Before Bon Jovi, before Billy Joel, even before glasnost, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown took American music behind the Iron Curtain. But unlike the mega-ego, multimillion-dollar, hype-O-rama rock stars who got their pretty-boy mugs plastered all over TV sets from coast to coast, Brown did not rate evening news coverage.
Still, Brown brought his music to the heart of Soviet Russia in 1979. He, his wife, his baby and his band spent six weeks touring the USSR, from the major cities of Moscow and Leningrad, across the Caucasus Mountains, and right up to the edge of the Siberian border.
"We swept Russia all over," he says, noting that the so-called superstars limited themselves to gigs in one or two cities, tops. "Most of these guys are living on ego trips," he says.
Although Brown broke new ground in bringing his Texas interpretations of big-band swing, jazz, blues, funk, Calypso, Cajun and zydeco to the then-Evil Empire, he considers his visit there just another tour.
"To me, it was just like going anyplace else and playing. I knew what I had to do when I got there, and that's what I did, and it went over as well as if I had done it a hundred times before."
Like his visit to Africa in 1976, and his 1989 gigs in Nicaragua and Honduras, Brown's trip was part of a good-will mission sponsored by the U.S. State Department. Brown claims the State Department uses him as a sort of ambassador of American music. "They always choose me," he says. "I don't know why they choose me, but they always do."
Could it be because guitarists like Lee Atwater have made the blues all the rage on Capitol Hill? Whatever the reason, Brown prefers to limit his message-making to music. If anything, the bluesman is antipolitical. "I don't go into that mess, no way," he says. "I'm just an American. I used to be a Democrat."
Perhaps Brown makes such a good spokesman because he's both a competent musician and a humanitarian, albeit one with a peculiar philosophy. He sees himself as an interplanetary ambassador.
"In every continent you go on, people are different; every city you go in, people are different; every town you go in, people are different. They're all different humanoids and a lot of times people even look a little different, depending on the region that they're from. So they're humanoids from that particular planet."
In this world of different worlds, Brown sees it as his duty to share his music. "I consider myself a planetarian that travels all over and does service for these humanoids and tries to understand them more," he says.
But sometimes, Brown admits, other cultures can seem downright foreign. "When I played Kenya, a big soccer field, they had a Zulu tribe do a two-hour ceremony for me. Half-naked broads. That was funny. It was all right. It was strange stuff to me. I'm not used to rituals."
Even if culture, language and location can alienate groups of people, Brown believes music can help bridge the gaps. "They can still communicate with each other if they try," he says. "And music's about the only thing that's helping bring the world together. There's nothing else doing it."
So when Brown visited Nicaragua, he wasn't there on some Republican- instigated fact-finding mission designed to check the flow of communism in Central America. He thought of it as just another place, just another gig, "just another planet I'm playing on," he says.
Judging from Brown's popularity overseas, it's fair to say that the bluesman could teach the government a thing or two about international diplomacy. In 1982, he won the German Record Critics' Poll for the album Alright Again! and during the Seventies, he released nine European albums.
Which isn't to say that the United States has taken him for granted. Brown's won a Grammy for Best Blues Recording (1982's Alright Again!) and three W.C. Handy Awards--Instrumentalist of the Year (1982 and 1986) and Entertainer of the Year (1983).
To Brown, awards are just tokens that represent the varying sway of popular sentiment--except, that is, when he wins them. "I've seen people play bad music and get awards," he says. "It's a little different, 'cuz I earned mine."
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Brown's versatility probably has something to do with all that silver. On his latest album, Standing My Ground, Brown covers vocals, guitar, fiddle, piano and drums on various tracks. Live, he mostly sticks to either fiddle or guitar.
The record's title reflects Brown's hands-on involvement. "I never gave up my ideals in music, and I'm standing my ground," he says. "I never sold myself out to please one person because of what he thought would be right. I said I either sink or swim, that's all. I do what I believe in."
Standing My Ground features Brown playing and singing blues, jazz, zydeco and swing. The album also showcases Brown's cut-loose, Texas-style guitar phrasing. He easily dips down to a slow blues on "I Hate These Doggone Blues," then back to an up-tempo, rolling, Brownsian version of the Chicago standard "Got My Mojo Working." He even goes a little Cajun with "Louisiana Zydeco," adding an accordion and some barbershop quartet-like back-up vocals.
Brown says he can meld so many different styles and still remain proficient in each because he only chooses music he grew up with. "Everything I play is from my roots. I figure music can be [from] roots of all kinds. One root don't hold up no tree, does it?"