Cowboy. The shirt has pearl snaps. The belt, handtooled, sports a mother-of-pearl buckle. The straw hat is mostly creases and rolls and bashed dignity. But the boots, out of El Paso, Tex., are the real piece of work. "They're Tonly Lamas," says Clarence Gatemouth Brown, grinning at them all over again. "Made outta sea turtle. Cost about six."
Six hundred dollars?
"Well, I did get a little break on them."
He may not be the richest picker and fiddler around, or the best known, but campared to a few years back, when he had all but given up his music and retired to a little spread in northern New Mexico, 54-year-old Gatemouth Brown is standing in tall cotton. Why, next week alone, during his gig at New York's Lone Star Cafe, there's this big management firm from Tulsa flying in specially to talk to him.
"Man, you should see the building they got out there. Whooo-ee. You know soon as you walk in that place, you ain't dealing with peons."
Of course money, or even the cover of Rolling Stone, is not the main goal here. Englightenment is. Moving folks' heads from one musical room to another Brown swears it.
"Now lookey at it this way. We've out in the world to teach people what we can about the origins of good muisic. I always wanted to give the world something I figured it didn't have. Well, music is what I can give. Man, if money didn't even exist, I'd still be doing exactly what I am now. Music is what there is. Everything else's got false pretensions."
He lights like a bulb. "Yeah. It's the cosmic dance."
Unless you're a collector of obscure European labels, or maybe hang out in Austin, or Bogalusa, or certain West Coast blues and jazz clubs, it's possible you're never heard of this lean-as-arake, slick-as-a-snake electric black musician who for over three decades has been sawing a Cajun fiddle and blowing a bluesy mouth harp and otherwise picking apart a rock-'n'-roll guitar. While influencing people named Eric Clapton and Frank Zappa and Johnny "Guitar" Watson.
Gatemouth Brown - that sounds like a wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys.
The most difficult thing about him is trying to type his music. You can't. It comes out of murky Louisiana swamps and bayou nights, swings over to the dance halls of West Texas, boogies back to the loading docks and cheap nightclubs of New Orleans.
"Man, I been in so many blues magazines and they all want to call me a bluesman," Brown says. "And I been in jazz magazines. And I been in C&W magazines. All I know is I'm a Negro fiddler and picker who don't quite play like nobody else. You could say I play the real American music. That means a little of everything."
The real American musician is seated at the moment with Yvonne, his Caucasian wife and his hungry Welsh eorgi ("Queen Elizabeth's got six of 'em") in a hotel room off Connecticut Avenue. It's coming on midday, and Brown and company have just been roused from sleep. The previous night's opener at the Childe Harold was a success (if not a standing-room-only success) and to be honest, he overslept. A pedal-steel sideman has just been dispatched for coffee and Alpo. Order will restore.
"She and I and that dog is all there is," he says. "We even take the dog on airplanes. She loves it. Might have a little jet lag, that's all."
He is asked about his nickname. "I was singing in a school chorus - like they do on Monday mornings. I guess there must have been 50 of us. "I'm singing over top of everybody else and don't stop. The teacher comes over and say, 'Clarence, you got a mouth big as a gate.' After that, all the kids wanted to gig me with it. I had to knock a few in the process. You know how you do."
Still doesn't like the name very much. "Aw, it's alright, I guess. I got used to it. I mostly keep it for business. When I was playing these little blues joints all the time, people would come in thinking I was some big fat grinning Negro man. That's what the name sound like."
In 1947, Gatemouth Brown left his job as a drummer for the Hoyt Huge Orchestra at San Antonio's old Key-hole Club. He went to work in Houston, at the Bronze peacock Club. One night he took over for T-Book Walker. That got him going.
Pretty soon he was recording on an all-black label (Peacock Records) and touring up and down Texas in a tuxedo, grafting basic rhythm and blues licks to a full-blown, 23-piece orchestra. He met up with everybody from Bob Wills to Muddy Waters.
He never really made it. Only his legend did. In the '60s, when soul and rock were everywhere, he went into decline. About eight years ago, European folk and blues collectors sought him out. He was persuaded to come over for a few recording sessions.
Back home, he went through a bitter divorce, moved from New Mexico to New Orleans (via Florida), got married again, discovered there was once more an audience out there who clamored to hear "The Gate." In the last two years, he has been to 11 African nations, Europe, all over this country. In the fall, he will play Japan. His current album, "Blackjack," on the abscure Music Is Medicine label, is a small hit, combining what one reviewer calls "kicker" breakdowns" like "Up Jumped the Devil" with hurting country and Western titled "Dark End of the Hallway." If you listen, you can even hear some Duke Ellington-jump.
He is far in time, if not space, from that little East Texas town where he grew up. Orange, Tex., is on the border, he says, between Creoles and cowboys. He can still recall those Depression Saturday nights when his folks would "kick back the furniture and Negroes and Caucasians would come in, all there together, stomping on the living room floor. My daddy was the best player of all."
Just for a moment, he said. "Music to me means life. It can remind you of a good life, of a bad life, of death."
He has a dream. "I want to go along the Texas-Louisiana coast and find 25 maybe 50 acres. I want to build a big house - a castle - and a lot of little ones. Anybody who's got anything to do with my music will be invited to come live there, free rent. It'll be my . . . community."
Mrs. Brown, sitting on the bed, petting the pooch, looks a little skeptical.
"Honey, we can do it. It's a dream. I feel it. Lately, just everything's been looking in my face."