It’s 2 in the afternoon, but when Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown answers the phone at his Louisiana home, he sounds sleepy, interrupted, cranky. Was he expecting the call? Yes. Can he talk now? Yes.
OK then: What’s it like playing for the National Folk Festival? For Northerners? For white people?
“I enjoy people everywhere,” he answers. Pauses. Adds: “Uh-huh. Everybody’s different but they’re all people.”
Since your father – Clarence Sr. – played Cajun, do you know French Acadian fiddle tunes, ones that may have come from Maine or Canada?
“Some,” he says. “Uh-huh.”
“I don’t know, honey, I don’t know. I’ve forgotten,” Brown says gruffly.
OK, OK, OK.
This innately talented man, this legendary multi-instrumentalist and Grammy Award winner, is downright ornery. But he’s an elder. So there’s the respect issue. Gatemouth – as he is called – turned 79 this year. So if he wants to be in a bad mood, fine. If he wants to stay in bed all day, fine. If he wants to have three wives, divorce them all, live alone with two Dalmatians on the edge of a swamp and smoke a pipe all day, fine, fine, fine.
Just as long as he brings his guitar to Bangor.
As one of the headliners at the National Folk Festival, Brown is making a return to the area. He was in Ellsworth six years ago, but he has forgotten that. What he remembers is a gig in Bath, where he played in a church with fabulous acoustics. That, not the heat of the August night in Ellsworth in 1997, is what lingers in his memory about Maine.
“I remember great acoustics in that church,” he says.
It’s not a surprising comment, really, coming from a man whose ear makes swift adjustments between instruments – he plays guitar, fiddle, mandolin, harmonica, bass, drums – and is lead vocalist, too. Brown would value good acoustics. That is, after all, what his life’s passion has been.
Born in Louisiana, Brown was 5 when he started playing guitar alongside his father.
“He played roots-Cajun-country-bluegrass,” says Brown. “Being the eldest son, I wanted to follow in my dad’s footsteps and kept going and going. At 10, I picked up the fiddle and started sawing on that. Then mandolin.”
And when did the big break come?
“I told that story so much, it’s sickening to me,” he barks back.
But, in all due respect, sir, the story bears repeating. So go on back to bed for a minute while the rest of us have a little history lesson.
Gatemouth did the “Chitlin Circuit” as a teenager and then a stint in the U.S. Army during World War II. In 1947, at Don Robey’s famed Peacock Club in Houston, T-Bone Walker – another legendary guitarist – got sick onstage and had to leave, but he left his guitar behind. Our man boldly picked it up and played his own “Gatemouth Boogie”:
My name is Gatemouth Brown.
I just got in your town.
If you don’t like my style,
I will not hang around.
I’ve had a hard time, baby, trying to get a break.
If I don’t make it this time, it still won’t be too late.
The audience, as they say, went wild. Gatemouth was tipped generously (enough to buy a new guitar the next day), and Robey signed him on as a regular at the club.
Brown played for black audiences, for white audiences, for European audiences, who appreciated his American roots music when rock took over the club scene in the 1960s. He wore cowboy boots and a cowboy hat and was suave with the songs, gutsy with the guitar, flirtatious with the women. That smile of his is a melter. And don’t think he doesn’t know it.
Through the years, Brown has come to reject the term “bluesman” because, he says, his music is more varied, more fluid than one word can capture.
The critics have tended to agree. They’ve called him the “quintessential Gulf Coast musician,” a “music encyclopedia” and “the master of American roots music.” Gatemouth Brown is as revered as he is indefinable.
And he is ready to hang up the phone.
But wait: If he hadn’t done this, if he hadn’t become a legendary American musician of the highest down-home order, what would he have done?
All right, all right.
Has it been a hard road, has there been a color line?
“I haven’t had no real problems,” Brown says. “In the first place, it makes a difference how you carry yourself. You have to believe in yourself because if you don’t believe in yourself, how’re you going to expect others to believe in you?”
A long, quiet moment passes.
“You come to the concert,” Brown says invitationally.
His tone, across the phone line, is akin to a killer smile.