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Two years later, in April 1993, Elektra released Gatton's second album, Cruisin' Deuces. Another wildly eclectic mix of songs and styles, the album is anchored by Gatton's guitar and the singing and playing of his increasingly accomplished band. The material ranges from the bluegrass standard "A Satisfied Mind" to Buddy Holly's hit "It Doesn't Matter Anymore" to a little-known instrumental gem called "Harlem Nocturne."
According to Gatton, Cruisin' Deuces has already sold enough to pay for itself several times over. Certain cuts have even made it onto radio, the first time in Gatton's 30-year career that's occurred. Here in the Valley, beatless KZON-FM has uncharacteristically been banging away at the album's rockin' "Sun Medley," which combines Elvis' hits "Mystery Train," "My Baby Left Me" and "That's All Right."
The album also benefits from two name guest stars, Rodney Crowell and Delbert McClinton, the latter providing the pipes on "Sun Medley." When I mention KZON, Gatton is intrigued. Of all the tunes on Cruisin' Deuces, "Sun Medley" is a surprising airplay candidate, he says.
"Last week, I was riding home late at night, turned on the radio and I heard, I forget the call letters, but it was a station in Ohio and they were playing Elvis' version of 'Mystery Train.' I said, 'Damn, ain't that the story of my life? They're goin' to put that out and kill me.'"
Not exactly. The only way Cruisin' Deuces will die is if Gatton kills it. So far, though, he's been compassionate.
"It's time. I admit it. I need to take a shot at it for me and for my family's sake."
Another sign he's thinking in larger terms is his willingness to discuss the recording process. Gatton casually recounts in detail the struggles that shaped Cruisin' Deuces--how the album was a tug of war between the tunes he liked and the ones the record label wanted. Most surprising, he reveals that not everything on the album is new. The rhythm track for "Sun Medley," for example, was laid down four years ago.
The album's title refers to Gatton's other obsession: classic cars. He owns six classics: a 1932 Ford coupe, a 1934 Ford panel truck, a 1934 Ford one-and-a-half-ton pickup, a 1956 Ford Crown Victoria and 1932 and 1934 Ford sedans. Last year, Gatton used some of the money he received from the record deal to build a 12-car garage.
Unfortunately, his love of gearboxes and crankshafts has nearly derailed his music. Last summer, a disk flew off a belt sander and struck him in the eye. His doctor told him he nearly lost his sight. As it was, he couldn't see the guitar neck for more than a month.
To win a larger audience, Gatton knows he must park his love of history, both automotive and musical. But riding across the country in a new van will be cake compared to updating his music. The antithesis of the Yngwie Malmsteen/Eric Johnson/Joe Satriani school of modern guitar wanking, Gatton is the spiritual descendant of guitarists like Elvis alums Scotty Moore and James Burton. Again, although he can rattle off the names of what's popular, he says the only new music he really listens to these days is country music. And he has problems with that, too.
"Country music isn't really country anymore," he says. "People who listen to country used to listen to rock n' roll. Rap and all that killed rock n' roll for middle-aged Americans. There's nothing left for them but the oldies stations, and they get sick of listening to 'It's My Party' every day. I know I do."
Gatton says he hopes to record a modern country-rock album next year. The material for it is already written. Gatton was first bitten by the country bug while working as a sideman for Roger Miller, one of only two such stints for Gatton. The other was a year he spent with neorockabilly singer Robert Gordon. Recently, though, Gatton was brought in to finish the guitar work on Chris Isaak's latest album, San Francisco Days. Although he's not fond of the idea of being in Isaak's band, Gatton says he couldn't resist the plum gig.
It was on one of Gatton's tours with Roger Miller that he made his only other tour stop in Arizona.
"We played in Sun City at this gorgeous theatre, and they had the dB meter on us," he says. "If we went over three dBs, they'd turn us off. The amps were lit up, but there was nothing coming out."
When the conversation returns to the subject of touring, Gatton's tone gets cranky again. He's clearly ambivalent about this whole fame-and-fortune trip. While he's not looking forward to being on the road, he knows this is how success in the music business happens.
He is asked whether wide commercial success is inevitable.
"Well, it hasn't come yet," he shoots back.
"But it's creepin' up."
"So's my age."
The other thing that's creepin' is Gatton's front lawn.
"Man, I got grass to cut. My house is gonna look like a Tarzan movie by the time I get back.