Marcus King: A Young Man’s Dream – And Getting Back To What’s Important (Cover Story)

Paige Sara

Man, I’ve lived my whole life with anxiety, so it’s nothing new to me,” responds Marcus King, 25, when asked if he’s concerned about his upcoming tour dates. The tour kicks off Feb. 5 as many artists and venues still grapple with COVID cancellations and rescheduled shows. “I’m always a little uncertain about everything, and if it doesn’t scare you a little bit, it ain’t worth doing it.”

Wise beyond his years may be the most appropriate way to describe the youthful guitar prodigy from Greenville, S.C. 
He started playing the club circuit with his own Marcus King Band since its formation in 2015 but has caught fire in recent years, selling out large clubs, getting major festival looks and opening for Chris Stapleton on last year’s major tour, winning fans over with high-energy, soul-stirring vocal performances and unmistakable guitar chops. 
“I have been around the block a few times and I do appreciate you acknowledging that,” says King, adding that “overnight” success stories often take about 10 years. “There’s a lot of folks out there I still have so much to learn from. That’s the important part of life, being excited to learn and understanding there’s so much more to learn, and never being satisfied with what you’ve learned thus far. My grandfather always said there’s some 11-year-old out there playing a lot better than you, who can do it cheaper and has a better attitude, probably.”
In 2020, following sellouts including at The 9:30 Club in DC, Thalia Hall in Chicago (two nights) and Beacon Theatre in New York (2,773 tickets), King released his first solo LP, El Dorado, produced by Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, which earned a Grammy nod for Best Americana Album.
“When I met him he was playing two sold-out nights at The Troubadour, and it was clear he should be playing larger venues,” says AMFM’s Aaron Frank, who has been managing King since 2018, shortly before the release of The Marcus King Band’s third LP, Carolina Confessions. “I remember him talking about wanting to play arenas someday, and how much work it was going to take to get there.” 
That work included a determination to not be limited by genre or project. Perhaps akin to contemporaries such as jamgrass phenom Billy Strings and maybe more mainstream examples such as Brandi Carlile or producer/collaborator Dan Auerbach, King says the goal is about being genuine rather than fitting a certain style or genre. 

Marcus King
Joey Martinez
– Marcus King
Not long after his Grammy-nominated 2020 LP El Dorado, Marcus King is eager to talk about new music he
“Ever since I was young, I grew up listening to all sorts of music,” says King, known for live jams featuring blistering guitar solos as well as covers ranging from Percy Sledge to Ted Nugent. “Anything with a pulse, anything that could get me interested – looking deeper than the surface, or even surface level-stuff. If I could dissect it to understand what made people love it – why was it a successful number, why is it still successful 40 years later? Why is ‘Sweet Caroline’ played at every goddamn baseball game in America? I love to study every aspect of it. Dan (Auerbach)’s the same way. We love music, we love good music. As long as it’s authentic and coming from a real place, that’s what makes it last a long time.”
“He had all these ambitions to be cross-genre and not be pigeonholed into one area,” Frank adds, noting that “Marcus King” and “The Marcus King Band” are somewhat interchangeable but allow freedom to collaborate, change genres or otherwise switch things up.  “He has all the talent, so it’s been cool to see that grow and see his numbers grow.” 
Those numbers are growing, with a 2022 tour kicking off Feb. 5 in Des Moines, Iowa, and taking in secondary and tertiary markets into the end May followed by festival appearances that show his crossover appeal, including the upscale multi-genre festival BottleRock Napa Valley and country juggernaut Stagecoach in Southern California.
“We’re not playing major markets until fall of this year. Not a lot of artists can go into these markets and sell out a venue in advance,” says Frank, mentioning cities including Fort Collins, Colo.; Flagstaff, Ariz.; Calgary, Alberta; Spokane, Wash., and others. “What’s really cool is these are markets he hasn’t been to, and his numbers are great. What we’re hoping to see as we go into major markets – and all of this work that he’s putting in developing these other markets pays off – is that not only can he go to these other markets so we don’t wear out the majors, but then I’m sure people will travel (to attend shows), too.”
Also getting him in front of people will be plays at major festivals, although not just any festival is appropriate.
“For us, it’s all about finding the right festivals for him and for the right reasons,” says Frank, who also manages Greta Van Fleet. “We play festivals for very specific purposes, whether to reach a different demographic or a certain market we’re having trouble with. We look at that, as opposed to, ‘Let’s go out this summer and play all the festivals.’ Our goal for Marcus, and obviously to some extent we’ve accomplished this, but Marcus is a headline artist.”
King says playing the major festivals is an opportunity in more ways than one. 
“It’s humbling to be even mentioned alongside all these names and, with these collaborative opportunities to watch these other bands perform, it’s like a work retreat, really,” says King. “That’s one of the beauties of being mentioned in the ‘Americana’ category and not being cornered into one specific category of music. I just love American music, I just love music as a whole. The cowboy hat sometimes throws people off. Maybe that’s why we’re playing Stagecoach.”
King says he’s eager to get out and play, which he’s largely maintained even despite the pandemic

(see sidebar: I reckon I’m a ‘road puppy’ at this point in my

Marcus King
Rich Fury / Getty Images
– Marcus King
“It’s Like A Work Retreat:” Marcus King, pictured during the 2021 Hinterland Music Festival in Iowa, says he’s honored to appear on mainstream festivals such as 2022 BottleRock and Stagecoach alongside some of the biggest names in music.
“The clubs are getting bigger, and the show is also getting bigger and louder and hopefully more intense,” says King, adding that it’ll be the first time playing with a second guitarist in the band. 
“I’m trying to get more transcendental with it, more looking inward and putting everything I have into the show. The less energy I have walking off the stage at the end of the night, the more I know I’ve done my job. I just want people to feel every part of me and want people to have a mirror into my soul, as pretentious as that may sound (laughs). You can imagine, I just want people to hear what I’m feeling. That’s my goal.”
Dates in Canada and festival slots overseas including Byron Bay Bluesfest in Australia are somewhat out of their control right now, according to Frank, but they’re proceeding as planned and hopeful. 
“We’re going to keep working and make sure his venues get bigger and bigger,” Frank says of the upcoming plans and long-term goals. “He will be an arena artist one day, and it won’t be thanks to a pop song, but it’ll be all the work he’s put in and loyal fan base he’s built.”
An album campaign is planned this summer according to AMFM, which will be on a new label as Rick Rubin’s American Recordings Republic Imprint reached out to work specifically with King, although Frank says the previous relationship with Fantasy Records was superb.
King is eager to share new material on the road as well from the studio, and has to stop himself from spilling the beans too much.
“I had a year and a half to look inward, time to write, lost some relationships, made some new ones, struggled with certain substances and found some clarity and got back to what’s most important, which is love and music,” he says. “It’s kind of a new chapter and I’m excited. We’re working on some new music and hope to share some new stuff. They told me to be vague, but there’s some new music coming.”