The Marcus King Band: Goodbye Carolina

Matt Inman on March 26, 2019
The Marcus King Band: Goodbye Carolina

photo by Dino Perrucci

The Marcus King Band has emerged as the heir apparent to the Southern jam-rock throne abdicated by the Allman Brothers Band and The Black Crowes. And, with his latest confessional, the band’s twentysomething namesake is staking his claim to a heartfelt songwriting style as well.

Occasionally, when he’s doing an interview or speaking with a fan, Marcus King will find himself fielding questions about how somebody so young can write such sad songs. And, despite his rising stature as one of the finest blues musicians working the festival and club circuits, the 23-year-old singer/guitarist has always found the query somewhat offensive. “Younger people are in a position to feel these emotions more purely whereas, the older you get, the more jaded you can get by life and all the shit that it throws at you,” King explains while preparing to move from his home state of South Carolina to Nashville. “Those first few heartbreaks as a kid—you’ll never feel it that strongly again because that’s the first time you’ve felt it. And I was always able to channel my emotions into music. When I was 13 years old, a dear friend of mine passed away—she was my age. It just broke my spirit, and that’s when I started singing. That’s how it all started, really.”

Less than a decade after that first brush with heartache, King continues to funnel his collected experience into a growing catalog of astoundingly mature songs, expressed through his preternaturally earthy voice and razor-sharp electric-guitar chops, both of which seemed fully formed even before the frontman exited his teenage years.

The latest batch of these tunes came in the form of the fall 2018 release Carolina Confessions, The Marcus King Band’s third full-length effort, which finds the ensemble taking a step away from their early bombastic virtuosity and embracing a more refined, song-driven approach.

“I wanted the musicianship of the band to shine through organically without that being the primary focus of the album,” King says. “The horn lines on this record and the keyboard parts and [drummer] Jack [Ryan’s] parts and [bassist] Stephen [Campbell’s] parts—they all came up with such fantastic ideas. Working together with Dave Cobb allowed for everyone’s musicianship to shine through while we focused on the songs themselves, which is more where my mind was when we were putting this collection together.”

Cobb—currently one of the most sought-after producers in Nashville, who, just in the past couple of years, has worked with John Prine, Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton and Brandi Carlile, and on the soundtrack for Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga’s film, A Star Is Born—helped King and his bandmates channel the live chemistry they’d cultivated over the past few years in the studio.

“When I bring in a song, it all falls into place because we all hear what’s supposed to be there,” King says of his band’s song-crafting process. “If there’s supposed to be a keyboard break right here, everybody hears it. That’s one of the special things that I can’t explain about this particular group of people. And Dave Cobb, he’s got that same mentality as well.”

Cobb initiated the team-up, though King is quick to say that he was in awe of the producer’s recent work even before that—he cites Stapleton’s Traveller and Isbell’s Grammy-winning composition “If We Were Vampires” as specific high points. “Sonically, it’s just a head above the rest,” he says of Cobb’s output, noting that he later realized that the producer also worked on some of King’s favorite “ballsy-sounding rock albums” like his outings with Rival Sons. “Then, when I spoke to him on the phone, it was just like talking to an old relative, like a cousin. We come from very similar parts of the country—he’s from Savannah—so there was the same kind of upbringing and a certain gratitude to music itself, to the people who played it for us and using those influences in the studio. His ear for a song and for melodies is spectacular.”

In 2013, King and Ryan started piecing their group together in their hometown of Greenville, S.C., eventually adding Campbell, trumpeter/trombonist Justin Johnson, saxophonist Dean Mitchell and, more recently, keyboardist DeShawn “D-Vibes” Alexander, who played his first official MKB gig at the LOCKN’ Festival in 2017. And though King’s searing guitar and vocals may garner most of the attention from fans and critics, the frontman rightly insists on the holistic nature of the band’s continued success, both onstage and in the studio.

“There are things that you can’t really recreate, as far as getting the sound of a tight band,” King reflects, recalling the lean early days of the group that forged their current camaraderie. “We were playing small clubs in the middle of nowhere, for no money, and we were all sharing beds—sharing everything. That really brought us together, and that mentality keeps everybody close because we all respect each other as people. So now, when we approach a piece of music, we’re all in it together. We all feel like brothers—there’s always a good deal of bickering and fighting but, at the end of the day, we all have the same goal.”

Mitchell, who says he was playing saxophone in nearly a dozen or so bands around Asheville, N.C., before meeting King at a Lettuce show in that city, experienced the young band’s chemistry up close during his first sit-in with the group back in 2015, just before they teamed up with Warren Haynes to record their self-titled sophomore album. Mitchell’s introduction to the band may have been a bit unorthodox, but he felt an immediate connection.

“It’s a funny story about how I first sat in because I came from a Rocky Horror Picture Show screening, and I had all this makeup on,” Mitchell says with a laugh. “Marcus invited me and I told him I’d be late, but he didn’t really tell any of the guys. It was a sold-out show and I just walked onstage, wearing makeup, a studded bracelet, a leather jacket, platform boots, and everyone was like, ‘Who’s this guy?’

“But it started out as a heater,” he remembers. “Jack on the drums—he studied with Jeff Sipe, so his rhythm is just awesome. I come from more of a jazz background, so my rhythms were more Charlie Parker-esque, and his rhythms were Buddy Rich-esque. So when we mixed that with a funk groove, it was pretty fire from the first night.”

The son of blues guitarist Marvin King, Marcus started playing music at a young age and he played it well, even appearing on one of his dad’s albums when he was only 11. But competing forces vied for space in his mind, especially when it came to singing in front of a crowd. A shy and reserved nature belied the fiery musical talent within the teenage King, and it might have even stunted his growth as an artist—had his stubborn streak not kicked in and forced him into the frontman spotlight.

“When I was a kid and I got something in my mind that I wanted to do, I had to do it or it would really just drive me nuts,” he admits. “I always thought it was a bad thing. But as I got older, I found out about other people who were the same way—Duane Allman being one of them—and I learned it was a good thing to not give up on what you want and really go after it. Expressing myself musically was never an issue—it was something that I needed to get out—but when it came to singing, it was this whole other thing. It was an internal struggle between how bad I wanted to express myself and how terrified I was, not having the confidence to open my mouth. As a frontman and a singer and a songwriter, it took me a while to catch up to my guitar playing. This is the first album I really feel like they’ve all caught up with one another.”

King gives some of the credit for his increased confidence to the veteran musicians he’s had the privilege of working with, starting with Haynes—who hails from Asheville, just about 60 miles up the road from Greenville—and Tedeschi Trucks Band leaders Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi, all of whom King praises as much for their enviable musicianship as for their “kind spirit and fantastic aura.” When it came to learning how to be the vibrant leader of a live band, though, King points to the lessons he learned from Chris Robinson, whom King recently teamed up with in the singer’s As The Crow Flies side-project.

“Being on the road with Chris really opened me up to seeing what a frontman can do,” King says. “I always hid behind my guitar but, after seeing him, it was like, ‘Alright! You can kind of do whatever the hell you want—it’s your show!’ And there’s so many great frontmen and frontwomen that have inspired me, like Aretha and Janis. So, I started to come out of my shell onstage. I just gotta start trying to do it more off the stage, I suppose.”

“Marcus has gotten a lot better at being able to take a crowd on a journey,” Mitchell adds. “He knows what people really want to hear. And I’m not talking about cover songs; I’m talking more about the rhythms. We might switch rhythms really fast and go into an Afro-Cuban rhythm right after a heavy, hard-kicking, swampy blues feel. I mean, he’s always been a rock-star frontman. Ever since I joined the band, he was on point, feeling the crowd.”

If Carolina Confessions is the first album that King feels truly represents his various musical skills coming together as a coherent force, then his fans have a hell of a music career to look forward to. As he says, the guitar work has always been there—and his voice, no matter what level of confidence was behind it, has long achieved the power and emotion that many vocalists spend their lives striving for—but the focus on songwriting that King brings to the album shows a maturity that just isn’t very common in someone who’s barely above legal drinking age.

“The album is an ode to songwriting itself,” Mitchell says. “Marcus is confessing in all of his songs. They’re are a huge part of him—he lives them. He wants to sing songs every night that he identifies with; he’s not just writing a song because it would make a good song. What he was bringing into the studio was really heartfelt, really a piece of him.”

One of the centerpieces of Confessions, the slow-burning “Goodbye Carolina,” encapsulates much of what King and his bandmates have to offer, moving from a plucked acoustic guitar and solemn vocal melody to a scorching solo and heart-wrenching lyrics from the frontman, backed by rich instrumentation. Far from the process that birthed another of the album’s highlights—the bouncy “How Long,” which came out of a Nashville writing session with The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach and veteran singer-songwriter Pat McLaughlin—“Goodbye Carolina” emerged from a deeply personal space, with King writing about his recent move away from Greenville as well as the loss of a friend from his hometown.

“I was in a hotel room in France, just before we went into the studio, and I had a bit of a writer’s block situation,” King recalls. “I was in the hotel bed, staring at the ceiling, then I saw a premonition of a good friend of mine that had killed himself a year prior. It really freaked me out, and the rest of the song just wrote itself. The friend was a fantastic songwriter, and I wrote the song from his perspective. When I play it now, it feels like I’m playing a piece of his music. So the song is, in part, about me leaving Carolina, but also in memory of him leaving Carolina, in a very different way.”

The accolades and recognition for King as a musician—as a guitar phenom—have been adding up since his teenage years, but anyone who’s had a single conversation with King knows that even high praise and national attention like that couldn’t cause this Carolina boy to lose his Southern humility.

“I’ve always appreciated people’s compliments, but it’s not something that I accept,” King reflects. “In order to accomplish what you really want to accomplish, you have to keep your goal in mind, and if you allow those kinds of things to get to your head, it can really throw up a road block. I’ve seen people do that. But it’s not really difficult for me to not let things go to my head—I guess that’s me bragging about being humble. I suppose what it really comes down to is my grandfather’s words that are always so loud—louder than any others—in my head. He’d say, ‘There’s always going to be somebody younger and more talented, doing it for cheaper, right on the back of your heels.’ There is no reason to start acting like your shit doesn’t stink, because it does, and there is somebody that will outplay you every time. That’s the truth, man. That’s what keeps me going.”

This article originally appears in the March 2019 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.