Danny Gatton was famous for not being famous, a guitarist nobody had heard of who was better than anyone they had, a master of so many styles that he was sometimes judged eclectic to a fault. In 1990, Guitar Player magazine put the legendary Washington guitarist on its cover: Gatton was pictured behind a tragedian's mask, dubbed "The World's Greatest Unknown Guitarist" and described as "both a traditional master and a visionary stylist."
Yet Gatton seemed to willfully sidestep the limelight, preferring to play close to home with familiar friends, splitting his time between playing music and repairing vintage automobiles. In October 1994, at the age of 49, he committed suicide on the family farm in St. Mary's County.
John Jorgenson, who plays with the guitar group known as Hellecasters, first heard Danny Gatton on tape playing "Guitarists Roll Call," a takeoff on the old bluegrass medley "Fiddler's Roll Call," in which seminal stylists are lovingly mimicked. In the guitar version, Gatton conjured the spirits of Les Paul, Chet Atkins, Billy Burt, Scotty Moore, Cliff Gallup, Hank Garland, James Burton -- "all these different players," Jorgenson says, "and it was just amazing how Danny did it."
Now, a host of guitarists are turning that concept around, honoring the Washington guitarist whose own style embraced multitudes. Vince Gill, Albert Lee, Amos Garrett, Steve Earle, Jorgenson, Bill Kirchen and a dozen other top guitarists will perform at the Birchmere tonight and tomorrow in a show billed as "A Tribute to Danny Gatton."
Like most musicians, Gatton had no life insurance or health coverage at the time of his death. It was Mac Wilson, a Nashville talent manager who started his career in the Washington area and who once took lessons from Gatton, who conceived the Birchmere tribute, partly out of a lifelong admiration for the guitarist but also in remembrance of a typical Gatton kindness that occurred more than two decades ago.
As Wilson tells it, he received a call from Jimmy Hodge, a local pedal steel player who had Hodgkin's disease and was at the National Institutes of Health awaiting an operation. "He called from NIH and said if he could do one thing before he died, it would be to play with Danny Gatton," says Wilson, who promptly called Gatton at Club Soda, where he was working that night.
"Danny was flattered, said, Tell that man to come play with me.' And Jimmy left the hospital, went and played with Danny, returned about 1 in the morning and had a very successful operation the next day. Two months later I called Danny to do a benefit for Jimmy, and Danny said it was the least he could do.
"As Danny's friend, this is the least I can do to help his family and honor his memory," Wilson says.
Born and raised in Anacostia and eventually rerooted in old familial grounds in Southern Maryland, Gatton was a string instrument virtuoso before he reached his teens, blessed with mind-boggling chops and a disregard for traditional boundaries. Styles and genres blurred; at any moment he might introduce jazzy octave solos in a country tune, finger-pick the blues bluegrass style or cover a spatial Monk tune with bottleneck burnishes.
But even as Gatton's reputation grew -- musicians would eagerly seek out his appearances when they passed through the Washington area -- so did his frustrations, particularly in terms of taking care of his family. His wife, Jan, worked full time for the government during their entire marriage and Gatton was clearly concerned about the future and anxious about a lack of momentum. Back in 1979, while still in his thirties, he'd complained that "if I'd known that I'd have been this old and never gotten anywhere, I'd have quit a long time ago."
He didn't, continuing to perform and releasing albums on small labels, including NRG, which was run by his mother Norma. Despite all the acclaim, Gatton didn't make his major-label debut (on Elektra) until 1991, when he was 45. His two albums for the label were critically acclaimed but sold poorly, and he was eventually dropped. Gatton once joked he'd been set up and let down so often he should have changed his name to Otis, but behind the humor there was clearly real pain.
It's the pleasure of Gatton's life and music that is front and center these next two nights, with the participants' remembrances connected by shared astonishment and awe. Country superstar Gill first heard Gatton when Gill played at the Birchmere in the early '80s and went to see Gatton at a small club nearby as soon as he finished his own set.
"I grabbed my Tele, got up and played and just had the best time for a couple of hours," says Gill, who'd been hearing stories about Gatton's skills. "It was the first time I'd ever heard him play and it was live! I remember when he started playing, my mouth dropped open! That's what Larry Carlton did to me, what Albert Lee did to me, what all great guitar players do to you, when you appreciate the level which some people have the heart and soul to play to.
"Some of the things he did I'd never seen done before. I thought, well, I don't know if I really want to come up there and play with this guy because I'm certainly going to show my butt. It was awesome to watch the intensity he played with, how he'd go from Jimi Hendrix to Jimmy Bryant."
Guitarist Brent Mason is the Country Music Association's reigning Musician of the Year, the equivalent of MVP in a professional sport. Celebrated for his ubiquitous and stellar studio work, Mason will be making rare public performances both nights at the Birchmere. Like many musicians, Mason first heard of Gatton through word-of-mouths-agape and on privately circulated tapes.
"His name would always pop up in reference to some great guitar lick," Mason recalls. When he and Gatton finally met in 1990, Mason says, "what amazed me about Danny's playing was his diversity, his ability to touch on jazz and rockabilly, country and blues, and that he seemed to blend them all really nicely, to fluidly go into each one, which is what made up his style.
"And he had that reckless abandon, where you'd wonder where he was heading and he'd always climax with something real strong," Mason adds. "Danny knew a lot of tricks but he also played from the heart."
The same might be said about many of the musicians participating in the upcoming concerts, to which tickets cost $65 each, which will raise funds for the college education of Gatton's only child, Holly, now 16. British stylist Albert Lee concurs that Gatton was "absolutely scary as a guitar player. We kind of play the same style, and we had the same influences -- he just took it to another level of intensity. He took rockabilly and jazz and country and a little rock-and-roll -- so many styles rolled into one, it was kind of retro in a way. And he had this element of manic madness in there that made him go for things a lot of us wouldn't go for, and he was able to do it."
"He was absolutely the titan of the Telecaster -- the Telemaster," says Mac Wilson, pointing out that he's gathered some of the best Telecaster players in the world for the Birchmere tribute. Among the local guitar virtuosos participating are Pete Kennedy, Tom Principato, John Jennings, Evan Johns and Bill Kirchen, who well recalls his first meeting with Gatton in the early '80s, when Kirchen was with Commander Cody's Lost Planet Airmen.
"I needed a guitar worked on, and Al Anderson, who was then with NRBQ, suggested this guy in D.C., Danny Gatton. Danny did a whole lot of work on it, and I spent three hours with him before I ever heard him play. At that point, he suggested we jam some, and I remember thinking, This nice guitar repairman will probably enjoy seeing some of my licks.' I remember thinking I was going to show him something. . . .
"Then he started playing, and I thought whoops!"
Kirchen, who moved to the Washington area in 1985 and has become a perennial Wammie Award winner, often played with Gatton, at one point borrowing his rhythm section to work gigs. "He started me on the path of forming my trio and recording under my own name," says Kirchen. "I owe him a debt of gratitude for that."
Brent Mason, who'll be playing with an all-star session band that includes pedal steel whiz Paul Franklin Jr., promises, "There's going to be some notes flying around the room, I'm sure."
Gill, ever humble, suggests that even the mightiest of string benders might think twice about stepping onstage: "It'll be a good day to forget your guitar," he says.
And two good nights to remember Danny Gatton. CAPTION: Guitarist Bill Kirchen, left, and country star Vince Gill are among the pickers who'll play at benefits for the family of Danny Gatton, below, who killed himself in 1994.