Gatemouth: Refuses to Be Fenced In

Artists who steadfastly resist to be pidgeonholed – Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown being one such notable example – always pique my curiosity.  Music writer, Michael Perry, in his article about Gatemouth Brown from the November-December 2001 issue of “alt-country” magazine, No Depression, describes an independence of spirit so fierce that it immediately commanded my attention:

“For 72 of his 77 years, Brown’s career has unfolded over a shifting geography of place and sound, yielding a body of work nearly impossible to categorize.  Read the bios and press clippings, and you’ll find references to blues, roots, jazz, Cajun, calypso, zydeco, bluegrass, country, funk, and swing.  Ask Gatemouth, and he’ll call it bayou swamp rock.  Or border-type country.  Or American and world music.  Or American music, Texas-style.  He plays and leaves the sorting to others.  Someone once said his country licks didn’t sound country.  ‘What country you talkin’ about?’ asked Gate.”

GatemouthDo the math, and you quickly see that Gatemouth was a musician when most kids were just entering Kindergarten.  According to Perry, “His father fiddled for friends on the weekends, and at the age of 5, Clarence began backing him on guitar.  They played a little bit of everything — regional tunes, French traditionals, German polkas.  When Gate was 10, his father started him on the fiddle.  During World War II, he got work as a drummer.”

Reading between the lines, one quickly gets the sense that a musician and songwriter with such wide-ranging interests was not really cut out to be a “singles” artist.  Sure enough, a simple scan of the 45Cat database for Gatemouth Brown’s recordings reveals this his “singles era” essentially began in the early 1950s (1949, actually) and ended in 1975 — with his cover of Lowell George’s “Dixie Chicken” — even though he released albums practically right up until his death in 2005.  Check out Gatemouth’s guitar chops on blazing instrumental, “Boogie Uproar” from 1953:

Bill Dahl, in his biography of Gatemouth on AllMusic.com, tells us that famed music entrepreneur, Don Robey, “inaugurated his Peacock label in 1949 to showcase Brown’s blistering riffs.”  Those blistering riffs were on full display in 1966 when Gatemouth served as the lead guitarist for the house band on the television show, The !!!! Beat, hosted by veteran Nashville disc jockey, Bill “Hoss” Allen — a syndicated music program notable for its stellar roster of musical performers, as well as for being filmed in color.

German label, Bear Family, fortunately has reissued all 26 episodes of The !!!! Beat on DVD, and thanks to YouTube, you can watch the entire first episode with its delightfully razzle-dazzle opening sequence (not to mention a high-octane 60-second Gatemouth instrumental around the 9:40 mark in the program):

How unbelievably sad to learn that Gatemouth passed in September of 2005 in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, his death almost certainly hastened as a result of having to flee New Orleans on August 28 from the storm, which destroyed his home in Slidell, Louisiana, on the edge of Lake Pontchartrain.