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King Off The Road: Hard Touring Guitar Star Marcus King Reflects On A Low Mileage 2020

Emily Butler

When we tallied it all up, the artist played the most times on WMOT in the outgoing year was Marcus King. This came mostly on the strength of his album El Dorado, produced by Dan Auerbach and released in January, before the pandemic forced his large and loud Marcus King Band off the road.

El Dorado was the first recording King released under his name alone, with less focus on his incendiary guitar playing and massive grooves and more on his voice and his songwriting. And it was hailed as another breakthrough for the phenom, not yet 25 years old and riding several different updrafts that have established him as one of the stars of the jam band and Southern blues/rock circuit. The electric guitar is very much back in the spotlight, in part because the South Carolina native rode an early invitation to the Crossroads Festival to theaters and halls across the country, prestige TV appearances and his own Gibson signature guitar to be revealed next year.

Not entirely idled during 2020, King played some outdoor drive in shows and a series of virtual concerts that raised funds for musician relief efforts. Plans for a big tour with Chris Stapleton are pending. And recently King scored his first Grammy Award nomination in the Americana album category for El Dorado. The chance came up to debrief with Marcus about this historic, peculiar, challenging year.

Congratulations on the Grammy nomination. Before that came down, and being at home most of the year, were you able to feel your new album making waves? Could you tell how it was being received without being out there?

Man, in one way, it was disheartening not to be on the road in support of the album, but on the other hand, you know, it was refreshing to be home and to feel the ripples – to actually see what was happening. Because a lot of times when you're on the road, you don't really see the result of something, because you’re buried in your work. You’re focused on getting to the next city and doing the best that you can on the stage that night. I was just really thrilled that people dug it.

Do you read your own reviews?

Oh, no. I stay away from them. (Laughs.) Yeah, I'm a pretty sensitive kind of guy. I appreciate that people have their opinion. And, you know, I have my opinions. I just I try not to share them as often as I can. It's just easier not to get hurt that way.

Well they were good, just so you know. With these months of hindsight from your own point of view, did the album accomplish what you set out to do, recording without your band and aiming for something more writer-focused?

Man, I think what Dan and I went out to do with this record was to just kind of throw away the old playbook and do something I've never done before and shine more of a light on the songwriting and on my vocal stylings. And I think we certainly accomplished that. And the band that we had on it was just stellar. It's hard to get any better than (drummer) Gene Chrisman and (keyboard player) Bobby Wood from the Memphis Boys. Billy Sanford (guitar) was there. Russ Pahl (pedal steel). Man, we had just a stellar bunch of cats around that record. And, you know, it was it was humbling to play with them. And the result was just something I could really be proud of.

These are guys who are two generations older than you. How’d that play out?

I love those guys, ‘cause you know, obviously the elephant in the room is if you're 24 and, and a lot of the guys are 74 and 80 years old, it's a significant age gap. And what I loved about working with them is that it was never addressed, because they don't act that old. They act younger than me. And they have more energy and more spirit than that a lot of guys our age doing it. So, I was just really taken aback by how excited they were just to play music and just to create, and to have a gig. I just love that almost whimsical spirit that those guys have. And not to mention their knowledge about what needs to go on the track. It's otherworldly, the pocket those guys have.

Dan Auerbach’s process is to write a full album with the artists he produces. Did you guys do it that way?

We did. It was about a two-week writing process. And it was myself and Dan and a third writing partner, and we would kind of rotate who that was. There were a lot of really fantastic writers that came through. I mentioned Bobby Wood who played on the record. We wrote a few with him. Wrote a few with Paul Overstreet, who's just insane. What did he not write? And we also had Pat McLaughlin and Ronnie Bowman, one of the greatest bluegrass singers alive. So, we had a great, stacked bench of guys. I was really honored to work with all of them.

Did anything come out in a way that surprised you? Anything, because of the co-writers working on songs and concepts that were personal to you, that came out perhaps different than what you would have done but that really worked for you?

It’s a great question. And the way that I kind of saw it was when you write a song, you're building something that you want to be structurally sound and to survive for a long time. There's a lot that goes into that, you know? And you don't want to pigeonhole yourself to one particular time and place. But with those guys, I felt like I was bringing a concept to an architectural build. And what they were doing was helping me build a really sturdy base, and they were helping me make sure that this song was going to be as structurally sound as it could be, with their knowledge of writing, and with their talent.

Did you talk about how much or how little of you as a guitarist, lead guitarist, there'd be on the record, and how did stepping into that slightly different role with the instrument that you've loved.

We knew we wanted to do a different kind of a record. And Dan, being a guitar player, and myself being a guitar player, we wanted it to be an understated part of the album, you know, and the guitar has been my security blanket for so many years, we just wanted the guitar to speak for itself, without necessarily having to shine a light on it.

I’ve seen you use that phrase “security blanket” about your guitar before, in the context of growing up in South Carolina. What are you getting at?

Well, it's taken on many roles in my life since I was a kid, you know, the time my parents divorced, or all the hours I spent just by myself, the guitar was a babysitter. And it was my best friend. It was my sounding board. I didn't want for much and that's because my guitar was there. So that was certainly my blankie or whatever you have when you're a kid that you drag around all the time. I was pretty bashful in school, except for like, within my friend group. I'm what they call an introverted extrovert. To combat those bashful feelings, you kind of find yourself on a grandstand, you know, trying to entertain. And the kids in school didn't really know what I was up to, let alone the teachers. They had no idea. They thought I was just really uninspired to be educated. But it was very far from the truth. I was studying jazz theory in the afternoons, and in the evenings, I was playing gigs. And I remember one instance where (my teacher) Miss Scott showed up at one of my shows, because she was just out with her friends on a weekend. And her eyes were huge, because the effort that goes into putting on a show and fronting a band, you know, it’s more than they would have expected out of me. So I think she was the only teacher that really understood me.

Well that scene’s going in the Marcus King biopic right there. And truly, I am trying to get my head around your intuition to start a band and land gigs when you’re like 15 or even younger. I mean you’re too young to get into a lot of bars, and it just takes a lot of focus. What was behind that?

I was crafty in that way. As my family puts it, I was very tenacious. And I was very obsessive about this dream of mine. And that's just what I knew I wanted to do. And to me, my age was just an obstacle. It was something that I had to be creative with how I could get around that. I'd been out with my dad's group, and we played mostly coffee houses and church functions and outdoor events, you know, because he didn't want to bring me into the club scene. But when we started dipping our toe into that water and started playing Greenville clubs, I would start to get to know the club owners and they got to know me. And I think the biggest part of it was that I still have a baby face, and me at 13 years old, there was no way I was gonna be in there and get away with having any kind of adult beverage. So I think, in that way, they felt like it would be harmless to have me in there playing. And as I built up a group, my own band, the first installment of the Marcus King band, I had older musicians. In some cases, it's cats that had two kids at home and a wife there to support, so I had us working four or five nights a week. So I could keep hustling. I could keep us busy. And the club owners had to deal with me at the end of the night, but I’d have my chaperone be my drummer or bass player, who’s in their 30s. And that's kind of how I've worked that system a little bit.

Remarkable. So now it’s the end of 2020 and it’s been the first year since those days that you’ve not been playing most nights and on the road constantly. Tell me a little about the year and what’s next as you look over the horizon?

It was a good year of rest, you know. That's a silver lining, as anxious as we as we've all been this year. There were a couple months there where I felt really Zen. And I felt that the music industry, all of us, were kind of all on the same playing field again, from the artists that played in arenas to the artists that play in 100 capacity bar rooms. We were all sitting at home for the first time in however many years. There was something really beautiful about that. And it then started to become unleveled again, with streaming and different budgets for streaming events. But the silver lining for me probably would just be rest and finding creative ways to get music to people. I've got a real big batch of songs. We're going to be getting into the studio in January with a blank canvas to work on. I've got a couple different projects that I'm going to start working on, and you should see some announcements about that within the New Year.

Marcus King payed The Tonight Show this month. 

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org