Marcus King on Waylon, Willie, and “Wildflowers & Wine”

A blazing guitarist with an expressive and eloquent voice, Marcus King received his first-ever Grammy nomination this year for his debut solo album, El Dorado. The acclaimed project landed in the category of Best Americana Album, perhaps the perfect spot because of the way the 24-year-old performer blends blues, country, and soul music into his songwriting and studio sessions.

A CMT Listen Up artist, King caught up with us by phone about his latest late-night performance, a couple of his country music heroes, and what he’ll remember most about 2020.

CMT: Singing “Wildflowers & Wine” on The Tonight Show is a pretty cool way to wrap up the year. How did it feel for you to get back to playing with the band again?

Marcus King: It’s a little bit like riding a bike, and it’s also a little bit like riding a motorcycle. Things could go wrong but sometimes you get right back into the pocket — and we just got right back into the pocket this time. It was so good to see everybody and it was safe and we felt good about it. It was good to get the fellas back together, you know?

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How often have you done TV shows?

I think our first television performance was for CBS This Morning [for Saturday Sessions] in New York City. We did that and it was a little early for us. We might have just stayed up and played that one like it was our third set of the night. And our first late night performance was Conan, then we did Colbert. But the big fish that everybody’s trying to get is Fallon. I grew up watching The Tonight Show every night with my family and I’ve watched Fallon since he took it over. So being a part of that was a huge deal for me personally and I know the rest of the band was excited too.

What went through your mind when you heard him say your name?

Oh man, I don’t even know how to react to that. I just never thought I’d hear that, and for him to say “Grammy-nominated” too, it’s all too unreal — and surreal. It’s a good Christmas present.

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I heard your reference to Willie Nelson in “Too Much Whiskey.” Have you ever met Willie?

Man, I was real close to meeting Willie. We had the opportunity to play down at Luck Reunion. I was standing next to him and I was a little too bashful to say hello. He’s just the nicest guy and really approachable. There were other folks there who were a little overzealous about getting their photo with him, and after that, the opportunity kind of un-presented itself. I didn’t want to bother him. I didn’t want to bug him because he’s such an icon in my mind. He’s so legendary. It’s hard to think about what to say to somebody like that, but then you realize they’re good ol’ boys like us.

Speaking of “Good Ol’ Boys,” let’s talk about Waylon Jennings. Did his guitar playing influence you?

Man, I didn’t realize how much his guitar playing influenced me until… I realized how much his guitar playing influenced me. That’s a strange way to put it, but you think about all those old records and you just assume it’s a hot shot session player like a Billy Sanford playing all that stuff. Then you realize that Waylon played most of that stuff — and Willie too.

That just blew me away even further. Guys like Glen Campbell and Merle Travis and Roy Clark — I’m a big Roy Clark fan — and Jerry Reed, those guys would smile while they were playing the most insane riffs ever. They were just a different breed. I think Johnny Hiland is on that list but there’s not a lot of them out there like that anymore.

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It’s been about a year now since you released El Dorado. Tell me about the opening track, “Young Man’s Dream,” and what that song means to you now. Has it changed for you at all this year?

When we did our shows here at 3rd & Lindsley [in Nashville], I got to play that song after I thanked everybody for helping me get the album nominated. That was a pretty emotional thing for me. That song really sums it up for me.

When we wrote it, I didn’t expect it to be that impactful on me, because that writing session was so effortless. It was so easy to write with Dan Auerbach and Pat McLaughlin. When that song came out, it felt like it had always been there. That’s the first time I really felt how powerful that song was for me, playing it at 3rd & Lindsley after getting the nomination.

What do you think you’ll remember the most about 2020?

To me, I’ll just try to remember the good parts of this year, and I’ll remember that feeling of wanting to play for people this badly. I’ll never take it for granted again.

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