It’s sometimes forgotten that there’s a strong link between the blues, white folk music, and country and western. In the first half of the 20th century, different musical and cultural traditions coexisted uneasily throughout the south and intertwined in complex ways. The black plantation musician of the 1920s led a dual life. He played blues and contemporary dance numbers for black house parties and juke joints, but was also often called upon to perform at white functions. For these he’d modify his repertoire considerably to include pop songs, vaudeville-style novelty numbers, and the folk-based ballads and dance tunes that eventually gave birth to bluegrass and western swing, important precursors to modern country-and-western music.
As the recording industry developed, what had been a relatively free exchange of musical ideas became more of a one-way street: recorded “influences” were generally passed from black to white musicians, to the latter’s artistic and financial benefit. Bluegrass mandolin pioneer Bill Monroe has openly acknowledged his musical debt to a black Kentucky guitarist and fiddle player named Arnold Shultz, who apparently traveled freely in both black and white musical circles before his death in 1931; the western-swing standard “Steel Guitar Rag,” popularized by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, was originally recorded as “Guitar Rag” by another black Kentuckian, guitarist Sylvester Weaver, in 1920.
Traditional blues artists often used modal harmonies borrowed from Appalachian folk songs, which were derived from Scotch and Irish music. Yodels and falsetto hollers are present in both early blues and in white folk music. The fiddle, with its ability to mimic the quivers and modulations of the human voice, was adapted early on by musicians playing a wide variety of styles. This common parentage, of course, is still evident in the link between blues and rock ‘n’ roll.
But while it’s fashionable these days to acknowledge the bluesy roots of rock, no one has offered a more in-depth understanding of the nature of this musical relationship. The current back-to-the-roots movement in country and western has seen artists like Ricky Skaggs returning to the clear harmonies and acoustic string virtuosity of the old days, but to date there’s been little attempt to include traditional black musicians in this revival.
Multi-instrumentalist Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown would be a prime candidate for inclusion in any multiracial blues/C & W roots band. In Texas, where Brown grew up, the cross-pollination between black and white styles was especially fertile, and he apparently absorbed it all. He began his career, like so many other Texas bluesmen, under the sophisticated blues influence of guitarist T-Bone Walker, but he soon branched out to include in his repertoire every possible influence. In the early 40s, he toured the midwest with a musical revue known as William Benbow’s Brown Skin Models, and his early credits also include stints (often as a drummer) with various Texas-based “territory” bands of the mid-40s–jazz and jazz-related bands that toured regularly–as well as the usual blues and R & B gigs in clubs in San Antonio and Houston.
In 1949, Brown settled in with Houston’s Peacock label for a ten-year residency, resulting in a series of recordings that marked him as one of the most versatile and accomplished musicians in blues. Switching from guitar to violin to harmonica with unmatched proficiency, Brown incorporated and transcended his various influences: traditional black string bands; the white bluegrass and western-swing outfits that were their musical progeny; T-Bone Walker; the Cajun fiddlers of nearby Louisiana; and raunchy Texas roadhouse R & B. He forged a distinct personal style that maintained its integrity because of the deep commitment he brought to his multiple musical incarnations.
Since the Peacock days, Brown has continued to record in a variety of contexts. His legacy in the 1980s alone includes a tribute to Louis Jordan on the French Black and Blue label, featuring saxophonist Arnett Cobb and ex-Jordan keyboardist Milt Buckner; a country-rock effort on another French label, Barclay; and sessions from Japan and France with the likes of Cobb, Buckner, pianist Lloyd Glenn, bassist Milt Hinton, and keyboardist Jay McShann. He’s also become famous for packing into his live performances as many of his disparate influences as he can.
Brown is conscious of his role as the unique purveyor of an important musical heritage; he speaks often of himself as a “teacher.” But some have criticized him for failing to give continuity to the myriad styles he brings onstage. His recent appearance at B.L.U.E.S. Etcetera demonstrated both his unparalleled eclecticism and the sometimes jarring way he struts it.
Although well-known for his work with jump bands and horn sections, Brown has pared his current group down to the essentials: Robbie Fleming on rhythm guitar, Harold Floyd on bass, and Kerry Brown on drums. They’ve got the quickness and versatility to follow him wherever he goes, as they demonstrated immediately at B.L.U.E.S. Etcetera with a swinging, stage-warming version of the Ellington standard, Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the ‘A’ Train.” It was punctuated with some hard-edged, bluesy soloing by Fleming that foreshadowed the blues feeling that permeated the first set.
Once Brown took over, he upped the energy level considerably. He began with a sparse and tasty guitar solo that had his characteristic fluidity and underlying melodic suppleness. The debt to T-Bone Walker was obvious, even though Brown occasionally gave his delivery a harshness that Walker didn’t usually employ. He’s obviously rehearsed the heck out of his sidemen; they riffed behind him with unerring precision, sometimes joining him chord for chord and then settling down into a smooth, vamping groove as he laid his shimmering leads over their accompaniment. His voice, never the strongest in blues, has lost some of its youthful grit, but its slightly muted timbre is appropriate to the sophistication of his music.
It wasn’t long before the show of eclecticism began. In the midst of a moody, slow blues, Brown suddenly shed his guitar strap, grabbed his fiddle, and sawed out a countryish pattern that filled the room with whiffs of Cajun dance music; then he settled into a swinging groove that he maintained for a few more bars. Suddenly, as if nothing had happened, he again picked up the guitar and swung back into the smooth blues patterns with which he’d begun. For most of the rest of the set, Brown stayed with the Walker-influenced Texas style for which he is best known among blues fans; his fleet proficiency fused with the propulsive energy of the band to lend a contemporary high-energy kick to the relaxed swing of the material.
Brown saved his trademark stylistic tour de force for the second set. There had been a few premonitions aside from that use of the fiddle; at one point during the first set, he had put a towel between the body of his guitar and the strings to produce a muffled, almost banjolike sound, plunking out a sparse solo in complete contrast to the mellifluous lines he’d been playing up to then. He had also picked his fiddle like a mandolin at several points, almost transforming it into an entirely new solo instrument.
The second set kicked off in fine, swinging fashion with an adaptation of Sonny Stitt’s well-known “Blues Walk.” The group then lurched into a funky, string-popping blues shuffle that quoted briefly from Percy Mayfield’s “River’s Invitation” and culminated in a high-octane workout on “Sissy Strut.” Having effortlessly traversed a span of over a quarter of a century, from bebop to funk via Mayfield’s California R & B balladry, Brown was prepared to begin his lesson on virtuosity.
The band began by chugging into the well-known “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” bluegrass riff. Brown came soaring and screaming over the top on fiddle, beginning with some mountain-tinged modal harmonies and then kicking into a supercharged series of bluegrass tricks remindful of “Orange Blossom Special,” the quintessential fire-on-the-bow bluegrass jam tune. It all finished with a romp featuring Brown’s furious Cajun-style double stops laid atop some very sweet accompaniment by guitarist Fleming, which Fleming laced with a country sophistication like Chet Atkins’s.
By then the blues had been almost entirely forsaken. Although a few people left muttering, not many in the audience appeared to care; Brown seems to attract a crowd that appreciates eclecticism. He charged on with the war-horse “Battle of New Orleans” and a straight-ahead C & W weeper called “Dark End of the Hallway.” His fiddle wails and moans on “Hallway” were imbued with a vintage country pathos, and he sang with appropriately bathetic grit. Finally, Brown and the band broke into a no-nonsense western-swing instrumental, embellished with some Cajun-style fiddle sawing toward the end but a lot closer to the Texas tradition in which Brown came up.
Only at the end of the night did Brown pick up his guitar again. It was worth the wait; those who left early in despair of hearing any more blues missed a marvelous closer, starting with a funk blues entitled “Dope.” It’s a very hot number–the urgency of Nashville songwriter John Loudermilk’s antidrug lyrics (“Dope is ruinin’ our country / Coke is ruinin’ our minds / Crack is killin’ our people . . .”) is somewhat offset by the good-time exuberance of the melody and the arrangement.
After “Dope” came the finale: a jam on the soul classic “Oh, My Love” that started in a slow grind and then moved into a rub-a-dub reggae bridge and finally brought things back into the original slow groove. Again one was struck by the proficiency of Brown’s melodious guitar work, buttressed by an uncanny harmonic sense and the solid comping of the band. A taste of Basie’s “One O’Clock Jump” finished the evening.
A night in the mercurial musical presence of Gatemouth Brown can be a dizzying experience. That seems to be the way he wants it; he keeps the audience off-balance by popping the unexpected. Inevitably people leave shaking their heads in awe.
Yet to me this results in a lack of cohesion. If Brown really wanted to be true to his self-appointed mission as a teacher, he could easily structure his act to illustrate the connections between the various styles he plays. He could move from country fiddle music and folk blues through string-band novelty numbers and then into the fusion of southern traditions and jazz improvisation that resulted in both western swing and the sophisticated Texas blues of a T-Bone Walker.
A master showman like Brown could combine entertainment and some much-needed musical education. Instead, he opts to showcase his varied talents in apparently random exhibits, with little apparent continuity between them. The result is like gumbo cooked by committee: savory ingredients, plenty of spice, and lots of heat, but vaguely unsatisfying in the final mix.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lauren Deutsch.