Danny Gatton: 'World's Greatest Unknown Guitarist'

He was the man Guitar magazine dubbed "The World's Greatest Unknown Guitarist." Danny Gatton stayed in the musical shadows while building a cult following as a sort of honky-tonk Eric Clapton. Gatton killed himself 15 years ago Sunday.

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GUY RAZ, host:

We close tonight's program with someone you may not have heard of, but he left an indelible mark on the guitar world. His name was Danny Gatton. On this day, 15 years ago, Gatton took his own life. He was often hailed as a master of the telecaster, sort of a honky tonk Eric Clapton.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: Our producer, Phil Harrell, has this appreciation.

PHIL HARRELL: The guitarists who tried to share the stage with Danny Gatton gave him a nickname: The Humbler.

TOM PRINCIPATO (Guitarist): No one could ever hope to have a guitar battle with Danny Gatton and win. So that was kind of a given.

HARRELL: Tom Principato was one of those guitarist who got humbled.

Mr. PRINCIPATO: He could really recreate the sound that Les Paul could get on guitar. And I had never seen anybody do that live. Chet Atkins, Danny was also - really could play that style of a sort of self-accompanied finger-picking, and it was great to see Danny be all of my favorites rolled up into one.

(Soundbite of music)

HARRELL: John Previti played bass with Danny Gatton's band for 18 years.

Mr. JOHN PREVITI (Bass Player): You know, when he played country music, it sounded like all he played was country music. When he played jazz, it sounded like that's all he played, rockabilly, old rock and roll, soul music. You know, he called himself a Whitman sampler of music.

(Soundbite of music)

HARRELL: But that inability to fit within one genre may have kept Danny Gatton just on the fringe of fame. When he played TV's "Austin City Limits" in 1992, the announcer didn't waste any time in pointing out Gatton's main fault.

(Soundbite of television program, "Austin City Limits")

Unidentified Man #1: Now, the man they used the call the world's greatest unknown guitarist until now. Here is Danny Gatton.

(Soundbite of applause)

HARRELL: Unknown. It's an epithet that would trail him his entire career. Danny Gatton was born and raised in Maryland, and he remained fiercely loyal to its rural outskirts. Touring was an excruciating experience. He hated being away from his wife and daughter, his farm and his cars. Most of his career, he spent gigging around the Mid-Atlantic, close enough to get home immediately after a show.

Mr. RALPH HEIBUTZKI (Author, "Unfinished Business"): It's almost like Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin decided to stick with playing the local pub.

HARRELL: That's Ralph Heibutzki. He wrote a biography of Gatton called "Unfinished Business." It's not like the guy wasn't in demand as a side man. At one point, Bonnie Raitt came calling, John Fogerty, too. Danny Gatton was said to have been offered a spot with "The Tonight Show" band. But Gatton was never comfortable in that role. He wanted to run the show.

Everything seemed to be coming together in 1990, when at the age of 45, he signed a seven-album deal with Elektra Records. He only lasted two. Again, Ralph Heibutzki.

Mr. HEIBUTZKI: From the label's perspective, he fails to tour as much as he should to support the records, and therefore, they end up dropping him.

HARRELL: Danny Gatton told friends he was relieved. It wasn't long after that that his bouts with depression became more acute. And on October 4, 1994, he reportedly mumbled, I can't take this anymore, before walking out of his farmhouse to a nearby garage and shooting himself. He didn't leave a note.

Bassist, John Previti, says that in their two decades playing together, they never discussed anything like suicide, although a close friend did relay this story of Gatton.

Unidentified Man #2: It was on his birthday, and he said, well, mark my words. A year from now, I'll be gone. We were together on his birthday, and we actually heaved a sigh of relief and thought, well, we made it this long. And then, a month later, he was gone.

(Soundbite of music)

HARRELL: Danny Gatton didn't grant many interviews, but there's one kicking around YouTube from just after a show in Baltimore.

Unidentified Man #3: What do you see from the stage when, like, here tonight at Eight-By-Ten, what are you after, as far as your communication to the people?

Mr. DANNY GATTON (Guitarist): I don't see them very much. I'm usually watching what I'm doing. I'm actually very shy.

Unidentified Man #3: What do you like people to get out of your music?

Mr. GATTON: Goosebumps.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of music)

HARRELL: Guitarist, Danny Gatton, died on this day 15 years ago. He was 49 years old.

Phil Harrell, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: And that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Have a great week.

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