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Late Night with Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown

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Palmetto’s is a restaurant bar in Slidell, a semi-rural suburb of New Orleans (about 30 minutes outside of town). Palmettos is off the beaten path, near the bayou and close to a railroad depot.

I’ve taken to playing guitar there on Thursday nights with my friend Ched.

So last night, after the gig, Ched and I were hanging out in the parking lot shooting the breeze. It was late and every single waitress and bartender had left, so the parking lot was completely empty. And dark.

As we were talking the tall moss-laden trees that surrounded us were making a terrible racket. Actually, it was the tree frogs that were making the noise.

But then, suddenly, it got quiet. And we noticed a car pulling into the parking lot.

Slowly, a large 1970s Cadillac rattled along the gravel until it wound up next to Ched and I. Ched looked in the open window and recognized the driver, a wirey black man with a large cowboy hat. Only then did I realize it was Gatemouth Brown, a legendary blues guitar player who lives in the area. After a few minutes of talking through the car window he invited us to his house to listen to some music. I’m thinking it’s late, but this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity so we piled into the back seat of the caddy.

Gatemouth’s house is a simple little place. Outside, he has an unpainted wooden fence. Inside, he has lots of memorabilia from his various tours. He also collects wooden boats. Lots and lots of hand crafted wooden boats.

He pops in a VCR tape of a concert that he did in Denmark back in the 1970s, fires up his pipe, and proceeds to share his tips of the musical trade. For example, 24 bar solos. That’s the rule. Which applies to him too.

“People don’t wanna get bored listenin’ to some long-ass solos that’s all jerkin’ around,” he grumbles.

As I watched the video I noticed that he didn’t use a pick. And it was hard to see which finger on his right hand he used to pluck the strings. So I asked him if he used his index finger primarily or what his technique was. He held up his hand and rolled all of his fingers repeatedly as he said “I use them all.” But, he added, “I don’t know how I use them or where they are when I play. They just make the music. That’s all I know.”

So apparently he didn’t think much about how he “made the music.” But he did think hard about how to please his audience. Not surprising, I suppose, for a 77 year old Grammy award winning artist.

The thing that struck me the most about him though, as I watched the video of him playing, was how selfless he was with his band members. He had top-notch players accompanying him and he was the headliner. And yet for most of the time he just played his 24 bar solo and then quietly accompanied his band members as they took their 24 bars.

If you didn’t know he was the headliner, you wouldn’t have known it from his attitude onstage. His total focus was on creating good music. Even if that meant taking a backseat for awhile.

After a few hours he offered to take Ched and I back to the parking lot where our cars were. As we drove he said “I really want to thank you guys for coming over. I don’t get a lot of people at my house, and maybe I like it like that. But I really enjoyed having ya’ll over.”

Ched and I looked at each other in shock. He was thanking us?

If you have a chance to ride in a car with Gatemouth take it (even if it is late and you are tired). More likely you might a have a chance to hear him play music. Don’t pass that up either.

Here is his official website with tour information.

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