For over two decades critics have been calling Danny Gatton "The World's Greatest Unknown Guitar Player"--and the way things are going, they may be calling him the same thing twenty years hence. Fortunately, Gatton stopped waiting for large-scale success a long time ago. "I just flat-out don't give a damn anymore," Gatton asserts. "I'm doing things the way I want to. If nobody likes it, I don't care."
This is an admirable outlook, especially coming from someone in a business where fame and fortune are used as standards for proficiency. And just because Gatton is fed up doesn't mean he's giving up. In conjunction with jazz organist Joey DeFrancesco, Gatton has just released Relentless, a new album on the Big Mo label. The disc is a straight-to-the-gut killer in which each track drips with intensity and soul. Its diversity alone is astounding: These two masters tackle compositions as disparate as Thelonious Monk's "Well, You Needn't" and the Gatton-penned eleven-minute epic called "The Pits."
While Relentless isn't Gatton's finest offering (mainly because all of his recordings have been fine), it shows a new and different side of this talented player. From a career standpoint, however, this is not necessarily a good thing. You see, Gatton can and does play country, rockabilly, jazz, bluegrass and more--and he does so with great command. He's every bit as astounding a guitarist as his fans suggest, but his eclectic nature has made it difficult for category-conscious record companies to market him.
"I've never made a record that was just one thing without a variety of different styles of music in there, because that's just the way I am," Gatton says. "But people are so narrow-minded. That's a drag, isn't it?" When asked if he believes his versatility has contributed to his commercial disappointments, he snorts, "Well, I've never become real successful on account of it.
"If you look out the door," he continues, "you'll see a lot of different colors out there in nature. Now why something has to be pigeonholed as just blue, for instance, to me is just ridiculous. There's notes and there's time and there's infinite possibilities and ways to come up with a lot of different collages of style of music. To me, it's perfectly obvious how to do that. It just makes sense. I don't know, maybe my attention span's too short or something. But I get bored pretty quick with any kind of music--I don't care what it is. Once I've heard three or four songs, I've got to move on to something else."
These qualities extend, at least in part, to Gatton's off-stage life. He lives on a farm in southern Maryland with his wife and teenage daughter, and, he says, "They absolutely, positively come first, before any of this other stuff." But he's also involved in plenty of other cool pursuits. Gatton's an avid lover of street rods, hot rods and custom and vintage cars, and he boasts that he has one of the "biggest and prettiest garages you'll ever see. Looks like Mount Vernon, only it's a garage." Inside, he practices another of his favorite crafts: He's a skilled sheet-metal worker.
Gatton's recorded output has been equally varied and colorful. He has released a handful of hard-to-find discs, including two (Redneck Jazz and Unfinished Business, on his own NRG imprint) that today are prized collector's items. In addition, he's been a member of Robert Gordon's rockabilly band, played with many well-respected jazz artists and earned a reputation as one of the finest guitarists in the country. He even had at least one notable brush with stardom: After an A&R rep saw him perform at Les Paul's 65th birthday celebration, he was signed to a seven-record contract with Elektra Records. He subsequently made two stunning platters--1991's Grammy-nominated 88 Elmira Street and a slicker 1993 followup, Cruisin' Deuces--but when sales lagged, he was quietly dropped from the label.
After his dismissal, a disgusted Gatton retreated from the music world and settled into the life of a redneck country squire. He admits that he even stopped strumming his guitar for his own pleasure during this period. "Maybe I was having a midlife crisis or something," he conjectures. "I'll be 49 next month. I've been playing music professionally since '57, when I was twelve. I thought I had actually tried pretty hard to get somewhere in this business and just couldn't seem to fit in. I'm one of those pieces of the puzzle that just doesn't fit with the mainstream, or whatever you want to call it. So, anyway, I didn't play for a while after that. I was just burnt out."
But Gatton's song was far from over. "My bass player, John Previti, who's been with me forever, coerced me into going out and playing a little jazz gig one night with a really good drummer and a trumpeter," he recalls. "It was so much fun that it got me back into playing again." Soon these regular jams became weekly events in Washington, D.C., and as a result, Gatton added recruits to his cult following. When Big Mo's Ed Eastridge approached him about making another recording, Gatton said he wanted to do one with Joey DeFrancesco. "I told him, `If you've got the nerve to call him up, I got the nerve to play with him,'" Gatton notes. It's unlikely that Gatton and DeFrancesco will hit the road together, though. Gatton currently plans to stick close to home; his latest tour consists of only two dates, in Denver and Seattle. Joining him for these shows are bassist Previti and drummer Timm Biery, who also appear on Relentless.
This relative inactivity has even caused some of Gatton's supporters to forget just how skilled he is. For example, Musician magazine, which has praised him every which way over the years, did not include him in its list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists, published in February 1993.
"That really offended me," Gatton concedes. "I saw names in there of guys who can't even tune their own guitar. I won't mention names, but, man, I couldn't believe they did that. They sponsored me at [a music convention] one time and they had me signing pictures at their booth and stuff. And then to be left out on that, it's just ridiculous." Gatton takes comfort in the fact that Les Paul also was omitted from the list.
Fortunately, Gatton's been honored in a more tangible way. The Fender company has issued a Danny Gatton-model signature Telecaster; it's custom made, sells for about $3,000 and features cubic zirconium side dots. It is, as any music store employee will tell you, a pretty nice ax.
Still, Gatton insists that the acknowledgments that mean the most to him come from the people who hear him play. "I have diehard fans," he says. "Not millions of them. But there's enough of them to make it worth going to play. They like what I do. See, that's what I mean by not giving a damn. If I do what's true to me and my feelings, people will like it. Not all of them. But somebody is going to like it. I've never done anything that was bad, and I never will. If I got to that point, I'd get out of the business--period."
Danny Gatton. 9 p.m. Friday, September 2, Herman's Hideaway, 1578 South Broadway, $13.50 in advance/$14.00 day of show, 290-
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.