Feeling like an outcast can have benefits. Guitarist, singer and songwriter Marcus King’s story proves it.
Growing up in the Greenville, South Carolina, area, King didn’t feel like he fit in with his peers. Instead of trying to force the issue, he focused on his music.
“That was pretty much my childhood, in summary,” King said. “In my room, playing guitar.”
It’s unlikely those peers will get a record on the Billboard charts, count Warren Haynes as a mentor or have Tedeschi Trucks Band, William Bell and Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats as label mates. At 20, King has got all of that going and is shooting for more.
He brings music from two albums — one of which has been in the Billboard Blues albums chart for more than seven months — to Rooster Walk, for two Saturday sets.
To be sure, it’s not all about blues with King. It’s just that the blues genre is a catch-all for music that contains throwback soul, R&B, funk, rock and jam, even country. King’s self-titled sophomore disc fits in neatly with the styles that Haynes and Tedeschi Trucks Band play.
“We’ve kind of settled on calling it psychedelic southern rock jazz fusion soul,” King said.
King’s genre amalgamation in writing and performance came early, sprung in large part from listening to “anything but guitar” in order to forge his six-string style. He made that move on his own at about age 9, after having been inspired by the usual blues and rock guitar heroes: Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix, Robin Trower, Freddie King, B.B. King and Albert King.
“I realized I don’t want to be just a Stevie Ray Vaughan clone,” King said. “I want to have my own sound.”
He went on a musical diet of jazzers John Coltrane (saxophone), Miles Davis (trumpet) and Jimmy Smith (organ), along with pedal steel guitar man Buddy Emmons. He added such singers as James Dewar (from Trower’s band), Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke and Sam & Dave to the list of performers to emulate with his guitar.
Soaking in those influences ultimately would inspire his singing and songwriting, as well. But it took a youthful tragedy before he turned to those aspects. At 13, a schoolmate died.
“She was a good friend of mine,” King said. “It was at that moment that I realized I couldn’t fully express myself, only through the guitar. I needed to start writing some lyrics to express myself further. That’s when I started singing.”
King’s father and grandfather were key to his development as well. Father Marvin King is a rock ’n’ roller to the core who continues to pick in the Greenville area, and a young Marcus played in his father’s band before starting his own. His grandfather, William Morris King, could pick in the styles of Chet Atkins and The Ventures’ Bob Bogle before he fell and broke his wrist, Marcus King said. Granddad turned him on to George Jones, Merle Haggard and other classic country, while his dad played him Allman Brothers Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd, among others.
Marcus King had his first full-scale guitar, a Squier Stratocaster, by age 7. During high school, he expanded his palette by studying jazz with a Greenville teacher, Steve Watson.
“I never wanted to limit myself to one particular genre of music, and the same being said for the entire group,” Marcus King said. “We’ve always wanted to express ourselves in whatever style of music we need, to say what we need to say.”
He and his band — these days a six-piece unit including a keyboardist and two horn players — were ready by the time King started hanging out in nearby Asheville, North Carolina. While picking with players in that town, he met multi-instrumentalist and songwriter (and hot-style fried chicken guru) Rocky Lindsley. The two would go on to write the country-flavored cut “Guitar In My Hand.”
After meeting, playing and hanging out, Lindsley told King that he had one thought in mind before approaching him: “Please don’t let this guy be an [expletive],” King remembered, laughing.
“That’s a notion that a lot of musicians can really relate to,” he added. “You hear some cats and you really enjoy their playing, and you’re like, please don’t let ‘em be a jerk. If they’re nice, you’re like, ‘Oh, thank God.’
“We really hit it off. He was the one that introduced me to Warren.”
As in Warren Haynes, an Asheville native who has played with the Allman Brothers Band, The Dead and many of his own projects, including Gov’t Mule. Turns out, Haynes was King’s hero. Soon, he would become a mentor, releasing King’s debut CD, “Soul Insight,” on his own Evil Teen label. King has since moved to Fantasy Records.
That’s a lot to happen to a musician by age 20. King said it is just the beginning of what he can do.
“I always feel like I’ve got a lot to say, and I always feel like there’s like an hourglass kind of waiting for me for some reason,” he said. “I feel like I need to say it all as soon as I can and get it all out. It’s a crazy world out there, and I want to be able to say everything I need to say.
“I’m never really in a hurry, but I’m always certainly motivated to keep moving forward.”