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What Becomes a Legend Most?

Gatemouth Brown's lesson for longevity do what you do, and be the best at it

The widespread popularity of British -- and, later, white American -- artists who learned the basics of their craft from carefully studying local-label American artists spelled the end of regional fortresses such as Duke/ Peacock. The broad record-buying audience's inability to categorize a black Texan who could shift effortlessly from country to blues to zydeco and mix into all that an unusual, signature rocking big-band sound led to long years when Brown, though far from forgotten, was also far from the popularity he'd once known.

But one loyal group that never forgot Brown -- and was determined that no one else would -- was that of his fellow musicians. No matter how limited his commercial accessibility became, Brown remained a preeminent musician's musician. When Austin's public television station began to share Texas music with the world on Austin City Limits, one of the first Texas musicians they shared was Gatemouth Brown. Never did Hee Haw stray so far from its white-bread, cornpone basics as it did with the wild, soaring breakdowns of a wise-cracking, bib-overalled black fiddler -- but it was obvious from the awe on the faces of Roy Clark and Buck Owens just why Brown wound up at their stage-set barn.

The commercial success enjoyed by Brown's most ardent fans evaded Brown himself for years. His recordings, though critically acclaimed, continued to be classified by the clueless as blues -- in an era when that classification immediately limited distribution and airplay. Brown developed a reputation, perhaps deserved, for open bitterness about the industry he had worked in for years. Ultimately, it was the European fascination with American culture that led to Brown's commercial salvation. When fellow Houstonian Johnny "Clyde" Copeland began recording for Verve in the early 1990s, his issues were enlivened by guest appearances from Brown, who was signed in turn by the French label. Writers approaching Brown for interviews, sweaty with rumor-born trepidation of a gruff master, were surprised to find instead geniality -- highly opinionated geniality, granted, but geniality weighted with a half-century's professionalism. After March of last year, when the taping of The Man was completed, that geniality began to approach glee when Brown would touch fire to his pipe and hit the play button on his tour bus' tape deck. Now there's a Verve follow-up to The Man -- featuring Eric Clapton and Grady Gaines -- presently being recorded in Louisiana, and (you read it here first) if you were waiting for Brown's next local nightclub show it might be a long wait -- but check out the stadium shows around Houston toward the end of summer.

From 78s to CDs, from the Bronze Peacock to the Royal Albert, it can be a grand life if you don't weaken. And Gatemouth Brown has shown he just keeps getting stronger.

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