Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown – Sittin’ on the dock, with the world at bay
If Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown the observer sees a lot of trouble in the world, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown the performer figures crying in his beer won’t fix anything. Back To Bogalusa is easy on the soul. Hoyt Garrick wrote the leadoff track, “Folks Back Home”, a poignant piece in which a man wanders past “empty cars in the railroad yard, where fast freight used to roll.” (“Folks Back Home” is one of five tracks on Back To Bogalusa — the others being “Breaux Bridge Rag”, “Louisian'”, “Bogalusa Boogie Man”, and “Dixie Chicken” — that are new versions of tunes previously recorded in the mid-’70s for Europe-only releases on the Barclay label.)
As Hoyt’s lyrics unfold, a picture emerges of a lonely, fallible character, facing life alone. But when Gatemouth sings, “Movin’ in the right direction/With his head up high/Sometimes it’s hard to keep the beat/No matter how hard you try,” his vocals convey a combination of weariness and warmth that can only be described as equanimity.
If the term “equanimity” sounds like faint praise, it is not. Equanimity is the only thing that will save you from this world, and it doesn’t come easy. Or cheap. And you can’t fake it for long. Even when the songs strike a note of warning (Bobby Charles’ “It All Comes Back”) or express disappointment in one’s fellow humans (Charles’ “Why Are People Like That” and “Lie No Better” by Delbert McClinton and Gary Nicholson), they are not vindictive. Gate’s voice — no longer as brash as it once was, but still supple and rich — suggests there is no false hope in his world, but neither is there absolute despair. Don’t expect much, but don’t give up.
Accordingly, when it comes to picking songs, Gatemouth chooses his words carefully. “I’ll pick the song that’s positive, I’ll pick the song that’s funny,” he says. “I listen to the lyrics.”
If he favors a songwriter, it is usually for lyrics. “Bobby [Charles, who wrote ‘See You Later Alligator’ in the 1950s] is a very positive person. He’s writing about himself, but he’s also writing about other things in life. I always pick some of his. And another fellow that’s really great, a dear friend of mine, John Loudermilk out of Nashville. I love his writing, because he’s very positive about what he writes. Percy Mayfield, he was a good writer. And Delbert McClinton is pretty good.
“These people I’m mentioning are great writers, but it’s hard for them to sell their own stuff today. So I’m the one that can take it out there and sell it. I think I was the chosen one to sell their stuff, and they know that.
“Anyway, if I like a song, and I take it, I’ll do something with it. In my own way. When I put myself into it, that makes it not a copy, that makes it almost an original. I don’t listen to the music. I listen to the lyrics, because I’m going to put my own music on it on average.”
Meaning his fiddle is full and strong on “Louisian'” and “Breaux Bridge Rag”. Meaning his guitar thinks it is part of the brass section on “Lie No Better”. On “It All Comes Back”, Gate’s guitar commiserates with the singer throughout, the Greek chorus to his vocals. On the instrumentals “Grape Jelly” and “Slap It”, the brass and keyboards get their generous turns, but when Gate’s guitar comes in, there is no question who is in charge. And yet he does it without histrionics. There is an ease to this album that makes it a joy to hear.
There are lighter moments. Brown wrote “Dangerous Critter” for the gator that lives beneath his porch. And he struts a little in “Bogalusa Boogie Man”. But it never gets silly. Clarence thinks there is no shame in acting your age. He feels no need to contort himself to get your attention.
“Some of these guitar players from the past, old guys still out there slidin’ across the floor and all that…there’s a difference between a clown and an artist. If you’re going to get up there and cut cartwheels and tear up your face and look stupid, you’re not a musician, you’re a clown! I sit on my stool, and I stand a little bit, and I sit on my stool, but my music’s doin’ all the talkin’.
“I may never be what they consider a superstar — whatever that’s supposed to be. But my music will tell what I don’t have to talk about. Such as being positive about life, not vulgar about life, not talkin’ about hate and all that sort of stuff. I just don’t like that stuff, man.
“The music will hold its own if it’s good. If it’s bad, it will flop. We know that.” He considers for a moment. “Unless it’s got a lot of bucks behind it to make it what it’s not. And that’s happening. There’s a lot of music being put up on the top shelf, if they let it fly itself, it wouldn’t go on the bottom shelf.
“You call these people 90-day wonders.”