Every large American city has its own musical underground, a network of people and places that don't draw tourists or casual listeners, but appeal to neighborhood aficionados, Washington's musical underground is more above-ground than most. This is a fertile musical area, so it's no surprise that the same city that packs discos wall-to-wall nearly every night can also put crowds in clubs like The Far Inn, Babe's and Desperado's to hear bands like Shadow Box, the North Star Band, Small Talk and The Struttin Tuxes.

From such a subculture, subculture heroes spring. Everyone's a critic when it comes to local talent, but once in a great while veterans will turn to each other and say a name, and all present will nod in knowing agreement. Here, the name most often nodded to is Danny Galton.

Gatton has been on the circuit for what seems like forever, and his performances are legendary. Many think that on guitar, Gatton is God. Little Feat's Lowell George called him "the best [guitar] player in any style that I've ever heard." Les Paul is also said to have been impressed.

So the question is: Why is Gatton is playing a pivotal (for him) weekend at the Cellar Door begining tonight instead of filing the Capital Centre with adoring fans?

Some of the answer lies in his new album, "Redneck jazz," which sold 2,000 copies here in six weeks. The record is being distributed by his mother, not the same as Warner Brothers or Columbia. But the problem is not Gatton's distribution methods as much as his selection of material, players and styles.

The record's title accents the musical contradictions of living in an area where 20 minutes' drive puts you in bluegrass country. Tunes like "Ugly Man" (issued once before as single and redone here) capture the mix of urban rock and country twang that acts like the Nighthawks, Roy Buchanan and Little Feat have often ridden to area success.

But that blend just won't play in Peoria, and Gatton knows it, so he's included some straighter country ("Truck Driving Romance"), some straighter rock'n'roll ("Love Is Whate You Need"), and combinations of jazz, blues and shuffle. The album's electric, but the other side of that coin is that it lacks focus.

Still, "Rock Candy," "Sax Fifth Avenue" and "Comin' Home, Baby" have moments that leave you groping for adjectives.

"Rock Candy" was recorded in Nashville (the rest of "Redneck Jazz" was recorded at Bias in Falls Church) and features Buddy Emmons on petal steel. The combination of Emmons and Gatton is combustible. Emmons, who's scheduled to appear with Gatton this weekend, coaxes more notes out of his instrument than one has a right to expect, and Gatton sets all kinds of speed records but keeps tight reign on his clarity and pace.

"Sax Fifth Avenue" is all Gatton. He shows off his ability to make his guitar sound like a keyboard and lets his strings double the melody line. "Comin' Home, Baby" is a vehicle for both jazz and blues moods. Its slower tempo allows Gatton to get more sensitive, and there are very few lapses in its almost nine minutes.

Yet, "Redneck Jazz" points up some of the things that have held Gatton back all along. Evan Johns and Chuck Tilley are on the weak side as vocalists; painist Dick Heintze is excellent, but the rest of Gatton's rhythm section is merely adequate. It's too bad that Emmons is featured on only one track, because it's obvious that he brings out the best in Gatton, and the best in Gatton can be close to awesome. A bonus for this weekend - Emmons is scheduled to join Gatton at the Cellar Door.

A parallel can be drawn to another Washington rave guitarist, Roy Buchanan. When Buchanan played with the Snake Stretchers, people said that if he ever found a band that could keep up with him, he'd be a superstar. He managed to land a recording contract (first with Polydor, later with Atlantic), but never lived up to the promise he showed in the bars.

Gatton doesn't like being compared to Buchanan, especially in techniques, but their situations are similar.

Despite his vows to play what he feels like, despite implying that he could perform on weekends and repair cars for a living like his father, and despite his satisfication in session work like the upcoming Lowell George solo album, Gatton wants to make it. This weekend's stand is crucial.

The Cellar Door is a step up from the bar circuit. It will be filled with friends and the faithful, but also with tourists who might spread the words, and possibly even some agents or record executives.