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Being on the road is no picnic. For most musicians, the biggest headache is wondering what's going on back home. Has Ma Bell finally shut off the phone? Is the steady gig drying up? Is there some reason your girlfriend is never around when you call? Spouses and parents fret over their families' welfare.
Danny Gatton's road woes are just beginning. About to embark on his first-ever cross-country tour as a headliner, Gatton isn't too concerned about leaving his wife, Jan, and teenage daughter, Holly Ann, alone on the family farm in southern Maryland's Charles County. He's got a secret weapon.
"We have a lot of guard dogs and a watch turkey," Gatton says lightheartedly. "This turkey is so ugly that people are scared to come up and knock on the door, cause this beast stands out there and snarls at them. . . . Then there's peacocks and geese. I mean, you come up to my house and everything starts hissing and barking and all you want to do is leave."
Like his turkey, Gatton has scared a few people away. In the past ten years, A&R reps, management companies, entertainment lawyers and other miscellaneous music slime have all judged Gatton to be an immensely gifted guitar player with little or no commercial potential. The fact that he's refused to make any stylistic concessions or go on tour proved that they were right. When he let priceless publicity--like being named Rolling Stone's "Hot Guitarist" of 1989--go to waste, music-business insiders just nodded and smiled. Over time, the book on Gatton (one he now admits is basically true) was that he just didn't want it. He was satisfied being a big fish in a small pond.
Part of the problem is his age.
At 47, Gatton is set in his ways. He's immune to the kind of rock-star fantasies that obsess younger people. He doesn't care what musical fad is the latest rage. He's not interested in groupies. He hates touring. Although he knows about bands like Nirvana and Arrested Development, he doesn't listen. Plus, he's incapable of settling into any one genre, preferring instead to fill live sets and the occasional album with excursions into jazz, blues, rockabilly and country.
But there comes a time, even for a hardhead like Gatton, when things like health insurance and college tuition become a driving force. That and the sinking feeling that maybe you paid a lot of dues for nothing.
Gatton is now pondering the leap from local hero to national act. The boundaries of his kingdom, formerly defined by the D.C. beltway, are about to expand to include places like California and Arizona. And more than killer turkeys or recording contracts, the prospect of fame is scaring Danny Gatton.
@body:The stinging sound of a Telecaster rings in the background as the manager of the Birchmere, a club in Alexandria, Virginia, announces that Gatton is doing a sound check and can't come to the phone.
"He doesn't like to be disturbed," the manager snarls. After several attempts to end the call, he relents and summons Gatton, who is initially as icy as the club owner.
"Whether I've been financially successful or not, I've always played what I want to," Gatton says defensively, heading off the most obvious questions. "I've been uncompromising. I never followed a trend. I've never gone where everybody else went, because I'm not interested. People ask me what contemporary guitar players I'm influenced by, and I'm not influenced by any of em. Most of the guys I like are dead.
"There's a lot of plastic in what a lot of young guitar players do," Gatton growls. "If people would sit down, shut up and listen to something like my new record, and groove on each tune for what it is, they'd go away happy."
If anyone has a right to ask people to listen, it's Danny Gatton. When it comes to the guitar, he's a genuine virtuoso. A prodigy who used the address of his boyhood home--88 Elmira Street--as the title of his first major-label album, Gatton has been entranced by music practically since birth. In a recent Washington Post profile of Gatton, his mother, Norma, recalled that when her son was age 2, he would sit for hours and listen to a 78 of Harry James' "Flight of the Bumblebee." That same winged speed is one of the elements that defines Gatton's guitar style. Danny Gatton is the kind of guitar player that other guitar players will pay to see. He's got the whole package: speed, imagination, an idiosyncratic, finger-and-pick style and an unmistakable tone. He also has a collector's passion for vintage guitars and music. The only problem has been finding a focused, marketable concept, a vehicle for his gifts.
Gatton's recording history illustrates his schizophrenic career. In 1975, Gatton and his band, the Fat Boys, made their first record, a straightahead blues-rock outing called American Music. It drew a breath and promptly died. Next, Gatton made two jazz/rock-fusion records for NRG Records, a label his mother formed to release her son's albums. Although prized by collectors and diehard fans, neither album made a whimper. Until now, Gatton's strong suit has been his live shows. Unlike recordings, live shows tend to benefit from players who can mix it up. Knocked out by the firepower of his live act, Elektra signed Gatton in 1991 and promptly released 88 Elmira Street. Nominated for a Grammy, the reverb-drenched album edged Gatton's career onto a faster track. But he refused to put the pedal to the metal. After a short tour of the Northeast, Gatton returned to D.C.-area clubs like the Birchmere.