Digital Exclusive: Watch the video premiere for “Blood on the Tracks,” from Marcus King’s new album, Young Blood, out on August 26. Read about King’s new music from G&G’s August/September 2022 issue below.
Marcus King swears he saw Death on the streets of Nashville last year. King and his then girlfriend were staying the night at the Bobby Hotel downtown after an exterminator had been at their house during the day. Their relationship had grown rocky, and the couple had a fight. So King went for a walk to clear his head. As he strolled down Printers Alley, he says, he saw someone wearing a green sweatshirt hunched over on the street. When King passed by, he looked down and the person didn’t have a face.
Whether you believe King truly saw Death isn’t the point. We all find signs in life. (The morning of my father’s funeral, it started to snow huge, powdery flakes. My dad loved to ski and was watching over us. Try to convince me otherwise.) King says what he witnessed motivated him to get healthier, both physically and emotionally. For years, the twenty-six-year-old native of Greenville, South Carolina, known as one of music’s greatest young guitarists, has played nearly two hundred shows a year, where, for his audience, that night is always Friday night, even if it’s a Tuesday in Tuscaloosa. He’s open about his own excessive partying and the toll it was taking. “I’d tell my band we have to give one hundred percent for each show, even though I was feeling only forty percent,” he says. When the show ended, the night was often just beginning, and the after-show shenanigans left him exhausted. “It got to the point where I just wanted to go straight to the bus and watch a movie.”
King’s downward spiral did have one upside: He was constantly writing snippets of lyrics and melodies to document his despair. In June 2021, with his relationship over, King entered the studio with frequent collaborator Dan Auerbach, lead singer of the Black Keys and a Nashville producer, to blow off steam. In six days, he cut his second album as a solo artist, Young Blood, eleven tracks of blazing intensity and rock-and-roll catharsis. “Once I put these songs on tape and felt them coming back through the speakers, it was a feeling of relief,” he says. “At the time, I didn’t know how long I’d be around to be able to say what I wanted to say.”
The album feels like a well-worn pair of custom-made cowboy boots, instantly familiar and comfortable yet unique. Scattered throughout King’s scorching guitar fireworks are riffs reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix along with seventies bands like Free and the Marshall Tucker Band, the classic rock he listened to as a kid when he’d raid his father’s record collection. The elder King, Marvin, was a renowned guitar player and gave his son his first guitar at age three. Marcus proved a fast learner, and before long he was jamming with his dad and other family members. “That’s the music I grew up on, the kind that really got my heart pumping at a young age,” he says. “So [Young Blood] was back to the beginning for me, going back home.”
To help shape King’s early song sketches, Auerbach put him in a room with a few of Nashville’s top songwriters, including Hall of Famer Desmond Child and Angelo Petraglia, best known for his work with Kings of Leon. The scuzzy crunch of “Dark Cloud”—the song King wrote right after his near-“Death” experience—gives way to a sublime chorus that masks King’s tortured lyrics. The searing fuzz of “Lie Lie Lie” is the kiss-off song he needed to get off his chest, and the album highlight “Blood on the Tracks” (cowritten with Child) finds him steeling himself for the ascent from the depths to the sunlight above. King has developed a reputation as a no-bullshit collaborator, one who doesn’t waste time with chitchat. “We talked right away about the shit I was dealing with,” he says. “I wanted to do a rock-and-roll record, but my lyrics didn’t really match the intensity of the music. So every session would be like going to therapy.”
King’s life has changed for the better in other respects, too. He’s become a vocal advocate for mental health, and he’s now engaged. He met his fiancée at a show in Raleigh where he was opening for Nathaniel Rateliff and then proposed to her onstage before his own show earlier this year at the same venue (Young Blood’s “Rescue Me” is clearly written for his new love). With her support, King feels he’s hit the jackpot after years of bad bets and long nights. “Once you think you’ve hit rock bottom, this ground will break loose, and you can go further,” he says. “It was a dark period in my life, and I think everyone was worried about me. I could feel that. But I knew I had a lot more to do. And I’m glad I’m here to do it.”