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Gary Clark Jr.: A Blues Wunderkind Grows Up, Breaks Out

It's been a while since pop-music writers have heaped praise on a blues guitarist as the next big thing. But that's what's happened with Gary Clark Jr., who's just put out his first full-length album on a major label. It's called Blak and Blu.

While the album is new, Clark is not. In fact, he might be the worst-kept, best secret in Austin, Texas. Clark, 28, spent his early teens playing blues clubs in the vibrant 6th Street music scene of downtown Austin, learning from — and impressing — blues legends along the way.

"I was 14 years old when I first played an Austin club," Clark tells NPR's Audie Cornish. "I was hanging out with a friend of mine for her birthday; she wanted to go to this blues bar. They were having this blues jam, and she was like, 'You should get up on stage.' And I went with it."

Clark says the biggest hurdle of that first performance was just understanding what the other musicians were saying.

"The phrases that they used, I wasn't ready for that," he says. "They called out something like, 'We're gonna play a shuffle in the key of G; start from the five.'" And I was like, 'What is that?' I spent the first half of the song just trying to get familiar [and] figure out exactly what they meant."

Clark continued playing around town and quickly picked up a reputation. By the time he was 17, the mayor had declared a "Gary Clark Jr. Day" in Austin. Two years ago, Clark broke out on the national stage when he played at Eric Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival.

Here, Clark chats with Audie Cornish about his double life as a high-school student and local music sensation, and tells the stories behind a few of the tracks on Blak and Blu.

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