Louisiana-born, Texas-raised multi-instrumentalist Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown has been dishing up his unique blend of blues, R&B, country, jazz, and Cajun music for more than 50 years. A virtuoso on guitar, violin, harmonica, mandolin, viola, and even drums, Gatemouth has influenced performers as diverse as Albert Collins, Frank Zappa, Lonnie Brooks, Eric Clapton, and Joe Louis Walker.
For his new album, Back to Bogalusa (Blue Thumb Records), the 77-year-old presents nearly an hour's worth of music spread over 13 tracks. While Gate explored the sounds of the Lone Star State on his last release, the appropriately titled American Music, Texas Style, with Back to Bogalusa he takes us back across the state line to his beloved Louisiana.
"Gate's last two albums emphasized the big band, Texas swing side of his music," says co-producer (and Gatemouth's manager) Jim Bateman. "This time we were more song oriented with an emphasis on a Louisiana and Southern feel."
For the Back to Bogalusa sessions, Brown used his regular band of Harold Floyd-bass, Joe Krown-keyboards, David Peters-drums, and Eric Demmer-sax, augmented by Mike Loudermilk on electric and acoustic guitar and an additional horn section. Some of Gate's Louisiana neighbors-slide guitarist Sonny Landreth and Cajun accordion champ Zachary Richard-are featured guests on several songs.
Central to the Louisiana theme are the tracks "It All Comes Back" and "Why Are People Like That," composed by Louisiana songsmith Bobby Charles, whose credits go all the way back to "See You Later Alligator" in the 1950s. "Bobby's always been one of my favorite writers," Gatemouth says.
Brown also reaches back into the past for a string of Bayou-flavored tunes. "Breaux Bridge Rag" and "Louisian'" (both with Zachary Richard), "Bogalusa Boogie Man," "Folks Back Home," and "Dixie Chicken" (with Gatemouth and Landreth trading guitar solos) are new versions of tunes Gate first cut in the mid-'70s for the Europe-only Barclay releases. Brown, who rarely plays anything the same way twice, has completely reworked all five tunes. The late Lowell George, who composed "Dixie Chicken," once said that he liked Gate's take on the song even better than his own with Little Feat.
Other songs on Back to Bogalusa include a pair of band instrumentals-"Grape Jelly" and "Slap It"-along with Don Nix's "Same Old Blues," the Delbert McClinton tune "Lie No Better," and Gate's own "Dangerous Critter"-a tune about livin' above an alligator on a waterway that his neighbors call Gate's canal. "I'm built right up over the water, and I can fish off the back of my deck. The gator don't bother me. If I leave him alone, he leaves me alone," he says.
Despite big-jawed reptiles, Brown maintains that Louisiana is one of the few places left in America where people and nature co-exist comfortably. "I'm only 32 miles from New Orleans, but it's another world out here. I think we've got some music on this album that will let people know what it's like in the bayou," he adds.
Brown was born in Vinton, Louisiana, and raised not far from the Gulf Coast in Orange, Texas. He learned guitar and fiddle from his father who played and sang the tunes of the region, including French traditional songs and even German polkas. He reminds us that: "Everybody played music in those days."
He began working professionally as a drummer during World War II. After a stint in the U.S. Army, Gatemouth made his debut as a guitarist in 1947 by simply walking on stage at Don Robey's famed Peacock Club in Houston and picking up an electric Gibson guitar that an ailing T-Bone Walker had put down mid-show. Gate so wowed the audience, playing his own "Gatemouth Boogie," that within a few minutes he had been showered with $600 in tips-a large haul in those cash-strapped days.
Robey soon had Brown fronting a 23-piece orchestra on a tour across the South and Southwest. The manager then formed Peacock Records, the first successful post-war, black-owned record label, to take Gate's sound to a national audience. Dozens of hits soon followed, including "Okie Dokie Stomp," "Boogie Rambler," and "Dirty Work at the Crossroads."
After splitting with Robey, Brown moved to Nashville, where he hosted a television show and began adding country music to his repertoire, even recording with Roy Clark and appearing on Hee Haw. Heavy touring in the 1970s established new audiences in Europe, East Africa, and the Soviet Union, where Gate toured as a musical ambassador for the U.S. State Department.
In recent years, he has cut a string of four-star albums for such record labels as Rounder, Alligator, Verve, and Blue Thumb. Among those who have joined him on the discs are Eric Clapton, Ry Cooder, Amos Garrett, Jim Keltner, Maria Muldaur and Leon Russell. In addition to being a GRAMMY® recipient, Gatemouth Brown has been inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame and is an eight-time winner of the W.C. Handy Award. He's also received the prestigious Pioneer Award from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation.
Gatemouth recorded Back to Bogalusa at his favorite studio, Bogalusa's Studio in the Country, a classic analog facility where everyone from Louis Prima (The Jungle Book) to Blues Traveler has recorded. Studio in the Country is also the site where Gate did several albums in the mid-1970s for the French Barclay label, as well as Blackjack (reissued by Sugar Hill last year) and Alright Again!, his 1982 GRAMMY® winner.
"I love working at Studio in the Country," Gatemouth says. "It's about as far away from big-city pressure as you can get. There's a great sound to the place, and I can relax and do things my way." Gate's comfort clearly paid off. Back to Bogalusa finds the guitarist thriving back in his native state and leaves little doubt as to why he's truly a musician without peer.