This 9/19/04 interview with James Hettinger occurred during my initial round of promoting UNIFINSHED BUSINESS, drumming up whatever interest I saw. As I recall, Jim contacted me on the basis of quoting his own '94 interview with "The Master Blaster of the Telecaster" in my book...and had a few more followup questions to ask, to fit into a bigger Gatton piece that he was doing.
For various boring reasons -- mainly, space and time constraints -- my comments never saw the light of day. This happens a lot in journalism, so that development didn't exactly faze me. (I believe that the story did run, but I've never seen a copy.) However, I enjoyed the interview experience so much, so, without further ado....here are the highlights of our conversation, excerpted from my archives.
MARYLAND INDEPENDENT (MI) I: How did you get interested in Danny Gatton, and doing this book about him?
CHAIRMAN RALPH (CR): Obviously, I was aware of his death, because ROLLING STONE did an obit – but it really got me thinking, because I play guitar. I thought, "Well, how did I miss this guy?" The thought just sort of stayed filed away for the next four years. Then I saw that "Titans Of The Tele" issue [in GUITAR PLAYER]. Of course, Danny was given prominent space in it.
From there, I got the idea to do an article for VINTAGE GUITAR. Once I spent major amounts of time on the phone, with some of the people in his life – like Jay Monterose, John Previti, Dave Elliott, and Ed Eastridge, of course – that's when I realized there was a story. And I was really moved by it.
To me, it was like a roots version of "Citizen Kane.” Like the people in that movie, I found myself asking, "OK, who was this guy? What did he do, and why does he matter?" That's where the momentum mushroomed into doing a book. I know that nobody was really doing anything. And it just seemed like the time was basically right.
MI: I guess there's a couple different stories to it. There's the story of his playing: what did you find interesting, or special? That's the one thing that everyone talks about, but I think there's got to be something more than that.
CR: Well, to start from the technical side – everybody talks about Danny's ability to play fast. What they often don't talk about is his execution. Many a guitar player tends to slur all their notes, slur through their phrasings – but if you listen to his stuff, you can hear every note he played. That makes him really unique, right off the bat. But what really made it interesting, from my standpoint, is the wild eclecticism of his music.
I mean, obviously, when you talk about Danny Gatton, country and jazz were the mainsprings of his musical style, no question about that. But if you listen to something like that live medley [off the PORTRAITS compilation] – from "Orange Blossom Special," to bluegrass fast-picking stuff, to "Linus & Lucy” – there aren't too many people in his realm so fearless about mixing up styles and genres. That's one reason why a lot of people go back to his music. And you don't need to be a hot licks player to appreciate it. As a listener, you can find something different every time that you didn't hear before. To me, that's the measurement of a great artist.
MI: He did have that approach, where he would just latch on to anything. I know that [version of] "Ode To BIlly Joe" [from REDNECK JAZZ] is not anybody's idea of a jazz standard, but he takes it and kind of runs with it. To me, that was what made him sort of fun to listen to. You never knew what was going to come next.
CR: Sure. You may the recall the interview I quoted in the book, around the Elektra era: “If you can't play something that you didn't play before, that's not progressing.” That comment is as good a summary of his approach, as any. A lot of people would just settle: "That will do, that's fine." But, as you know, Danny was not that way at all. He was reaching for something new and different every time. Hence, some of the frustration, when he didn't get it.
MI: You wonder how much that all plays in. I know you get into this in the book – that unwillingness to compromise maybe did sort of hurt him commercially?
CR: When you sign to a major label, as I point out in the book, there are definite expectations. If somebody signs to a major, they're looking to sell a certain number of records. They're looking for you to do certain things that will sell that number of records. But deep down, Danny had a certain line he was not willing to cross, in terms of his artistry. And that would have been difficult to bridge, anyway. Quite aside from that issue – big-time music, by and large, is not friendly to instrumentalists...I mean, instrumental music hasn't been on the radio since, what, the Ventures?
MI: Yeah. Really, there was that era, but it was way back then. There aren't any instrumental guitar hits these days. Do you think he was afraid of being a success, or didn't want to grab it that hard?
CR: There is some evidence to support that. The most obvious example is the REDNECK JAZZ situation. He's got a hot band, they're making it up and down the [East] Coast, at least. Then he hurts his hand – and that effectively takes him out of circulation, just at a point where they could maybe have really done something.
The other problem was, he didn't really like to tour. He preferred to play locally, where he thought people appreciated him more...and, presumably, where he could be closer to his family. Obviously – if you don't adopt that [touring] lifestyle, it's going to make it a lot harder for people to see you.
But, as we know, he didn't really get into the session musician world, either –as his daughter [Holly] said, he really hated people telling him what to play. And many of those situations, from what I was able to research, were not that satisfying for him. So, in that sense, he really did fall between two chairs.
MI: I remember that day I chatted with him. I'd read in the Washington Post that he'd had a chance to play with John Fogerty, doing one of his comebacks. I said, "C'mon, how could you lose John Fogerty's number?" [Danny said:] "I didn't lose it, I was busy working on my hot rods here, and I just didn't want to do it." That just floored me, because when I was growing up, Creedence [Clearwater Revival] was the hottest band in the world. How could you walk away from a gift, to play with John Fogerty? I guess he didn't see it that way. It was another sideman gig.
CR: Yeah, that was probably part of it. That interview you did was really interesting, because it's a good window into his state of mind at that time, I think...
MI: I hope it is. I've wondered about that over the years. I mean, it's kind of ironic. The whole tone of that [2/94 interview] was how content he was, and that was about eight months before he killed himself. He couldn't have been all that content. But it was, I think, an accurate reflection of the hour I spent talking to him.
I mean, I'd read a bunch of those stories about "The Great Unknown Guitar Player"; I just wondered if he saw himself that way – this guy who hadn't quite made it. As he told me, it didn't seem like that was a big thing nagging at him. He did seem pretty happy, at that point. I'll never forget: I'd actually left the paper, at that point, when somebody called, and told me [of his death]. I was kind of stunned.
CR: If you look back over the years, it's obvious he had some frustrations and heartaches that plagued him from time to time – there's always this "push-pull" [effect in his life]. He gets this Redneck Jazz band together...hurts his hand...then goes back to working on cars and playing in tiny little dives. Eventually, he gets himself back in circulation, gets tired of it – goes back to working on cars. The quote by Shannon Ford is indicative of that [situation]: "We were always frustrated in dealing with the fact that this passions were so divided."
MI: I'm sure that people did feel that way. How do you look at him now? It's a tragedy whenever anybody ends their own life. Is it just a puzzle we'll never really understand – why he killed himself, why he never became as big as he should have been?
CR: Well, as far as his level of acceptance, I think it's relatively clear why he didn't get there. And I outlined those reasons in the book. As far as the personal side, I'm not sure we'll ever know what went on that particular day. As his daughter said, he was making more money locally than he'd ever made before – he wasn't having to go out and work every weekend, or every week, like in the past. So, from that level, he should have been fixed [financially]. Though when we talk about the physical problems that are mentioned [in the book] – if he couldn't have continued to play – in his mind, that would have been the end of life itself.
Regardless how his life ended, it was an extraordinary life. It's pretty clear: he touched everybody on a certain level, whether they were fellow guitar players, fellow guitar enthusiasts, or what have you. As [keyboardist] BIll Holloman mentions, there was always this collection of characters in the dressing room after the gigs – I mean, you've got to have something pretty special, in order to do that.
MI: Yeah. Even though he was not a natural frontman, and not the kind of guy to joke around up onstage, he did have a certain charisma to him. And maybe part of it was just from having this incredible talent.
CR: And when you look at him in those videotapes, what really is impressive is how powerful that charisma is. He doesn't jump around. He doesn't talk to the audience that much. He basically just closes his eyes, and plays. In this culture, where everything is slam-bang, and [about] “noise, noise, noise” – maybe that was something that people found refreshing, on a certain level.
MI: Yeah, I think that might be part of it. He was just into the music, not the showmanship aspects of it...or the business side of the music business.
CR: Look at all those people in the Top 10 or 20 today – the music almost seems to be an afterthought. Danny was unique in his stubbornness; for him, it was obvious. The music was everything. Now, whether it would have been the only ingredient needed to take it to something bigger – obviously, there was an issue. But when I researched and talked to everybody, that was one thing I came to really respect. He didn't leave his artistry by the wayside. That takes a certain amount of stubbornness, bloody-mindedness and guts to do, because this culture is always going to point you in the opposite direction. Take it from me, I know!
MI: Yeah, I guess that is kind of a sad thing. The reason I got the idea to do this – I saw this latest Funhouse record that's coming out. That's a wonderful CD. You know, the albums that came out in his lifetime were "here and there," and on small labels....
CR: They were basically homegrown indie productions, for the most part.
MI: Yeah. I don't think Stevie Ray Vaughan has to worry about his legacy fading away; something's gonna be in print on big labels. Where will Danny Gatton's music be 10 years from now?
CR: The legacy basically is going to be a roots musician who was a fearless improviser, but also, a resolute melodic constructor. And people are going to look at him certainly as a template for how to do those type of things – being able to take chances, and making them pay off. For the average listener, it's just going to be something they can take pleasure in. When they stick that CD back in the player, they're going to get something different than they got last time. How many big-time artists can you say that about today, truthfully?
MI: Right. Yeah, that is true...
CR: Danny's not only going to be looked at as an instrumental interpreter, but somebody that took the template of roots music, country, and jazz, and just put it together in a way that made sense to him. Nobody is ever going to play like him, let alone match the virtuosity that he had – but if it encourages people to take a few more chances [than usual], that's a pretty good legacy to build on right there, for anybody. That was one thing I wanted to get across – that it's still possible to stumble across something, and be absolutely thrilled by what you find.
MI: Do you have a hard time convincing people that he was good as he was, if they're not familiar with him? That's what I've come across in trying to tell people, [that] he really was as good as Eric Clapton, Duane Allman, whoever you want to name. They have a hard time accepting that: "If he was so good, how come I never heard of him?"
CR: Funnily enough, I've sold quite a few copies around here where I live – just by explaining the story, and not getting into so many of the comparisons. It works better if you try to tell people: "Well, here is a guy that was humble and talented in his own way, but just never quite got all the breaks he really needed." People can empathize with it, from that angle. As far as the genre-hopping – "He was good as this guy, or that" – everybody's got their own likes and dislikes, anyway.
MI: But it seems like you did a real good job. Honestly, I've not read the whole thing, but I've been skimming it. I bought it long ago. I'm impressed by the manner of detail, the number of people that you talked to, and it does give a good picture of what these various scenes here were like, which is impressive...because you weren't really here for that, you know?
CR: No, but I'm a musician myself. I've had some of those same struggles, too – how do you get heard? That's the bottom line, you know; how do you reach the people you're trying to reach? And are you sure, once you've played, that you've gotten across what you wanted to get across?
That's why I subtitled it THE LIFE + TIMES OF DANNY GATTON – because he spanned four decades...'60s, '70s, '80s, '90s...and, if you think about it, he was always a man out of time in each one, the most obvious example being the years with Bobby Charles. We've got the height of the counterculture, and here he is putting on tuxedos, playing supper clubs for money.
MI: Looking back, was there one thing where you got to thinking, "Man, if he'd just caught that one break, everything would have been different?"
CR: Obviously, if the Fat Boys hadn't broken up at a certain point, because that was a band that made a lot of noise around the area, and people still speak of reverently, OK? If the Redneck Jazz Explosion had kept working, gotten beyond the East Coast – that's another obvious example. You can find almost one or two examples like in that each decade, probably...of course, if he'd called John Fogerty back, and played with his band...who knows, that could have opened up some doors for him.
MI: Yeah, you wonder about that. Fogerty does an album like, once every 10 years, I guess (laughs), but would that have opened [Gatton] to getting a job with another band, or getting session work, or something [else]?
CR: If he'd gone to Europe, he might have actually done pretty well there, too. Because that's a place that always appreciates an eclectic artist like Danny Gatton, more so – arguably – than we do here at home...
MI: Yeah. Jazz musicians can make it big in Europe, but are not really very well-known here...
CR: When I was talking to Brooks Tegler – he puts together these all-star jazz big bands, and tours Japan – he made the comment, "If Danny had gotten to Japan, he would have probably liked it enough, he might never have wanted to come home." This is a country that puts out 10-CD boxed sets by Hank Williams – they can't get enough of that stuff. If he'd done something like that [tour overseas], perhaps it could have counterbalanced whatever he wasn't able to do here, commercially speaking...or, if Lowell George hadn't died...
MI: Yeah, that was another one I was going to bring up. In the book, there was some debate about whether that really was a firm offer to join the band, or just to come and sit in with them for one day, or whatever.
CR: Well, you see people going down on both sides of the question, although it's clear that [bassist] Steve Wolf felt there was something going on, because Danny told him. Now, whether this is something that Danny believed, or was really going on, we'll never know...both those guys [Danny, Lowell] are no longer here. But it certainly would have made sense, because you had two guys that shared a lot of the same roots, but also, the same tendencies. As you know, Lowell was well-known as a perfectionist, too. Now, whether you could have had two perfectionists in the same band, I don't know...
MI: That would have been interesting, though, certainly, to see what they came up with. You just kind of wonder – I guess it is just a bunch of missed opportunities. How much was bad luck, how much of it was just, not going hard enough at the stuff?
CR: As I say in the book – one of the horrible things that any musician has to accept is just how much is outside your control. Because you can work hard, but if something doesn't fall together in a certain way, you can still be left out in the cold. That's why it's such a hard life, at a certain level. If you don't catch the trend, if your record doesn't get played, if the company lets you down – there's just so many variables that can go wrong. It takes a strong person to persevere through it. Publishing is sort of like that, too!
MI: I guess that's true, in some ways – you've got this book, and now you can retire [laughs]?
CR: Not quite, but I've been working it pretty hard, as you can imagine. The [11/07/03 ] appearance in D.C. [at Olsson's Books & Records] – that was [suggested by] a gentleman named Charlie D. Young, a sales rep for Simon & Schuster. He said, "This might be worth your time and trouble." And it was. That was my favorite one [appearance], for sure. That was the best-attended, we had the best crowd, and people asked really intelligent questions, you know?
MI: Yeah, I think you've done a good job with that. Well, I think I've taken up enough of your time. Unfortunately, our paper's not on the Internet, but I could send you a copy of the story when it comes out.
CR: OK, yeah, I'd love to see what you do, that'd be fascinating.
Danny Gatton Corner
A WORD FROM THE MANAGEMENT: Now posted, from the previous incarnation of this website: "54 Hours In D.C." (below). To view older entries, just hit the "Archive" button, followed by the relevant headline link on each entry.
'HE WAS JUST INTO THE MUSIC": UNRELEASED MD INDEPENDENT INTERVIEW (9/19/04)