A haunting urgency has forever inhabited the blues and its messengers, tracing all the way back to Robert Johnson and his 1937 masterpiece “Hellhound on My Trail.” For Marcus King, a 20-year-old guitar slinger from Greenville, S.C., the urge was undeniable. “I have always had this notion that I wasn’t going to be around long enough to say everything that I needed to say, to leave my stamp on this crazy earth,” says King, while driving to his next performance with The Marcus King Band.
Three years ago, King committed fully to the dream: He skipped his junior prom in favor of a gig, then withdrew from high school, collected his GED and hit the road hard. King played relentlessly, “getting a foot in any door I could find a crack,” he says, and released his debut, Soul Insight, in 2015.
King’s hero-turned-friend and mentor, Warren Haynes, took notice and released Soul Insight on his Evil Teen Records. The two shared a common Carolina heritage—Haynes is from the neighboring city of Asheville, N.C.—and bonded after King sat in with Haynes on a cover of ZZ Top’s “Jesus Just Left Chicago” at a show in Athens, Ga. This year, when King signed with Concord Music and its Fantasy Records imprint, he tapped Haynes to produce his eponymous first album for the label.
Their sessions at Stamford, Conn.’s Carriage House Studios commenced in the dead of the New England winter, keeping everyone inside, King says, and contributing to the album’s overall warm aesthetic. The extended stint with Haynes also gave King the opportunity to hone his writing.
“We had a great time making it. It was all strong stuff,” says Haynes. “We had the good problem of having too much stuff to choose from.”
Together, they winnowed the band’s road-tested repertoire down to 18 cuts to choose from, until an unexpected request came from Concord executive Joe McEwen. “He said, ‘I want to hear what’s on your mind right now. Write me two songs,’” King recalls, also describing Haynes as respectfully suggestive in the studio. “I really dug that motivational tactic.”
The resulting pair of tracks— “Rita Is Gone” and “Radio Soldier”—made the record, and another challenge was conquered. “I am always trying to get better than I was the day before,” King says.
The six-piece group will continue to tour heavily in support of their new album, though Kings says each show breathes on its own. He also still forgoes setlists, preferring to gauge the temperature of his audiences from song to song.
As for that proverbial trailing hellhound at this bright of a moment?
“I’ve seen a lot of hard things. I’ve seen a lot of difficult thin ,” says King. “Age is pretty irrelevant in the things that I’ve had to deal with, and this is the way I want to express that emotionally.”