Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown: 1924 to 2005
This magazine exists largely to draw attention to undervalued artists, and yet in ten years we have managed to devote only one feature and a few small reviews to Gatemouth Brown, who died September 10 at age 81. He should have been on our cover at some point, and I am ashamed that it never seriously crossed my mind until I came to grapple with his passing.
Maybe I thought he was immortal, for his music came from no particular time and seemed unlikely ever to stop. Maybe I thought he would make a better record next time. Certainly I never tired of hearing him play, whatever he chose to play next.
Regardless, there has been no greater exponent of American music than Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, the Louisiana-born, Texas-bred guitarist and fiddler, leader of big bands and, though he despised the word, bluesman.
That’s how he came to notice, playing blues. His father played “all stringed instruments, including the accordion,” as Brown said in 1990. “He taught me a lot. He made me pay attention; he didn’t teach me anything.” Gatemouth played drums briefly, shifted quickly to guitar and fiddle, and moved out of Orange, Texas, up to Houston. There, as the story goes, one night in 1947 T-Bone Walker fell ill, Gatemouth scooped up a guitar, improvised “Gate’s Boogie”, and made $600 in tips in 15 minutes.
It’s impossible to know if the story’s true; that would be over $5,000 in today’s money, which testifies either to the post-WWII wealth running through the black community in Houston in 1947, or to the power of myth. (It also makes BR-549’s oft-told $600 take from John Michael Montgomery in the mid-’90s seem puny.) No matter, Gatemouth quickly landed a recording contract with Peacock and began the work of confounding and entertaining audiences.
Many of those early sides were cut with an eighteen-piece band, his guitar soaring out in front of the horns, right at the cusp of jump blues, the end of the big-band sound, the beginning of rock ‘n’ roll. He was all and none of those things on instrumentals such as “Okie Dokie Stomp”, and he moved on. The songs were often standards, yet his reading of them was anything but. (One can guess at the impact those horns may have had on Doug Sahm and his bands.)
Gatemouth was many things over the years, including some kind of deputy sheriff, bandleader on a Nashville TV show, a musical ambassador who traveled to Russia and Africa and South America on State Department money, and, eventually, an elder statesman, always erect in his cowboy hat and embroidered shirt.
He was mostly forgotten, at least in the United States (he’d been making records abroad, anyhow), when he cut 1975’s Blackjack, the album a Seattle rack jobber tossed into a stack of unknown promos and traded me for typesetting toward the end of the decade. I was playing a lot of Slade, Talking Heads and Elmore James those days, but I’d never heard anything like Gatemouth Brown.
Of course there was nothing like Gatemouth. He played bare-handed, the long fingers on his right hand coaxing every sound he imagined from his guitar. He had a beautiful, agile tone, equal parts tasteful jazz and roadhouse blues, unmistakably country, joyful in conversation and nasty in riposte. He was one hell of a fiddler, too.
Appearances on “Hee-Haw” led to 1979’s Makin’ Music, a collaboration with Roy Clark and the Memphis Horns, which in turn led to an appearance on the fledgling “Austin City Limits”. Three years later he won a Grammy for Alright Again!, recorded for Rounder. Over the years he would release 30-odd albums on almost as many labels, and a number of better-known guitarists would seek to record with him, including — on 1995’s Long Way Home — Eric Clapton, Ry Cooder, and Sonny Landreth. (The first night I saw Brown play, Geoff Tate, the guitarist from Queensryche, stood nearby, eyeballing that mysterious right hand.)
For all his kindness, Gatemouth was never a musician you wished to trifle with. He offered a flinty smile when asked about that ACL show. “I’m not egotistical, but I’m for true,” he chuckled. “When you step on the bandstand, know what you doing. Because I will not back down to save your face. I’m not goin’ to do it. Could be my brother, or anybody. When you get up there I’m goin’ to do the show I’ve always done, and better than I’ve ever did it, and if you can’t cope with it, you just in trouble.”
Another writer had sought to warn me off when I went to interview him in an Olympia, Washington, hotel that January day in 1990, telling me how difficult he could be. Maybe because the photographer had given him some of Seattle’s finest herb to mix with his tobacco the day before, or maybe because I asked the right questions and he had nobody new to talk to in a strange town, he spoke for hours and stopped only when his eyelids began to close.
Going through that old transcript, knowing what I now know about how hard 300 dates a year must have been, how frustrating it must have been for Brown to believe deeply in his considerable talent and see his lessers gather fame, this exchange startled me.
Question: I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anybody as content in their life.
Gatemouth Brown: Well, there’s a reason for that. If you believe in yourself, you can go a long way. But if you have doubts about yourself, you’re going noplace. And if you’re running from yourself, you can’t hide from yourself….I don’t live for tomorrow. I don’t live for yesterday. I live today.”
Word went out some time last year that Gatemouth was dying, that he’d refused treatment for cancer and was going to make every date he could in the meantime. There was a show in Atlanta to which I was invited in January, but it’s a long drive from eastern Kentucky and I have a two-year-old and I didn’t want to remember him like that. They said he was still brilliant, even for the few songs he played, still radiant with the joy of playing and of discovery.
Of course he was.