasn’t being totally honest with the people, when I’m playing material that maybe in my head I’ve moved beyond. Basically, I just want to be able to do music without restrictions. It’s not an overt attempt to be modern. It’s going to be modern because it’s 2017. I guess after touring with Coming Home for two years, I just kind of grew tired of it.
AL: Gary, you’ve experimented enough now that a pretty wide shift away from the blues thing isn’t going to surprise many people.
GC: I said from the jump—hopefully without sounding too arrogant—that I knew that there were other things I was interested in. At home, I’m playing with turntables and beat machines, keyboards, and drums. I got rappers coming over to my house, and a few hours later, I might be playing acoustic guitar in the backyard. So when people ask me, “What do you do?” it’s like, “Everything?” I might drop a trumpet solo. I might put out a rap album. I might conduct a symphony at some point. You know what I mean? I might write classical music. I have these vivid dreams in which I’m conducting these beautiful pieces of art. But it has also been a blessing and a curse, because people are like, “I don’t know what you do. I don’t know if I really rock with you a hundred percent.” There are some people who get it and some people that’ll say, “That’s a mess.” Like, “You are a hot mess and you need to figure out what you want to do.” And so I get that and maybe one day I’ll be like, [snaps fingers] “This is exactly what I want to do.” But for now, I’m soaking up everything like a sponge and spitting it back out.
AL: When Leon was talking about what’s next, I saw the wide grin, the glimmer in your eyes. You like that he might be headed into his own hot mess?
GC: Sure. We’ve talked a lot about music together and we’ve got a lot in common as far as what we rock to. I’d like to see his take on a lot of that stuff.
LB: But maybe it’s not going to be a huge surprise to people after all. If you look at who I talk about in the interviews and my influences, from Ginuwine then to Migos now, I think you’re getting a glimpse into how I’m thinking. Look at the collaborations I’ve done, from Macklemore to Lecrae. Will the super-retro soul nerds like everything I do? Probably not. But I feel like most of my fans will be able to grow with us and rock with us.
AL: How aware are the both of you that wherever you go, you may be the only black person on the bill or one of a handful in the festival lineup? This is still a segregated business in a lot of ways. I’m guessing those are experiences you have in common.
GC: You want to take that first? Because I can talk for a minute on that? [Laughs.]
LB: No, you should go first.
GC: I’m hyper-aware of it all the time. Early on, I had conversations with management and the record label about it. It’s like, “Look, okay, I get that you are going to put me in this box of blues guitar player,” and maybe that’s a scene I fit. But it’s in the context of a business that’s primarily run by whites. And so it’s kind of weird to me that I might be the only black dude at a blues jam. It can be a little bit frustrating. I remember when I was doing my first record with Warner and they were trying to figure out the genre, what part of the label would work my record and how they’d promote it to radio. And they’re like, “We are going to put you in the rock category.” And I was like, “Hold on. I’m not necessarily a rock musician.” I mean, I might play rock and roll from time to time and get heavy, but I come from Curtis Mayfield. I come from John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson, Parliament Funkadelic, Marvin Gaye, the Motown Sound. That’s who I grew up with. So it’s kind of funny to put me in these festivals, put me in these situations where now I have to play the role of a rock guitarist instead of that funky soul brother that I am in my own mind. People want to see me as the next Hendrix, but I’m, like, really feeling Curtis Mayfield or the Isley Brothers. Honestly, it’s been frustrating because I don’t want people to think, “Brother, you forgot about your people.” And I’m like, “No, this is just the way the business is running,” which sounds like an excuse. It’s a weird game. But at the end of the day, I’m grateful for the opportunity to be on these stages and share moments with these artists and get a different perspective. And then I’ll mix it up, switch it up, and go and do something with Big K.R.I.T. It’s about trying to find a balance, because I think you can easily get lost if you are not aware where people are trying to place you and how people perceive you. It’s very important to understand what people think of you and to communicate to the people you work with, “This is where I want to be and this is where I want to go. I know you think this might work better a different way and numbers look good here or whatever, but this is who I am, this is where I come from, and if I lose that, there is no point in doing this.”
LB: This is one of those things I really wasn’t aware of in the beginning. I was just enjoying going around and playing music. But then again, how could I not notice the audiences at my shows are predominantly white? I’ve definitely had that desire to look out at a more diverse crowd.
AL: More of an audience that looks like you.
LB: Yeah, totally. And I had my shot when I played at the Roots Picnic. It’s a predominantly black, predominantly hip-hop festival. My people. And I was excited to play for my people, but I didn’t get the same reaction that I did when I played to a white crowd. I felt like it didn’t work. We played right after DMX and right before Usher. We’re rocking, I’m dancing, doing the whole thing. I think I’m singing my face off and people were just staring at me. Maybe they were just soaking it in. I’m not gonna let that discourage me, though. I feel like I make music for everybody and I want to see more diversity.
GC: Don’t feel bad, bro. I did Jay-Z’s Made in America festival, in Philadelphia, and went on right before Travis Scott—kids in the crowd outright yawning at me.
AL: Geographic roots seem incredibly important to both of you too. Leon, you just bought a house in Fort Worth. Gary, you recently bought a ranch outside Austin. Both of you have the means to live almost anywhere, yet you stay home.
LB: I’m just the kind of person that when I made that transition—to success, fame, whatever you wanna call it—that part of the job didn’t faze me. And everything moved so fast, I really didn’t have a desire to leave everyone behind and go out to a Los Angeles or New York. I’m proud to be a Fort Worth kid making my way through the music industry. I love repping Fort Worth. And I feel that was one of the things that made people interested. It’s like, “Who is that young black kid in Fort Worth making this kind of music?”
GC: I lived in New York on and off for two years and spent some time living in Los Angeles. I had the opportunity to say, “Let me go and check this out.” I always wanted to live in New York. I had to learn for myself that they don’t know what queso is, that it’s freezing cold, and they’re all screaming at each other all the time. I also tried to jump into their music scene a little, to see what else was going on. But when I came back home, I realized that there is a language that just kind of goes unspoken among people from the same place. To try and re-create some sort of community, or use it as a springboard to go on to something else? Pretty soon I said, “This is just confusing my life. I need to go back home, and when I go back to what I call home, I want to be surrounded by the things that inspire me and influence me.” I need to be somewhere where I can hear a cat like Ephraim Owens play on a weeknight. I haven’t really found those places [in New York] where I do that, get some barbecue afterwards, and drive out twenty, thirty minutes and see wide-open sky. I also felt like I was bailing on my family and the people who got me here. Am I the kind of guy that ditches the people who pushed me and held me up? I felt like a traitor. I was like, “I need to get my ass back home.” And it feels great. And home keeps you straight. If I’m doing something wrong, maybe I won’t know till I’m home. If I come back home, the same people that I looked in the eyes before I left go, “Okay, that was tight,” then it’s cool.
AL: Home is your gut check.
GC: Exactly. You check your ego, you check your attitude. Everything’s good? Cool. Keep on moving.
AL: They’ll check you on the music front too.
GC: Austin people are very honest. There are a ton of guitar players in Austin. It’s a little bit competitive. They will tell you if they dig it or not. Whether it’s subtle or right in your face, they’ll tell you.
LB: This guy came up to me in Fort Worth not long ago, and I didn’t ask him for his opinion, but he said, “I just want to let you know that when your album came out, I would listen to it and then I got bored real quick.” And I was like, “Okay, so?” I was thinking, “Do you tell that to other musicians around town?” Maybe he does.
AL: Gary, your parents are right up front at a lot of your gigs. And Leon, you talk about your mother everywhere you go.
GC: They’re our grounding. My family, from the start, gave me so much support, but they were also very worried about me. They didn’t know if we were going to work out, and I didn’t have any other options. Or, more to the point, I didn’t care about any of the options. So they supported me and they would come out and watch me play until two in the morning. They had to go to work and I had to get up to go to school, but they were there. Whatever I do, I’m always asking, “Is this going to make my family proud?” That’s the number one thing. No matter what everybody else says, as long as my folks are cool with me, I think I’ll be all right.
LB: Same with my mother. Early on, she was worried too. I was going out to open mics and she didn’t want me hanging out late in smoky bars. Plus, I was using her car. But even through all that, she still supported me. When I started writing and I would show her some of the music, even with her coming from a strong religious background, she would still support my music. There were times, though, when I’d have to lie. I’d tell her I was just now getting off of work, but I’d really be on my way to an open mic to play. She knows now. We’re cool.
AL: Last year, in Australia, is the first time you guys really spent time together, right? Leon, was it reassuring to have Gary around?
LB: There is a hashtag going around, #blackboyjoy. That’s what this is. And we were two Texans in Australia. It was crazy how we were playing in the same festival, on the same flight, and at baggage claim, and I was like, “Hey man, do you wanna play some guitar onstage with us tonight?” And he was like, “Let’s do it.” And then, vice versa, he was playing at the Opera House and I came to sing with him. A brotherhood was born.
GC: I know I find it reassuring and inspiring. Let’s just be real: to be a young black kid with a dream, playing music, and to be able to travel around the world? To have somebody else to relate to that’s out there getting it? When I see him, I’m proud of him. And it lights that fire to see more of it coming. Look at the Suffers, in Houston, playing to huge crowds and festivals. That makes me proud to see Texas come up. We are known, but I want where we come from to really shine. It’s something I’m driven by. You know? Texas is squaring up. Watching Leon or the Suffers kick ass and take names is something that gives me joy.
AL: You both have stellar reputations back home as people who’ve let very little of this go to their heads. Is there a secret to that?
LB: I think it depends on your character, you know. Fame amplifies everything. For some people, it amplifies their love for the music, for the art. And for somebody who may already be super-egotistical going in, that’ll be amplified too. I think I’m just the type of person that is thankful for opportunity but also really aware that we’re all the same and that this shit is temporary.
GC: I’ve seen way too much of Behind the Music. In every episode, what trips people up isn’t just the fame but the fear of losing it. Or thinking that it will last forever. So I aim to treat this moment with gratitude and understand what got me here: hard work, dedication, and love for music. Once that goes away and you are not attached to that, when it doesn’t mean as much to you as being famous, that’s when it’s really over.
AL: Even so, when you look to your right onstage and there’s the Rolling Stones, or it’s Beyoncé, you’ve got to have the confidence to know you can hang, to not be intimidated, right?
LB: Wait, you played with Beyoncé?
GC: I did a Stevie Wonder tribute with Beyoncé and Ed Sheeran. In rehearsals and on the show itself, I’m just looking at her and I’m like, “Whoa. Is this for real?” But yeah, you got to be cool. You gotta think, “They called me; I didn’t crash the party.”
AL: And Leon, you’ve played the White House a handful of times. You were invited to Obama’s birthday party.
GC: Wait, I didn’t get invited to Obama’s birthday.
LB: I spent the whole night gawking. There’s Paul McCartney! There’s George Lucas! In those types of situations, I think maybe I’m there because I worked hard, I made a nice album. But really, to be able to have those opportunities? I still look at it as I don’t deserve it. It’s God’s grace that I’m able to experience it.
GC: Once you get comfortable, that’s when you get lazy. And that’s when you get to “this is what my life is forever.” But also, I think what we have in common with the heroes we get to meet is the passion for this music. I’ve been able to spend some time with the Rolling Stones. They’re in their seventies and still excited, still inspired. You put a Howlin’ Wolf record on for Mick or Keith and it’s “Man, this is the greatest thing ever,” as if it is the first time they are putting it on the deck. To be that cool and humble? To still love the music so much? You peek into that world and know exactly why they’re role models.
AL: Not just because you’re now recording together, but I get the feeling that you two are going to keep tabs on each other the rest of your lives.
LB: Oh yeah, definitely. We’re gonna be friends all the way down the line. This is a brotherhood that is going to last forever.
GC: I’ve got a lot of respect for him. And I’m curious. I’ll be checking up on you, bro. Texas boys. We got to stay together!
LB: It’s about accountability. And being there to lift each other up.
GC: That’s the main thing. At the end of the day, I love what I do. But it’s not always easy. So to have somebody sharing a similar journey that you turn to and say, “Hey, man, you good?” That’s everything.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Listen to Gary and Leon’s “Ohio”:
Listen to Gary Clark Jr.’s “Don’t Owe You a Thang”:
Listen to Leon Bridges’s “Smooth Sailing”: