Twas the night before Christmas Jam and a 15-year-old Marcus King was staking out The Orange Peel with a friend, trying to figure out a way in to meet musical heroes.
“There were a lot of folks in that building I wanted to get my music to, and I was bound and determined,” King recounts in a phone interview.
The only people moving in and out of the venue were the caterers, “so I tucked my hair up, buttoned my jacket, and went to the catering truck. I grabbed a big box of food and just followed the caterers in with it.”
Had King been a little more astute about the whole situation he probably would have pulled it off. There holding the elevator for him was one of the night’s stars, Jeff Sipe. But King, as a 15 year old does, stepped aside for his buddy. Before Marcus knew it, the Peel’s owner was interrogating him.
“He said he was gonna throw me in jail, but what he did was call my dad,” King says. “My dad just asked if he would please not throw me in jail and told him that I wasn’t there to drink or cause trouble. It’s funny because now we are good friends.”
That ever-present personal charm and drive to share his music, as well as his amazing talent, have been hallmarks of King’s appeal. It will all be front and center once again when he arrives at Pisgah Brewing’s outdoor stage for the Marcus King Band Family Reunion. It’s the third year for this event, which is packed with talent, including Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, the Marcus King Band, Yonder Mountain String Band and much more. (The Sept. 27-28 event is sold out.)
King is clear that the concert is his way of reaching back to his youth, when he was a child sitting on a South Carolina porch with his extended family. (King grew up in Greenville, S.C., the son of a noted musician in his own right, bluesman Melvin King.) For King, the setting in Black Mountain brings back those warm childhood memories.
“It’s one of the areas where I can really feel the earth singing to me,” King explains. “People talk about singing rivers but this area of the country really speaks to me.”
“The family get togethers would be almost like a fellowship – the music would come first and having a meal would be secondary,” King says.
Listening to King’s newest album, Carolina Confessions, you can almost hear the squeaking of a rocking chair on a knothole perforated porch floor. Still, it would take more than family front porch picking to turn King into the international prodigy that he is today. All of us experience the loss of family in our lifetimes, but King would know his share before he needed more than 10 fingers to count his age, having lost his great-grandfather and several uncles.
King’s grandpa’s passing would coincide with King beginning to write music for the first time. While King sees his songwriting as more of a natural progression rather than triggered by the event, it seems more than coincidental that he would begin writing his first music shortly after.
“I had always played music since I was old enough to hold something in my hands and 13 was a heavy year for me. That was when I really learned to put my feelings into music and start expressing that way.”
By the time he was 14, he had a full band and was touring regularly, playing places like The Hole In The Wall in Asheville (now defunct) and voraciously studying the actions, attitudes and behaviors of other musicians.
“When you’re kid and you are growing up playing in clubs, you learn a lot about how you want and don’t want to behave,” he tells me.
For this reason, King preferred playing with older musicians in his band, musicians who had families and responsibilities and who approached playing music in a professional manner. Rather than view his success (and access to the world of adult music venues) as a license for debauchery, he chose to surround himself with role models.
“I had a drummer who was a full-time-family-man-working-musician, a keyboardist with a family to support. Those were the people that I wanted to work with because they were as serious about it as I was. That was when my knowledge of leading a band really took off,” he says.
At 17, and with bigger fish to fry than a senior year of high school in Greenville, King got his GED and headed to California to cut his first record, Soul Insight. Maybe a little more cosmically, he also met his now long-time drummer Jack Ryan. The two got a place together following the record’s release, then promptly found themselves replacing most of the band. Not that King hadn’t already foreseen this, as he explains:
“Some of them decided they didn’t want to do this. Jack and I decided we did. So we hit the pavement and started hunting down cats willing to sleep in a van for a while.”
Fast-forward a few years. King is riding a wave of success and moved from honing live shows in venues to concentrating on getting comfortable in the studio.
“It’s certainly not a chore like it used to be” King says with a laugh. “I love going in and working on new material – you can convey things in different ways in the studio than in a live setting – it’s a lot of fun. Working in the studio you are able to obtain things that are difficult to recreate in a live setting and vice versa. Up until that point I really had only known the live setting. I didn’t know what it meant to pull all the subtleties out and let the room have a choice.”
The work shows, as Confessions comes across as a sharp (without being too slick) representation of what MKB’s live show makes you feel. The well-named album seems to encapsulate King’s feelings of leaving home.
“The past few years there are a lot of times I don’t remember because you self-medicate on the road,” King confides. “I have been experimentally sober for a while now, and I feel I can put on the best show I have ever put on.”
So King will return to Pisgah for the third year in a row to throw a party with such friends as Jason Isbell, Mimi Naja, Yonder Mountain String Band and others, returning this time with a different set of eyes.
“Asheville was the first town to really accept us as a homegrown product,” King mentions just before we get off the phone. “Asheville is where we feel lifted up as hometown boys.”
(Marcus King will host his Third Annual Family Reunion show at Pisgah Brewing Company on September 27 and 28. Scheduled performers include Marcus King Band, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Yonder Mountain String Band, Mimi Naja (of Fruition) and others.)
Caleb Calhoun is an author, poet, and journalist living in Asheville, NC. You can reach him at [email protected].