‘Gatemouth’ Brown keeps on keepin’ on

Times Staff Writer

Tim McGraw’s country hit “Live Like You Were Dyin’ ” picked up song-of-the-year honors earlier this week at the Country Music Assn. Awards, but while McGraw talks the talk, veteran guitarist, singer and fiddler Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown is on the road quietly showing what it means to walk the walk.

There were only a couple of hints Thursday at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts that the 80-year-old musician might be in anything less than good health. Early on, Brown, sleekly outfitted in black from the Stetson on his head to the crisp western shirt with white piping to the tip of his cowboy boots, commented, “I’m a little out of breath tonight” before taking a hit off an inhaler pulled from his pocket. Later he said he was focusing on instrumentals because he was having some trouble singing.

Brown watchers, however, probably know that he recently found out he has inoperable lung cancer, and that he has refused radiation or chemotherapy treatment options in favor of continuing to perform as long as it’s physically possible.

That knowledge brought a special poignancy to his 65-minute set, part of a three-act bill called “The Joint Is Jumpin’ ” also featuring the ever-hip Dan Hicks & the Hot Licks and Austin, Texas, western swing trio Hot Club of Cowtown.


The joint did jump for nearly 3 1/2 hours, thanks to snappy sets from Hicks and the Hot Club that preceded the one by Brown and his versatile four-man band.

Hicks especially enlivened the evening with his wise-guy, ultra-hipster stage persona, something that would quickly fall flat if he, his three-man band and two female singers didn’t back it up with such inspired musicality and joie de vivre.

Brown shifted between electric guitar and fiddle, continuing to defy pigeonholing by moving nimbly from searing electric blues, a homespun Cajun waltz (reflecting his Louisiana roots) and straight pop (a sweeping instrumental rendering of “Unchained Melody”) to jazz, swing and stone country, bringing to mind Duke Ellington’s timeless adage that “it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”

The “it” usually alludes to music, but on this night Brown demonstrated that it applies equally well to life itself.