By Arlene R. Weiss
In July 2001, I was deeply honored to interview roots music legend, the late, great Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown before he passed away just a few years later. At some 77 years young, the virtuoso guitarist, fiddle player, and multi-instrumentalist had been blessed with a luminous, storied career and had shared the live performance stage and recording studio with the likes of Eric Clapton, Ry Cooder, Leon Russell, Roy Clark, and a glittering who’s who of music icons who have all tipped their hats to Gate’s musical gifts and immeasurable influence on them.
Gatemouth, who was well known for his sometimes surly, irascible nature, was anything but when he and I spoke. Feisty, exuberant, and full of delightful spit and vinegar, the Southern fried Louisiana-born and Texas-raised Brown was happy to regale me with his musical influences, beginnings, lots of talk about guitars, fiddle playing, and gear, as well as talk up his new record at the time, the critically acclaimed Back To Bogalusa. And of course Gate proudly recalled his most fond story of all, (and one he was well known to never miss an opportunity to tell!), his early days stealing the show, when he first became a star, blowing the legendary T-Bone Walker right off the stage at Houston’s infamous Bronze Peacock Room in 1947 at just 23 years old.
That was Gatemouth to a tee, and he wouldn’t ever have had it any other way. Always a peacock, a true showman and a consummate, often flamboyant performer, who joyfully strutted on stage in the spotlight and just loved every minute to the absolute delight of the audience.
Guitarist, multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown is both an international icon and musical treasure. For some fifty years Gate has been cooking his own uncategorizable gumbo of delicious music, releasing a catalog of stellar albums crisscrossing the many boundaries of American roots music. At seventy seven years old, Gatemouth is still serving up a zesty, multi-flavored jambalaya of musical styles including blues, big band, swing, Cajun, rock, country, and jazz while dazzling audiences with his renowned stage stealing virtuosity on guitar, fiddle, mandolin, drums, harmonica, and his often witty lyrics and vocals.
Gatemouth’s new release, Back To Bogalusa, is a feisty, spicy taste of his colorful Louisiana and Southern heritage. From the Gibson-soaked, outrageously humorous, self-penned “Dangerous Critter” to the house rockin’, instrumental swing jams “Grape Jelly” and “Slap It,” Gate presents a four-star album of flair and finesse that as he best attests, is filled with top notch “walkin’ tunes.” Along the way, he gives American audiences their very first opportunity to hear re-workings of five songs he originally recorded in the mid 1970’s on the Barclay record label which were, at the time, only released in Europe.
Gate also brings in longtime collaborator and slide guitar wizard Sonny Landreth, who adds some scintillating slide work. The pair perform an amazing duet of virtuosic slide guitar solos on a fatback blues and boogie cover of Little Feat’s “Dixie Chicken.”
Gatemouth is music’s perennial, fun loving, larger than life showman and entertainer, who is most at home when barnstorming the spotlight of center stage. His fond moniker came about when one of his high school teachers told the tour de force musician, that he had a “voice like a gate,” and so the name stuck!
Born in 1924 in Vinton, Louisiana and raised in Orange, Texas, he developed a vast love of the many authentic regional musics spawned by the varied population’s rich and diverse culture. From the beginning, he shared his multi-instrumentalist father’s talent and range. At a mere five years old he was honing his talent on the guitar and by ten years old, he was playing the fiddle.
In 1947, Gate made his professional debut as a guitarist at Don Robey’s infamous nightclub, The Bronze Peacock Room, in Houston. Gate stepped up to fill in during a set while that night’s headliner, T-Bone Walker who had fallen ill, took a short break. The audience went wild for Gate’s rendition of his own incomparable “Gatemouth Boogie.” Gatemouth literally brought the house down that night to the resounding cheers of the audience and the rest is, well, history.
This same artist who has been billed as “The High Priest Of Texas Swing” has also been inducted into The Blues Foundation Hall Of Fame in 1999, received the Pioneer Award from The Rhythm & Blues Foundation in 1997, and has won the prestigious W.C. Handy Award eight times.
The Grammy Award-winning Gatemouth has collaborated with Eric Clapton, Roy Clark, Amos Garrett, Professor Longhair, and Jim Keltner, all who praise Gate as one of the true music greats. This praise is not only for his extraordinary virtuosic talent, but for his immeasurable influence in preserving and honoring true American roots music and its invaluable place in our musical history and culture.
Here, Gatemouth elaborates on the making of Back To Bogalusa, peppered with a generous helping of fond anecdotes, plenty of typical “Gatemouth” tongue in cheek humor and lots of warm Southern hospitality.
Arlene R. Weiss: Your new release, Back To Bogalusa is a musical stew of many styles and influences ranging from Southern Rock to Cajun to Swing to Blues and you covered tunes by many esteemed songwriters including Lowell George and Bobby Charles. Can you elaborate on your artistic direction in conceiving this album and your creative process in selecting the song material for the album?
Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown: Some of them were submitted to me and I liked them and I used them. Some I had never heard before but after I listened to them awhile I said, “Well this might be alright, something different. I can rest my pen hand.” Me and my manager Jim Bateman always get together on this stuff. I also have writers around Louisiana that write material for me, but I always put something of mine on a record. See, I wrote that “Dangerous Critter”! [Author’s Note: Brown wrote the song along with co-writer Mike Loudermilk].
Arlene: You recorded the album at your favorite studio, Bogalusa’s Studio In The Country. You’ve also worked there many times and recorded many of your albums there. What is it about this particular studio that works so well for you, that you like so much?
Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown: Well, it’s quiet out there, it’s relaxing, it’s beautiful, and it’s a real good studio. And the people who own it are good people. That’s why and where I’ve been recording for many years now.
Arlene: My favorite song on the album is “Dangerous Critter.” Can you detail the true story behind the song, about you living above an alligator waterway nicknamed “Gate’s Canal”?
Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown: I live right up above the water and my wife sees alligators out there all the time! Right in the backyard! The backyard at our place is actually water, it’s a canal. The front is dirt. We see alligators all the time! We don’t bother them and they don’t bother us. But I decided to write that tune “Dangerous Critter”. I worked the words out in my mind, I put it down, and everybody thought it was real great, so I recorded it.
Arlene: How has being born in Louisiana and being raised in Texas influenced you as a musician?
Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown: I was born in Louisiana and so was some of my family. Most of my family was born and raised in Texas, and I was raised in Texas, so we stripped the border. Therefore, I have roots from both sides. I’m able to do what I do because my Daddy was a fiddle player. He played Cajun, country, and bluegrass, and so do I. And so therefore, it’s very easy for me to do what I’m doing.
Arlene: Sonny Landreth is a guest on this album and he adds some wonderful slide work on several tunes. How did you become involved collaborating with Sonny on this album, how far back do you know Sonny, and when did you first start working with him?
Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown: I’ve had Sonny work with me several times before. I got to know and started working with Sonny oh, maybe about ten or fifteen years ago.
Arlene: Your own stellar musicianship resonates throughout the album, especially your own crafted guitar and fiddle playing as well as your wonderful vocals. What guitars did you use on the album?
Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown: I used my 1966 Gibson Firebird. That’s my favorite guitar. I mainly used that. I might have used one of my Washburns too. The Washburn is from about the 1990’s I think.
Arlene: It sounded like you used a Gibson on “Dangerous Critter.”
Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown: Yeah, I used my Gibson on that.
Arlene: How did you achieve the lively, very spontaneous feel that you had on the two instrumental pieces, “Grape Jelly” and “Slap It”?
Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown: “Grape Jelly” was written for me by my saxophone player, Eric Demmer [along with co-writer Skip Nallia]. “Slap It” was written for me by my keyboard player Joe Krown. What I usually do every time I do an album, is I let people write one or two tunes for me and if I like it, I record it. I give them a chance, doing that.
Arlene: “Grape Jelly” is a really fun, upbeat piece.
Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown: Yeah, it is a walkin’ tune!
Arlene: You’re renowned for your fancy fretwork as a guitar picker. Can you explain your unique playing technique?
Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown: I don’t use no pick for one thing. I just use my hand. I use the meat part of my fingers, all five fingers, on the right hand. Then I also pick with my left hand for certain movements. I maybe use my left hand to do pickin’ at the same time with my right hand, my chord hand. I don’t use any picks at all. The only time I ever use a pick is if I’m playing a mandolin, but other than that, I use my fingers.
Arlene: What fiddles did you use on the album and can you describe your wonderful playing technique on the fiddle as well?
Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown: The same fiddle I always use. It’s a copy of a Stradivarius. All fiddles are copies of Strads as far as I’m concerned, but the older a fiddle is, the better it sounds. A violin and a fiddle are basically the same thing depending on how you’re playing it. A violin is played in a classical fashion. A fiddle is played like I play, taking shortcuts.
Arlene: What special care do you use to treat the wood and keep the wood of your fiddles in top acoustic tone and condition?
Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown: I don’t do anything! I just let it do what it got to do and I play it. I maybe clean them off now and then, but that’s about it.
Arlene: Five of the songs on the album are re-workings of songs that you previously recorded on the European Barclay record label, which were only released in Europe. What made you decide to redo these songs on Back To Bogalusa?
Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown: They were never released in the United States, and my friends and my manager said it would be a good idea if I bring them back because America had never heard them. The original recorded versions of those songs were stuck over in Europe. So I said, “OK, we’ll try them.”
Arlene: When you re-recorded these songs, did you rework them from a different creative perspective or were they just re-recordings to give the American audience a chance to hear them?
Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown: Oh no, I completely reworked them.
Arlene: How do you go about doing that in your mind when you’re thinking through the creative process? How do you approach it when you’re reworking it, particularly the guitar parts and the arrangement?
Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown: For one thing, you don’t think about it. You also don’t listen to what you did before. That’s what’s wrong with half the musicians out there. It’s easier for them to just copy note for note, anything, and that’s why they can’t go anywhere. They’re just spinning their wheels. What I did before, if I do it again for some reason, I like to forget how I did it, and instead, I think about how I’m going to do it.
Arlene: “Dixie Chicken” composer, the late Lowell George, once said that he liked your original version of the song better than his own version with Little Feat.
Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown: That’s what he said!
Arlene: Is the song “Bogalusa Boogie Man” autobiographical in nature?
Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown: No, that’s just a town. That’s where I recorded. That’s where the Studio In The Country is at and we decided years ago, we would record there. It’s in Louisiana!
Arlene: When did you start playing both the guitar and the fiddle, each instrument, and what was your very first guitar and your very first fiddle?
Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown: My first guitar was an old flat top guitar and I started trying to play at five years old. I got my first fiddle and started playing at about ten years old. All this was happening in Orange, Texas when I was a very small child.
Arlene: Didn’t your father teach you to play both instruments?
Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown: He didn’t teach me, he told me to pay attention! [Laughing] So I did!
Arlene: So who taught you to play or were you self taught?
Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown: That’s something that seemed like it was happening way before I was born, that that’s what I was going to be, a musician, what I am today. I always wanted to be a musician, just like my father.
Arlene: What are the technical and artistic challenges in switching from playing the guitar to playing the fiddle?
Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown: There is no challenge! You just have to have talent! You just have to know what you’re doing because they’re two different animals. I play the mandolin. I was a drummer in my teenage days, a harmonica player in my later years.
Arlene: How did you become such a virtuoso on such a multitude of instruments?
Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown: Using my head! Thinking! [Laughs] That’s what your brains are for. Don’t think about how somebody else did it. Forget other people and create your own style!
Arlene: What model mandolins and violas do you play?
Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown: I had a Kent mandolin a long time ago. A Japanese company called Blues made me a mandolin, and that’s a beautiful instrument. They gave me a mandolin. I’ve got that. They also made me a couple of nice guitars, fine guitars. I’ve got them here!
Arlene: Tell me about your professional debut as a guitarist in 1947. The story goes that you were at Don Robey’s famous Bronze Peacock Room nightclub in Houston, Texas, and T-Bone Walker, who was playing there that night, didn’t feel well. So when he took a short break, you just went up there onstage and picked up and played his electric Gibson. What made you decide to have the courage to just go up onstage, give that a shot, and play his guitar like that?
Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown: I was sitting on the side of the stage watching him and nobody knew that I played guitar. T-Bone didn’t feel well and went down to the dressing room. Don Robey knew I was a singer and a drummer. He said, “Go up there and sing a tune until T-Bone gets better.”
I guess I misunderstood and I went up there and picked up his guitar just out of nowhere and I started playing a boogie woogie called “Gatemouth Boogie.” I made $615 in fifteen minutes. That was big money then. Not long after, T-Bone was done recuperating, came back onstage, took his guitar and told me to never pick it up again. I never touched his guitar again.
Arlene: He was afraid you stole the show?
Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown: I guess so and that hurt my feelings because that wasn’t my intention.
Arlene: Right, but he may have taken it the wrong way. Can you remember what model Gibson guitar it was?
Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown: I think T-Bone’s guitar was an L-5 because the next day, I had me one. Don Robey bought me a brand new 1947 Gibson L-5. At that time, mine cost $750.
Arlene: How and when did you become the touring musical Ambassador for the U.S. State Department?
Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown: In 1976 the U.S. State Department asked me to represent America in Northeast Africa, Botswana, Kenya, Nairobi, and Egypt, and I did. I’ve also been all over Russia and Japan.
Arlene: What gear, amps, and equipment did you use in the studio on the album and live?
Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown: My people string my guitars. I endorse some strings but I can’t tell you what they are. The company knows what gauge I use. My bass player Harold Floyd takes care of my guitars. I use Music Man amps. I’ve got a pair of those. They’re pretty old. I also use left over Fenders amps that they remodeled, they redid.
Arlene: Any effects that you use?
Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown: A light reverb. Also, one of the Music Man amps I use for my fiddle and my viola and the other one I use for my guitar.
Arlene: What has been your creative experiences recording and collaborating throughout your career with such esteemed peers like Eric Clapton, Ry Cooder, and Leon Russell?
Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown: Ry Cooder asked my office if I would help out some artists on his album. I told him yes, so I did that. So then I put Eric Clapton, Leon Russell, and Ry Cooder on my album, Long Way Home. Then Eric Clapton and I did a three month tour together. We started off in England at The Royal Albert Hall. We toured a month in Europe and we toured a month in the United States. It was about two or three years ago.
Arlene: What are your thoughts about how you have played a major part in influencing the guitarists and musicians of today, such as Brian Setzer and his Orchestra, The Mighty, Mighty Bosstones, Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, and The Squirrel Nut Zippers who have followed in your footsteps, carrying on the torch of this interpretive style of music, keeping it alive and crossing it over into the mainstream audience?
Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown: That’s fine if that’s what they’re doing! It’s just like I’ve got to go to Norway and I’m taking the big band over there with me. What the world doesn’t know is that in 1947, I did my first big band album with The Maxwell Davis Orchestra. It was my first full size orchestra. It was recorded on the Aladdin label in Hollywood, California. Then after that album, Don Robey didn’t like how some things were and so he formed The Peacock Recording Company around me and for many years, we really went after it.
Arlene: You’ve always supported authentic American roots music. How important is it for you to preserve this very traditional American music and its very important place in our musical culture and history in the face of such commercialized pop music and culture?
Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown: I have to say it’s not easy because I’m fighting through garbage. I hear and see a lot of people playing, but all they’re doing is using facial expressions, banging their instruments, and going all out of proportion, calling themselves musicians. They’re never going to be music makers. They’re noise makers. The music industry is like fast food. The quicker they can sell it and throw it away….that’s the best thing for them because they can make a quick dollar. I call these guys ninety day wonders.
Arlene: What would you like to add about the making of the new album?
Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown: I thought it out before I started it, and then once I thought it out, I went on in and did it. I don’t just go in there and run a track or let someone run a track for me. I did that one time in my life. Never, no more. But my music, my musicians, we’re all in the studio and we work together, with one another, and we collaborate our talent together.
Arlene: How long did it take to record the album?
Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown: About a week! My big band album didn’t take but two weeks.
Arlene: Do you record your songs live or with a lot of overdubbing?
Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown: There’s a little overdubbing but mainly, the whole thing was done live. Maybe somebody wanted to change or didn’t like their own solo, so I said “Ok, well change a solo.” If they can do a solo better, they can play on top of a track and change a solo, but that’s about it.
Copyright 2001, 2011 By Arlene R. Weiss-All Rights Reserved