Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown – Long Way Home
Gatemouth Brown is 72 years of lean American history. His music remains vital, despite his age, and spans an enormous repertoire of styles. Legend has it he picked up T-Bone Walker’s ax during a break at Houston’s Golden Peacock in 1947, and made $600 (and an enemy) in 15 minutes. He sings in an easy, tobacco-ripened voice, doubles on violin, led an 18-piece swing band (Bob Wills, not Glenn Miller) during the late ’40s, and recorded some fine small combo jump-blues (the precursor to rock) in Los Angeles about the same time. During the ’60s Gatemouth lived in Nashville, where he led the backing band for an R&B TV show called “The Beat” and recorded country music, before being rediscovered in one of the periodic blues revivals.
None of that, by the way, is music made with the cunning of a survivor. He’s a master of all those styles, and more.
Brown has recorded for a variety of labels over the years, winding his unique blue Texas swing into each project. Along the way he cut the daylights out of Roy Clark (on a 1979 MCA LP titled Makin’ Music) and produced a series of delightful recordings that confound categorization. (Anybody know if 1976’s Blackjack is still in print, or what happened to the Music Is Medicine label?)
On a new label after some years on Alligator, Gatemouth is being accorded the royal John Lee Hooker treatment, complete with guest nods from Eric Clapton, Ry Cooder, Sonny Landreth, John D. Loudermilk, Leon Russell and Maria Muldaur. Two problems with that. First, the man doesn’t need anybody to pick up the slack when he’s got a guitar in his hands. Second, he’s not a bluesman.
“Music can work in a very mysterious way,” he said six years back. “The blues can kill. I’m talking about the white and the black. I’m talkin’ about people who went no further than the death march.”
Well, whatever you want to call it, Gatemouth Brown is full of life and still plays with smooth grace. Though “Dockside Boogie” (on which he saws a mean fiddle) or “The Blues Walk” are ostensibly blues numbers and Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice” is just unexpected, he proceeds with a sweet, languorous tone like an easy walk down a long country road. It ain’t country, and it ain’t blues, it’s just music. And good, at that.
Still, despite those names, Long Way Home is just an average title in Brown’s long canon. He’s not challenged (not even by Clapton), nor especially invigorated by this set of songs, though the duet with Muldaur (“Here I Go Again”) comes off nicely. If they really want to pay tribute to Gatemouth Brown, how’s about setting him up with another 18-piece orchestra?