Cult guitarist Danny Gatton doesn’t speak much in the new film “Anacostia Delta: The Legacy of DC’s TeleMasters.” Instead, director Bryan Reichhardt lets bandmates, friends, fans and Gatton’s otherworldly guitar playing do the talking.
“Goosebumps,” Gatton replies.
As anyone who saw the guitarist live before his death by suicide in 1994 can attest to, he often made good on that claim.
“He would blow me away every time I saw him,” Reichhardt says. “You couldn’t help but smile watching what he was doing.”
Gatton’s ghost looms large over “Anacostia Delta,” Reichhardt’s years-in-the-making tribute to the guitarist and the distinctive sound and scene he helped create.
“It’s pure music that seems to assimilate all these different genres they were constantly around,” Reichhardt says of Gatton’s signature Anacostia Delta (or “redneck jazz”) sound. “When you listen to live recordings of Danny he is all over the place and you can hear those influences completely. It is this giant melting pot of sound. They’ll turn country tunes into funk tunes, they’ll go the other way, then mid-song, they’ll switch from country vibe to jazz, and then they’ll switch back. He synthesized that sound.”
With the film, Reichhardt is making a case that the Anacostia Delta owns a place along go-go, punk, and bluegrass as one of D.C.’s signature sounds — and that the city deserves its due alongside Nashville, New York and Los Angeles as a world-class music scene full of world-class musicians.
“He was able to be challenged by these guys and they challenged each other,” Reichhardt says. “I think that’s important for us to show people.”
The director uses archival footage and a tribute concert staged in honor of Gatton and peers such as Roy Buchanan, Billy Hancock and Chick Hall Sr. that was filmed at the Birchmere in 2015 as the movie’s anchor, weaving in and out of performances featuring members of Gatton’s bands (including the Offbeats) and a roster of D.C. guitarists past and present, including Dave Chappell, Tom Principato and Anthony Pirog.
Famous friends and admirers recall playing with Gatton, or being influenced by him in interviews and rehearsal footage that help form the film’s narrative structure, including country star Vince Gill, British guitarist Albert Lee and Nils Lofgren, who grew up in Bethesda and now plays guitar alongside both Bruce Springsteen in the E Street Band and Neil Young in Crazy Horse.
“I knew him by reputation and what a monstrous player he was,” Lee says of Gatton during the film. “He was a rock-and-roll player, but he really mastered the jazz idiom as well.”
For Reichhardt, an area native who lives in Gaithersburg, the documentary has been a longtime pet project. In his 20s, he’d often watch Gatton play at Club Soda in Cleveland Park. “I felt so spoiled,” he says. “You wouldn’t have to stand in line or anything.”
In the 1990s, he approached Gatton about making a film about him, but the guitarist died before he could make something happen. When he made his 2009 PBS documentary “Barnstorming,” about a friendship between a family on a farm and two pilots who literally fell into their lives, he reconnected with Gatton’s longtime bassist John Previti. Reichhardt’s wife, “Anacostia Delta” producer Suzanne Brindamour Tolford, had hired Previti to work on the score she composed for “Barnstorming.” That rekindled a fire in Reichhardt and by 2014, he had returned to his long-dormant Gatton project, expanding to explore D.C. and Prince George’s County’s robust scene of Anacostia Delta musicians.
“It was really important for John that it wasn’t just about Danny — it was about the scene: Everything that created Danny, everything that came after him, all the people who were around him,” Reichhardt says.
Despite Gatton’s famous admirers and cult status among guitar aficionados, his career never took off nationally. “We don’t know what bin to put it in at the record stores,” is a familiar refrain Reichhardt notes was often said of Gatton’s albums, like 1991’s “88 Elmira St.” But Gatton also avoided the spotlight.
“That lack of sort of ambition to make it quote-unquote, is something I admire,” Reichhardt says. “He wanted to make a living out of it, but I don’t think he wanted to sell himself to it. He didn’t want to move to [Los Angeles], New York or Nashville, where he could have been a killer session musician.”
Late in the film, some of the musicians are gathered backstage at the Birchmere rehearsing when a voice off-camera interjects: “It takes two guitar players and a piano player to do what Danny did?”
When the musician you’re emulating routinely gave people goose bumps, it must.
‘Anacostia Delta: The Legacy of DC’s TeleMasters’
Available on DVD and as a digital download at anacostiadelta.com.