Cajun slide guitarist Sonny Landreth was a close friend, collaborator and fan of Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. A singer, guitarist and violinist who started making records in 1947, Brown became an American blues institution over the next five decades, issuing exciting jump-blues and country-swing singles like “Mary Is Fine,” “Atomic Energy” and “Okie Dokie Stomp” and recording acclaimed albums with disciples like Landreth, Eric Clapton and Ry Cooder in the 1990s. Brown was diagnosed with lung cancer last year, but continued to record and tour until shortly before his death, in Orange, Texas, on September 10th. Landreth spoke fondly of his friend and hero to Rolling Stone a few days later.
Why did Gatemouth object so much to being called a blues musician, when he contributed so much to that music, as a player and innovator?
He felt it was limiting, compared to the big picture that he was all about. He had so many influences. He had this incredibly funky, indescribable rhythm when he played, especially in big-band arrangements. I’d get up close and watch him, for years. And I still can’t figure out how he did what he did. His fingering style was totally unique. So was his sound.
He was born in western Louisiana and raised in east Texas. As a player and stylist, his influences and the many facets of his playing seemed as porous as the land.
He was a true American music hero. And he didn’t get the acclaim that some of the other big-time guys got. He didn’t have as much commercial success and recognition. But he was up there with any of the greats. When you grow up in that part of the country, you soak up all of those influences. Jazz, blues, R&B, country and swing — he forged his own way through all of that. And the imprint he left touched a lot of players.
When did you first see Gatemouth play?
I was in my early twenties. I was working at Huey Meaux’s studio in Houston, in 1972. The engineer was from England. He had met and worked with Gate on the road somewhere. He said, “Have you ever heard of Gatemouth Brown?” I said, I’d heard of him. He said, “We’re going to see his gig tonight.” The next thing I know, we’re in the heaviest, hard-core part of town. We go into this funky little bar, and Gate is in the other room playing this incredible guitar. The band was sloppy — he had some pickup guys backing him up — but he blew my mind. I’d never heard anybody play like that.
Then he put the guitar down and picked up the fiddle. I said, “Wait a minute, guitar and fiddle?” I’d never heard fiddle playing like that before either. Then he took a break and I met him. We talked a little bit, although I think he totally forgot about that years later.
He was pretty severe in interviews, criticizing peers and fans like B.B. King and Eric Clapton. Was he really as crusty as that in person?
Gate would always tell you what was on his mind. He was not shy in the least. He felt that he never got his due. But he was also working that side of his personality. He could be real cantankerous, giving the producer hell in the studio or some of the guys in the band.
Then he’d lean over to me and chuckle. He’d have this look in his eye. I’d say, “C’mon, you don’t really mean that.” And he’d say, “Don’t tell them.”
It was a bit of both. There were other times when you knew he meant it. That was part of his fiery personality. And it came out in his playing as well.
What was it like playing and recording with him?
One of my favorites was a J.J. Cale tune, “Don’t Cry Sister,” on A Long Way Home . People ask me if there’s a session I’ve done that has really stood out? I always point to that one. For once, I liked what I did [laughs]. And it involved some of my favorite players. Jim Keltner was on drums. Amos Garrett played guitar. But it was an inspirational tune, and I loved the way Gate sang it. It was not something he would have typically done. But there were times when he would let the production side of things take over, and he would just step up and do his part, get inspired and deliver. He would often say, “Well, I don’t know about this song.” Then he would charge right into it.
Despite his illness, he continued to tour, until a couple of weeks before his death. Did that surprise you?
He decided he was not going to do treatment, that he was going to play until he dropped. Ironically, I think it was his heart that got him in the end. But I was so thankful that I had the chance to play with him before that. I did Mountain Stage with him in February. He was in bad shape then. They helped him walk out to his stool; he had his oxygen on. Then when I came out to sit in with him, he said something really nice about me: “Here’s a young man who’s played on a lot of my albums.” I was still young to him [laughs]. And we launched into these tunes.
But here is the kicker . . . and this is classic Gate: At the end of the show, they do a finale featuring all of the guests that week, where everyone comes out to sing and play. So they picked a swing blues, and we did it in a key that all of the singers could do it in. Well, Gate didn’t like that. After everyone finished, the announcer goes, “Goodnight, everybody,” and everyone starts walking out. Gate goes, “Wait a minute! Everybody sit down! Now we’re gonna play the song in E flat — my way!” He threw everyone off that stage except his band — and me. He turns and says, “Not you. You stay here.”
It was classic. He got the last word in. What are you gonna say to Gatemouth Brown? And everybody loved it. When he finished, the ovation was twice as loud.