What more needs saying about Danny Gatton, that hasn't been aired already? If superlatives alone paid royalties, it goes without saying that Danny would have been the richest six-string slinger on the block. But whether you saw him live, picked up one of his homegrown indie releases, or -- in my case -- willingly gave up two years of my life to write the first biography, Unfinished Business: The Life & Times of Danny Gatton (Backbeat Books: 2003), one thing is certain.
Once you heard or saw Danny work his special brand of magic on the guitar, two things typically happened: first, you never forgot it, and second, you invariably found yourself asking, "Can I hear more?" Twenty-two years after Danny's tragic, untimely death at 49, the interest in his music -- and legacy -- shows no signs of slowing down yet.
Enter Virginia Quesada, an independent filmmaker who's deep into The Humbler, a long-awaited -- and, frankly, long overdue -- full-length documentary exploration of Danny's life and art. It's a project that, once released, is likely to take the appreciation of Danny's "Telemaster" guitar magic to a whole new level, and -- maybe, finally, possibly -- win over another generation of fans who haven't discovered him yet.
Getting there hasn't been easy, naturally. Like many indie artists and filmmakers, Quesada chose an online campaign to ratchet up awareness and funding for her project, which -- as you'll see shortly -- met its goal, which seemed like a good starting point to begin our conversation.
MORE INFO: https://www.thehumblermovie.com/
"WHO'S OUT THERE,
AND WHO LOVES DANNY GATTON?"
VQ: We really wanted a grass roots support. If people just gave a dollar, $5, whatever. That's how Obama built his campaign. And we're getting people from all over the world. I mean, that's always been the case, as we expanded into our social media. That's the whole thing: who's out there, and who loves Danny Gatton? You just find people all over the world: instrumentalists, you know.
CR: Of course. Well, tell me some of the countries that have been weighing in, then.
VQ: Well, I mean, the obvious one, the core is the United States, you know?
CR: Of course.
VQ: And so, Number Two would probably be the UK. Then you're pretty much looking at Europe. And, depending on the day, it could be France, or Germany, or Finland, or Belgium. Italy has a lot of supporters, and you do find people in Japan. But then, you also find people in Mexico. Yeah, I mean, I was surprised: it was like, “Wow!”
I mean, he did do a couple of tours overseas. As we know, there was a certain reluctance to travel.
CR: To travel widely, yeah.
VQ: Yes, to travel widely. I mean, he did travel, and he gave it a shot. But he got, as Norma [Gatton] would say, “road fried.” He just didn't like it. He liked being home, with his friends, his family, and his hobbies, you know. Who can blame him? Because, in a lot of ways, he was a regular guy with enormous talent, you know?
I mean, we do have an interesting audience for music (in Washington, D.C.). People enjoy playing here. They sense that we have good ears, and are very attentive, and that kind of thing.
There's a lot of discussion. It's like, “Well, there must be something in the water. Look at all these guitarists that came out of the mid-Atlantic (region): you've got Danny Gatton, Roy Buchanan, Link Wray, and...” Some people I've met, in the process of doing this project, say: “My favorite guitarists are always from this D.C. region.”
What is that, you know? So I don't know. Maybe there is something in the water. But it isn't necessarily a great place to launch a career. It doesn't have the recording studios.
CR: It doesn't have the recording studios, and of course, there's, really, just basically a handful of clubs now, right?
VQ: That's the sad thing, and that's an undercurrent I've been sort of interested in. Going through these old Unicorn Times – there was even a rag called Maryland Musician. There was enough stuff, that they had a magazine just for Maryland musicians. And every night, there was like, a million clubs! You could work six days a week, and ironically, you almost get paid the same today, that you got back then (laughs).
CR: Yup, that's right.
VQ: It's pretty sad. And the club owners are doing even less to promote, expecting you to bring the crowd... It's tough. I find it really sad, because live music is sort of, a big source of joy in my life.
"HE WAS SO SPECTACULAR AS AN ARTIST"
CR: So, take me back a little bit, then. How did this particular journey toward this documentary begin for you?
VQ: In 1989, I formed a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization called Video Culture, Inc. The whole purpose of that was so that we could do portraits about artists. The mission of the organization is musical art awareness, so that we could do these profiles.
And we started with one profile, it was called “Maryland Musicians,” or something like that. We were looking at Danny Gatton, Mary Chapin-Carpenter, and Buck Hill. Danny, though, I just so enamored with, because he was so spectacular as an artist. So we shot four cameras at the Flood Zone, in Richmond, VA. We went down there all day, set up the lights, and set up the sound system.
When you put a microphone in, it went to three places. It went to the board PA, the house PA, the band PA, and up to a 24-track recording studio. So they (the management) said to me, “Well, Virginia, would you like to roll some 24-track?” We were, as always, on a shoestring budget, but we said, “Sure, why not?”
So, I have about half of this night with 24-track – and then, the four cameras, very nicely lit. And it is a lot of the core of our documentary. We have been blessed with a lot of people giving us original recordings of Danny they have taken over the years. We also went down to Newburg, MD, to his farm.
VQ: Everybody wanted to go, so we had two cameras, two video cameras, and still photographers, and we spent all day there, did a very extensive interview with him. He did thank me, and said this was one of the best interviews that he'd ever done in his life, 'cause we hit more than just the superficial stuff.
That, again, is a core element to the documentary. When we lost him, we were like, “Well, what are we gonna do?” What we ended up doing is then starting to interview those people who knew him.
"WE HAVE A LOT OF INTERVIEWS"
CR: What is it going to take, money-wise, to get this done? And about how far along are you?
VQ: Well, we're pretty far along in principal photography. We have a lot of interviews. Doing documentaries is something I do for a living, either as a producer, or an editor. And you can only have so many characters in the story. It gets confusing.
CR: And crowded.
VQ: Yeah, and crowded, so there will probably be some folks that won't make it. Or, we're working hard with these DVD extras, they could maybe go on that. And social media's another outlet for a lot of stories that might be too long for a documentary, but would be lovely for real diehard fans who wanna hear a story.
To musicians, the amount of money we have – $36,000 – is like a fortune, right? Now, we were fortunate enough to have Guitar Player and Guitar World saying, “Well, they're asking for a lot, $36,000.” That's because you wanna get a goal that's reachable, okay?
"HE'S JUST ABOUT TO POP"
VQ: This would give us enough to finish the shooting, finish the editing. We will still need money for additional licensing. This is a cross to bear, for any of these projects – music licensing money has gotten bigger and bigger and bigger, and harder and harder, even as we make the case, “We are a nonprofit, it's not a big commercial thing...”
But a lot of the strategy that people do is that you get it to that certain point – when we get that rough cut done, the editing – then you can maybe use that to generate a little bit more money, (or) maybe (seek) an investor.
One of my favorites is 88 Elmira St, because that's what I learned first. I just played it to death, played it to death, over and over and over. And then, after we lost him, we decided to do a whole piece on Danny. One of the pieces we'd licensed is Jim Hall's “Redneck Jazz Explosion,” with them wearing the red shirts.
And I'm looking at Danny playing “Orange Blossom Special,” and I'm going, “What? What?” (laughs) It knocked my socks off. Not that it was any less of 88 Elmira St, but it was just a whole other side of him, hearing some of the banjo licks, and stuff. Actually, people have given me stuff with him playing banjo, some stuff with him playing mandolin – some of that early work.
One person said it to me – that Danny before the accident, and after the accident, was almost like two different players. I can sort of see what he means, because there was this sort of, youthful spontaneity kind of thing, before the accident. But then, after the accident – he still had as much soul, but his technique had evolved even more and more. So that was also fantastic. And I think his jazz stuff got more spectacular.
When I came on (to start the documentary), it was like, “This guy is so great, he's just about to pop” – then you read these articles from the '70s, and they're saying, “This guy's so great, he's just about to pop (laughs).” You kept hearing that for years: “He's just about to make it, this is it!”
There's something a little sad about that. But then, there's also reasons why that (wider success never) happened. He seemed to have a little ambivalence about it. To be a really successful musician, in terms of business, you have to really be good at self-promotion. And that just wasn't his thing.
CR: No. Personally, I would agree with Joe Barden, who said that part of the issue was, Danny preferred to have a buddy running interference, but needed somebody that was maybe a little better connected, in the framework of the business, who could have theoretically performed that same function.
VQ: Right. No, he says in the interview, “I don't play with that many different guys. For me, it's important to play with people I have some rapport with, like family. And that's why I've played with the same old guys so long.” He really wasn't comfortable to be in a band with nobody he didn't know. And I think that's true.
I remember talking to Joe. And he said something to the extent, when they were both hitting in '89 – the pickup business was going well, and Danny was getting all this press – and Joe and Danny looked at each other: “Well, are you ready for this? Do you want this?” And both of them were kind of like: “No, not really” (laughs).
CR: Right. On the flipside, were there any misconceptions or popular notions about Danny that you think this particular film will demolish? And if so, what might they be?
VQ: Well, I don't think so. I mean, we really see this as a celebration of the man, and the music. As you know, there's some sad parts of the story we're not gonna really dwell on too much. We don't wanna see the suicide as the defining moment, or issues with depression. I mean, clearly, there had to be some kind of depression to cause him to feel like the world would be better off without him.
"HE WAS A BOTTOMLESS PIT OF INVENTION"
VQ: He was such a generous and well-loved man. He had such great talent, and he was a bottomless pit of invention. So we're really gonna focus more on that – I can't think of too many things that aren't well-known, but in some ways, I think the intimacy is what we can bring to it, that people haven't seen elsewhere, in terms of Danny telling his own story, and hearing it more from him.
He was always doing something, but maybe he needed to get away from the music sometimes. And he did. As Norma said, “The cars and guitars, those two did compete with each other.”
CR: Yes, and I had people tell me that, too.
VQ: We did interview Jay Monterose, and Jay was always saying, “That time in between – after the accident – Danny says that was the happiest time of his life, when he could just work on the cars.” And Jan said, “If you wanna do that, that's fine. I'm behind you doing that.” But he couldn't quite let the music go. He had such a gift. If he heard it, he could play it. He could take any piece of music that entered his muse, and send it out through his fingers.
And not that he didn't appreciate it, and not that he didn't work very, very hard in those early years to really develop those skills – he had so many different interests, with the cars and guitars. He also was interested in American Indian archeology. That was something he really liked. He just loved antiques, and things like that, animals.
VQ: So he was a complicated man, in that way.
CR: Very much so. So, if we're gonna try to this into a neat little bow...
VQ: Oh, no (laughs).
CR: What is the reason we should continue to remember Danny, celebrate his music, and look to him as an important influence among guitar players?
VQ: Well, I think the title of the movie kind of helps explain it. He got the nickname, “The Humbler,” because his mastery of all the American genres of music – blues, jazz, country, rockabilly, rhythm and blues, rock, you name it – was so impressive, that other guitarists nicknamed him, or called him, “The Humbler.” Amos Garrett gets credit for the actual...
VQ: Nickname. But, in some ways, it just really stuck. He may have shared “The World's Greatest Unknown Guitarist” with Roy Buchanan. He got it after Roy passed. But “The Humbler” is his. So he is an American treasure, because he's an American master guitarist. He really takes all those genres of music, and is able to play all those so authentically. It's pretty awesome.
So I think, in some ways, when you celebrate Danny Gatton, you're celebrating American music. And that really is what he really excelled (at) – I mean, he was an all-American guy, you know. American cars, American guitars, Fender amps, you know...
"AMERICAN MUSIC...AND IT'S MINE"
CR: And it goes back to that song on that first Fat Boys album: “American music, and it's mine.”
VQ: Right, exactly. When we went down and shot him in the Flood Zone, there were a couple of guys in the audience, holding up the album cover.
VQ: Did you see that story that we did with Jack Casady? Well, Jack and Danny grew up here – and he (Casady) has a great story, where Danny's bass player was sick, right? He needed a bass player, so he was asking. And at that time, Jack, like everybody else, started as a guitarist.
CR: Right. VQ: So he called up Jack: “Do you know any bass players?” And Jack is (saying), “I don't know.” And he says, “Well, why don't you play the bass, Jack?” And Jack says to Danny, “I don't play bass!”
And Danny says, “Well, how hard can it be? It's only got four strings!” So he (Casady) did that gig, and really got to like the bass, and so, the rest is history. He just moved on to being a bass player. We'll be lucky to break even. This was a labor of love.
VQ: And I hope folks understand that. It's something that we've done for a long time – but it's good, and it'll be good to get it done. I'm looking forward to it. And it is fun. You start to meet people, like you, you know? – and get to have this conversation, and that's fun.
CR: Yeah, exactly. And I've had the same experience on the other end, too, so...
VQ: Okay, well, thank you for your time, thank you for your book, and it was a pleasure talking to you.
CR: Indeed. Thank you for your time, and all the effort and hard work that you've put in.
VQ: Okay, thanks.