The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Gary Clark Jr. was supposed to save the blues. But the guitarist would rather channel Curtis Mayfield.

Guitarist and singer Gary Clark Jr.’s third album, “This Land,” melds political narrative with Clark’s rock sensibilities in its title track. (Jesse Dittmar for The Washington Post)

HAYS COUNTY, TEXAS — One morning in February 2018, for reasons he still can’t or doesn’t want to fully explain, Gary Clark Jr. got so mad that he punched a cabinet. This was no love tap. Within minutes, his right hand had swelled up so much that his ring had to be cut off at the hospital. One of the world’s great young guitarists would need to fly to New York so a specialist could screw the bone back together.

Was it the pressure to complete his long overdue record? The challenge of balancing family with career?

“It’s not really something that I want to shed a lot of light on,” Clark says, “but for me it was a feeling of frustration. Like whatever decision I make, something is lacking.”

“Sometimes he laughs about it and says he was just trying to do a kung fu move,” says Clark’s wife, Nicole Trunfio. “I still don’t know why he punched the wall.”

That the source of Clark’s temper remains a secret is no surprise. In this age of confession and confrontation, the singer is a throwback to a time when a new album arrived with a sense of mystery instead of an instant Genius annotation.

Lenny Waronker, the legendary record executive who signed Prince, admits that at one point while Clark was working on “This Land,” he had no idea what to expect.

“He holds songs pretty close to the vest,” Waronker says.

Clark will talk, particularly if a record company rep is nudging him to, but he’d prefer to show off his folder of George Benson samples rather than pick apart his lyrics. Take “This Land,” the title track and first single off the new album. It’s a blistering account of a run-in outside Clark’s home in rural Texas. A neighbor questioned how Clark, a black man, could own such an impressive spread. Things escalated from there.

In the first verse, he spits out a reference to Trump country and, on the chorus, chants, ‘N---- run, n---- run/ Go back where you come from” over a chugging, reggae beat. It’s his most political song to date.

But press Clark on that content, heightened by a dramatic promotional video packed with images of fire, nooses and Confederate flags, and he’ll brush you off.

“That was just one day,” he says. “That doesn’t happen every day. My life is great. I’m surrounded by love.”

“This Land,” Clark’s third studio album, has quickly emerged as his most successful critically and commercially, even sharing the Billboard Top 10 with the post-Oscars Queen and Lady Gaga. “This Land,” the song, has also grabbed the attention of people already converted to his meld of rock, blues, funk and soul.

ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, a fan since he saw Clark’s red Epiphone at a festival they were playing a few years ago, heard parts of the album from Austin City Limits radio host Andy Langer a few weeks before its release. They found themselves in Langer’s car putting “This Land” on repeat.

“I said, ‘Wow, that’ll yank your chain,’ ” Gibbons says. “Sing it, sing it, brother.’ ”

Clark, 35, doesn’t find it at all strange that he would live in Texas, even after the run-in with the neighbor. This is home. He grew up in Austin, and his 50-acre ranch, in nearby Hays County, is about a 25-minute drive from his parents’ home. Trunfio, an Australian-born model, spotted the house, where they live with their two children, Zion, 4, and Gia, 1.

“I was like, ‘You can have the house, I’ll take this little space right here,’ ” Clark says.

That space is a small building behind the house that he has filled with guitars, basses and a drum set. Through another door, you’ll find his recording setup, which includes an MPC mixer and sampler and his laptop. Clark’s sound might be huge, but his artistic process is closer to the DIY creations that emerged in the four-track era of the 1980s. This is how he constructs his records, starting alone by building demos, without lyrics, before taking them into Austin to turn them into fully realized songs with co-producer Jacob Sciba.

He can bang out a country blues on an 80-year-old resonator guitar, and is just as comfortable grabbing a sample to drop into another song.

“It is just basically experimentation,” Clark says, demonstrating with a George Benson clip he’s loaded. “On this hard drive, it would just say the name of the song, and it wouldn’t tell me who the artist was. So a lot of that I didn’t know who it was, and I had to Shazam it.”

Clark has learned what works for him. He arrived, as Rolling Stone headlined an early feature, as “The Chosen One,” expected to help revive the blues and serve as a much-needed guitar hero. “If it were up to everybody else, I would do Hendrix covers all the time,” he snickered back then.

Clark’s major label debut, 2012’s “Blak and Blu,” found him heading to Los Angeles to record with big-name producers Rob Cavallo (Green Day, My Chemical Romance) and Mike Elizondo (Eminem, Fiona Apple). Today, without criticizing anyone, he says he prefers some of the demos to the final recordings. For his follow-up, 2015’s “The Story of Sonny Boy Slim,” Clark headed to Austin and worked largely alone. He felt more comfortable but now thinks that “Slim” could have been better. There were songs that needed more writing time, others that suffered from his decision to play all of the instruments.

“This Land” would be yet another way of making an album.

At one point, there was talk of going to a big-name producer. Rick Rubin and Pharrell were mentioned. Clark said no.

“I looked at him and said, ‘Are you crazy?’ ” Sciba says. “And his thing was . . . Stevie Wonder produced his own stuff. And he’d go down the list. He said, ‘If I make music, I’ll make my music, and that’s what I’ll be known for. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. But I won’t be known for something that’s not mine.’ ”

Again, Clark wrote most of the music, but he collaborated with Sciba and others on some of the lyrics. He also took Sciba’s advice that they use another drummer, Brannen Temple, instead of playing himself. The music on “This Land” is hard to label, jumping from the charged reggae of “This Land” to the acoustic blues of “The Governor” to “Feed the Babies,” which could be the great lost Curtis Mayfield song.

“Quincy Jones is the king to me,” Clark says. “You know what I mean? Just with his range of what he did musically and sonically over the years. It’s classic, it’s current, it’s timeless all at the same time, and that’s incredible.”

That’s not to say that the recording process was always smooth. Clark had wanted to deliver “This Land” last summer. Instead, he found himself posting Instagram photos of the cast on his hand. At Waronker’s urging, Clark’s manager, Scooter Weintraub, visited Clark. Some songs were just backing tracks, so Clark sang lyrics to Weintraub so he could understand where he planned to go.

“And I fell over when I heard ‘This Land,’ ” Weintraub says. “I didn’t expect him to come up with something like that. When I heard it instrumentally, I was like, ‘This is Dr. Dre meets Band of Gypsys.’ Then there were more like that.”

Self-taught guitarist

Gary Clark Jr. got his first guitar at Christmas when he was 13, an Ibanez RX20. His father, Gary Sr., who worked at a car dealership in Austin, loved music and had seen everyone from Jimi Hendrix and Carlos Santana to Joe Tex over the years. He also messed around on guitar and kept a hollow body Gibson in the garage.

“One day I came home and drove into the garage, and it wasn’t hanging up anymore,” Clark Sr. says. “I found it on the side, and it was in pieces. I found out [later], when he was 19, that he was actually trying to put it up before I got home, and it fell down.”

Clark Jr. didn’t take lessons. Instead, he went to the Covington Middle School library to check out a few how-to-play-guitar books, and listened to Green Day, Nirvana, Jimmy Reed and Stevie Ray Vaughan.

“Within a day and a half or so, I’m walking down the hallway and he’s in there playing,” his father says. “Wait a minute. Is that the radio or is that him? I called my wife up and opened up the door, and there he was playing note-for-note Jimi Hendrix.”

Clark started jamming with a friend from the neighborhood, Eve Monsees. They had their first gig on her 15th birthday — Monsees’s parents took them to a place called Babe’s for a blues jam.

“We did a couple songs that we do, and the guy who ran the jam . . . got up to sing the song and shouted out, ‘Key of A from the 5,’ ” Monsees recalls. “And we looked at each other and said, ‘What does that mean?’

“We were sitting a couple weeks later, sitting down at the piano, and [Clark] said, ‘Look, this is what it means. This is the fifth note of the scale.’ It just clicked. I thought it was so smart that he just figured out why they would say that.”

The public first met Clark in 2007, when director John Sayles cast him as a young musician in his film “Honeydripper,” but his musical breakthrough came in 2010. Guitarist Doyle Bramhall II, a fellow Texan and respected producer, suggested Clark to Eric Clapton for his Crossroads Guitar Festival. The short set changed everything.

Clark cut a stylish figure onstage with his aviator sunglasses, black T-shirt and red Casino guitar.

“I remember seeing him and thinking, ‘Look at this guy, he’s a bad ass,’ ” says Weintraub, who was working on the festival with Clapton. “Everybody was kind of freaking out over him. I remember getting texts during the show, people were like, ‘Who the hell is this guy?’ ”

Tom Whalley, then chairman of Warner Bros. Records, suggested Weintraub sign Clark to a management contract.

“So I asked him, ‘What do you want to be?’ ” Weintraub recalls. “He said, ‘Snoop Dogg meets John Lee Hooker.’ ”

There are a lot of people Clark gets compared to. But his sound is his own. His guitar draws on Buddy Guy’s searing tone, B.B. King’s gift for ringing the perfect note and Hendrix’s blistering runs. He’s also not afraid to throw a few punk jabs into the mix, and his voice doesn’t follow a road map. Clark might shout or growl or slip into his Princely falsetto.

And although Clark knows some fans might be put off by the political nature of his song “This Land” — he’s even responded to criticism on Instagram — he didn’t hesitate to open his new record with it.

The exchange with his neighbor remains painful, particularly because his son witnessed it. He still thinks of Zion, riding around on his bike, as Clark and the man argued outside his home.

“When I looked over and I saw him, he’s got this look of fear and confusion,” he says. “I don’t think he’s seen anything like that. I don’t want him to see anything like that.”

Gary Clark Jr. Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Anthem, 901 Wharf St. SW. Show is sold out.

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