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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.
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.