Don’t call it the blues

A guitar picker since childhood, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown has been a professional ambassador for American roots music for more than half a century. And with retirement still far from view, the 74-year-old virtuoso doesn’t take kindly to those who color his musical contributions with a single shade.

Consistently heralded as a blues maestro, Brown has yet to impress upon the media that he isn’t solely a bluesman. Admittedly, his seven Grammy nominations and multiple awards in the genre — including a 1992 Grammy for best blues album — haven’t helped. In fact, though, that melancholy hue is just one tint in the spectrum of his copious repertoire.

Throughout his career, Brown has retained what he feels is the essence of his musical legacy — the country and Cajun inflections he learned from his father, who played guitar, fiddle and piano. And the young Gatemouth’s debut in the music business actually came with ’40s swing groups like W.M. Bimbo and his Brownskin Models, and Howard Spencer and his Gay Swingsters.

Brown is currently touring Germany (“People can’t come to me, so I go to them,” he once said about his numerous round-the-world musical journeys), but neither the ocean barrier nor what some would consider his advanced age did much to tame the musician’s vigorous temperament during a recent trans-Atlantic telephone interview.

Nearly three-quarters of a century after first picking up a guitar, Brown still finds it necessary to defend the textured gumbo of what he calls his “Texas-style American music.”

“I hate being called a blues musician,” he declares gruffly, “because I know better — and other people know better, too. It’s their way of trying to keep the black man in three categories — blues, jazz or athletics. Well, I don’t like sports. And in [music], I’m whatever I’m playing at the precise moment.”

On his latest release, that means a return to his big-band beginnings. Gate Swings (Verve, 1997) is an exhilarating ensemble effort featuring his covers of legendary Duke Ellington and Count Basie numbers, plus some of Brown’s original material from that era. It’s easy to sense the musician’s affection for the earliest leg of his career.

“I love my horns,” he says softly. “I don’t like to do work without horns. There’s something about horns that gives an extra spice to the music. Of course, it all depends on how you work with them.”

Appropriately enough, Gate Swings was recorded in the Crescent City and features the stylings of New Orleans saxophonists Tony Dagradi and Eric Traub, among others. This nostalgic trip was so much fun, says the Louisiana-bred Brown, that another, similar disc is already in the works. But he’d be the last man on earth to get trapped in a time warp. Asked which of his five decades of playing music delivered the biggest pleasure, he stubbornly refuses to pick a winner.

“My favorite time is whenever I’m on the bandstand,” he declares. “Of course, some years have been better than others. Some towns I didn’t like, you know, but the people are what I’m out there for. The key [to success] has been to grow with the times.”

His ascent in the music business got its famous jump-start in 1947 at the Bronze Peacock nightclub in Houston. When guitar virtuoso T-Bone Walker fell ill in midsong, Brown needed no further urging. After seizing the stage (and spotlight — Walker was purportedly not entertained when the young usurper used the star’s legendary guitar to play his own “Gatemouth Blues”) to the tune of $600 in crowd-flung gratitude, it goes without saying that Gatemouth never looked back.

“A lot of people play the same thing over and over again,” he laments. “I compare music to a bunch of flowers. I like a cluster of flowers of all types … every style that I’m able to play.”

Brown’s original tunes have been known to take a poke at the human inclination to don flimsy armor. “There You Are,” a reproachful conscience-stirrer from 1994’s much-lauded The Man (Verve), soulfully advises poseurs and those running from themselves: “You may start some crap/And get yourself caught in your own trap/You may run and hide in some old whiskey bar/but when you find you can’t hide in a bottle, there you are, there you are.” But that same CD finds Brown equally at home covering Hank Williams’ good-time staple “Jambalaya” or offering a sly instrumental send-up of “Unchained Melody.”

“I can take somebody else’s song and put myself in it, until I don’t think of it as anybody else’s song,” he explains.

If there’s a lesson to be gleaned from Brown’s supreme longevity in the business, it could be that talent alone doesn’t make a legend. To this showman’s way of seeing it, younger musicians would do well to emulate more than just his famously tricky guitar work.

“Some people get up there and go ‘bing’ and ‘bang’ all night, but don’t say nothin’ to the audience,” he complains. “They may be good musicians, but they’re not showing it. People listen because they’re forced to. They paid their money, so they feel like they have to stay. I don’t like that. … You have to make the people a part of what you’re doing.”

People have become so desensitized by lackluster music that they don’t even expect to be entertained when they go out in quest of a live show, he maintains with wonder.

“Boring” and “blue”: two words that had better not appear on this performer’s epitaph.

“I [try] to show the world what music is all about,” he says of his jubilant life’s mission.

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