We’re sitting on the deck of a bungalow in Laurel Canyon in the Hollywood Hills – a locale rich in the history of American music, known as home to both famous musicians and infamous goings-on way back to the 50’s and 60’s. My friend, Keith Gattis, picks on his old gut-string guitar, working his way through a new song. He’s on a two -day break from the road. He’s playing lead guitar, banjo and mandolin and doing background vocals with Dwight Yoakam on his “Almost Alone” Summer/Fall ‘03 tour.
I met Keith here in Los Angeles, when he was recording his new album, BIG CITY BLUES – his first release since his critically acclaimed debut album on RCA records in 1996. I immediately checked him out on the internet and my favorite quote from a music critic reviewing his first record reads, “Were all the suits out of town when Gattis cut this album? They have to have been. We’re talking no holds barred, no apologies, no compromise country on this disc. Heck, the guy doesn’t even wear a hat.”
Keith embodies the very essence of country rock cool (although he resists any kind of tag that pigeon-holes him into a corporate marketing niche.) No Gucci runway cowboy style for him. In fact, he’s one of the authentic guys who actually inspire the designers with his Levi’s boot-cut skinners, the backs raggedy-edged from endless scraping across the floor over James Leddy custom cowboy boots and a Viper Room t-shirt, sleeves cut off to reveal a self-designed tattoo - a horseshoe intertwined with roses (luck and love) on his right bicep.
Keith Gattis drove into Los Angeles in the spring of 2001 at the wheel of his ‘65 Lincoln Continental. He paid for the move by selling two of his favorite guitars. Keith came west as many before him have done, to reinvent. Originally from Texas, he left the Nashville pop/country scene behind and put California in his headlights (to paraphrase one of his songs) looking to play rock and roll. But, as he told me, he kept returning over and over to his traditional country roots.
With true grit and his slow Texas drawl, Keith soon became a flash point of L.A.’s explosive country rock scene. Playing Hollywood clubs – the Joint, the Viper Room, the King King – he found himself in good company, with Lucinda Williams and Dwight Yoakam often in the audience. As Keith is completely grounded in the spirit of the American entrepreneur, he soon found independent financing to produce and record his next album, far from the influence of Nashville’s Music Row.
An accomplished writer, Keith has had his songs recorded by such artists as George Jones and Sarah Evans. On BIG CITY BLUES, he takes a giant step beyond commercial and conventional boundaries, wearing his lyrics on his sleeve and baring his soul to anyone who will listen. BIG CITY BLUES includes 11 new tracks, 10 songs written by Gattis. Keith also brought together an impressive group of friends to work on the record, among them Rami Jaffee of the Wallflowers, Ken Coomer (Uncle Tupelo, Wilco,) Doug Pettibone (Lucinda Williams,) and Waddy Watchel (Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Brown, Keith Richards.)
Not satisfied with resting on his laurels, Keith rolled into producing another independent album right after finishing BIG CITY BLUES. He worked with friend and singer/songwriter Waylon Payne, son of Willie Nelson lead guitarist, Jody Payne, and Grammy winning country songstress, Sammi Smith. Keith and Waylon’s collaboration produced Payne’s debut album, THE DRIFTER, which sold to Universal Records New York a month after the record’s completion. THE DRIFTER will be released in January 2004.
After Keith comes off Dwight’s tour in October, he’ll move into producing a movie soundtrack. Director John Maybury has brought Keith onto his current project, George Clooney and Stephen Soderburg’s Section 8 film, THE JACKET, to star Mark Wahlberg.
I leave Keith on the deck, hashing out the lyrics to his song. Cigarette smoke curls up from his ashtray next to a long neck bottle of Bud. The melody drifts down onto the street as the wooden gate closes behind me. I hear Keith’s melancholic voice. His song belongs here in the canyon. And at this moment, I understand that no matter what the future holds, Keith Gattis is a man who will always make his music. And there are those who know who will always listen.
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