Marcus King leans back and takes a sip of a can of Coors Light as he talks about having premonitions of his own doom. The singer-guitarist turned 25 last year and went through a period of deep grief and self-destructive behavior. He kept hearing the songs of an English rock band in unlikely places.
“I would hear Free everywhere, like deep tunes you never really hear. Because everybody knows ‘All Right Now’,” King says. “I was in a restaurant and ‘Wishing Well’ was appearing, or I was watching the [FX on Hulu] To display Developerswith Nick Offerman, and ‘Oh, I Wept’ was the opening song for one episode.
King couldn’t help wondering what that could mean. Free guitarist Paul Kossoff had a legendary appetite for alcohol and other substances before he died of a pulmonary embolism at the age of 25. For King, the parallels to his own life were a bit too close for comfort. “I saw all these signs,” he says. “I felt really paranoid that something was trying to tell me to slow down or that the end was inevitable and it was coming very soon.”
The fear of an untimely demise may have had a disturbing and recalibrating effect on King, who has a healthier outlook today. But his next album, heavy guitar, bruise new blood (released August 26), taps into those feelings, sounding like it’s been brought to life by the spirit of Kossoff and the hedonistic rock & roll gods of the 70s.
It’s a surprisingly mild June afternoon in Nashville, that is, it’s 85 and not so humid that you need gills to be outside. King’s house, a rustic ’70s-era structure near Old Hickory Lake just outside of town, sits on a wooded, rolling lot accented by Japanese maples and a stone water feature. stone that curves towards the driveway.
King is dressed for 25 degrees cooler in a red plaid flannel shirt, black t-shirt and dark jeans, with his long light brown hair spilling out from under a backward-facing white baseball cap. We’re seated at a small table on a covered patio outside King’s basement, where his home studio is.
Earlier in the week, King made a few appearances amidst the hustle and bustle of CMA Fest, doing what he’s become very good at: wowing the unsuspecting. He performed a few songs at Marty Stuart’s popular Late Night Jam at the Ryman Auditorium, where King received a standing ovation for his cathartic rendition of “Wildflowers & Wine”, which showed off the soulful singing and smooth playing that made an enthusiastic fan. out of Stuart. “He’s a modern day gladiator, a true guitar hero and a seemingly unstoppable force of nature,” says Stuart. “He’s such a great writer, singer and player.”
King also had a big moment in the spotlight at Nissan Stadium when the Zac Brown Band invited him to sing their collab “Stubborn Pride” and play a long guitar solo. The audience of thousands, ostensibly more a traditional country crowd than Deeply American bandleaders or jam-bands, responded with rapturous applause.
This isn’t the first time the South Carolina native, who made a splash in the jam-band world with the Marcus King Band, has turned heads. Born into a family of musicians, his supernatural gifts won him a following as a teenager. In 2018 the Marcus King Band worked with producer Dave Cobb on their album Carolina Confessions; two years later, King went solo and began working with Black Keys frontman and Grammy-winning producer Dan Auerbach. The product of their collaboration, 2020’s Eldorado, largely moved away from his band’s Allman Brothers blues-rock bent and leaned more towards softer, soulful country tunes like “Beautiful Stranger” and “Young Man’s Dream.” “It was like a way for me to show that I can do more than rock & roll guitar, blues,” King said.
In 2021, King endured a particularly difficult breakup and wrote songs about it that have yet to surface. He also treated himself with alcohol and other substances. “It was a coping mechanism,” he says. “I didn’t want to be alone, ever. And I have a great support group, and that’s my band and my big family, but I just kind of closed myself off in those days. And when you rely on substances, they can make you think they’re your only friend.
King went on tour with Nathaniel Rateliff, but he felt so bad he wasn’t sure he could pull through. “I had a lot of really crazy heartbeat stuff, which you get with a hangover, you know?” he says. “But I was probably just paranoid to the point that that’s exactly how I felt.” King ended up meeting his fiancée, Briley, on this tour, calling her his “beacon of light”.
King’s move into classic rock came after he banded together with Auerbach, who tapped ringers like Desmond Child, Angelo Petraglia and Andy Gabbard to co-write songs for a new album. It turned out to be a therapeutic and creative process for King.
“I was going through such a difficult time,” he says. “I was really overdoing it in every aspect. So it was good as far as creativity goes. But Dan being like an older brother, it was good to have someone I look up to like that to be around with. working at a time like this. Every session would start with, like, a quick Q&A therapy session, talking about what I was going through, how I felt that day.
This naked angst and frustration spilled into the songs of new blood, from the bitter kiss “It’s Too Late,” with its choppy, tempo-shifting intro, to the paranoid, depressed “Dark Cloud,” with a fat signature riff that might have made Kossoff smile.
There are traces of King’s desperation on new blood as well. The scathing “Pain” talks about wearing a mask to hide his troubles. Even more intense, “Rescue Me” sounds like he comes from down below, where “vice, coke and whiskey” are his masters and he begs for someone to help him.
“I had a great hangover. I hadn’t slept much. I was so depressed and I was shaking,” he recalled of that writing session. “And I was like, ‘I just need to take a minute. Either I’m having a panic attack or I have to go somewhere. I called a doctor friend of mine. I was like, ‘I’m in a session. Should I leave?’ He’s like, ‘It’s gonna be okay. Don’t try to stop everything all at once. But if you could check in somewhere, that might be a good idea.
He ended up detoxifying at home. Asked about this experience, his answer is succinct: “Hell on earth”.
“It was a period of reflection where I was able to look back on all the relationships I had and recognize my part in their failure,” he adds. He borrowed a page from the 12-step program and began trying to make amends – to others as well as to himself.
It’s pleasantly quiet out there – no road or city noise to speak of, just the sound of chirping birds and scurrying squirrels. King’s dog, Otis, a black and white Great Dane mix, walks around the corner and bounds down the driveway towards us.
“Hey buddy,” King said, rubbing the dog’s massive head.
King talked about how he enjoys listening to Megan Thee Stallion to prepare for her shows. He’s also digging both Cardi B and Doja Cat, though he probably won’t be launching a rap project anytime soon.
Lately, King has been working to develop healthier routines. “I don’t understand why it’s so hard to do things that are good for you,” he says. “Like how much better I feel on the road when I get up early. I meditate. I work out. I have a sensible lunch. Protein shake in the afternoon. I do this three days in a row and I I feel like an invincible human.
“And then I’m like, ‘That’s great. But let’s drink a shitty Coors Light, and I’m going to feel really bad tomorrow and it will take me three days to get over it,” he continues. “And then you eat horrible food because you’re like, ‘This is going to make me feel better, this huge burrito. I don’t understand how we convince ourselves otherwise. A healthy lifestyle helps me, which… you can’t be good all the time.
More importantly, King began to learn the benefits of self-care and self-awareness.
“The same care and love that I strive to give to everyone else, I must also do for myself,” he says. “I’ve always been an empath since I was young and always cared about other people’s feelings way more than my own. I just learned to check in with myself more regularly.
With this verification also comes the realization that while he borrows existing elements in his music, he also synthesizes them into something new. “It’s the combination of these things that have never been done before, the way I do it,” he says. “That’s another thing about loving yourself. There’s no other you. There are people who may be a lot like you or do a little bit better at what you do, but they don’t do it just like you. There’s only one.”
It’s a quality that Zac Brown recognized from the first time he saw King. “He’s an absolute monster on the guitar, and he has this incredible ability to transport people to another world when he plays,” Brown says. “You don’t often meet people who you immediately know will become legends, but when I met Marcus, I felt it.”
Like most people with anxiety, King sometimes feels like he’s in the wrong place. He’ll be standing backstage at one of his shows or waiting backstage to make an appearance with someone like Brown, completely nervous. But then, when it’s time to leave, a switch will flip. He knows that this feeling will sustain him.
“I stand here and I’m a mess,” he said. “I’m really in my head, but I never want to lose that because I can use it. As soon as I step out and plug in my guitar, as soon as I know everything is working properly, I’m there and I’m in it and I feel alive. I feel free.”