Danny Gatton could take any piece of music that entered his ears and send it out through his fingertips.
He wasn’t just Washington’s greatest guitar player. He may have been the world’s. Gatton played it all: bluegrass, rock, jazz, big band, rockabilly, surf. … He could pick incredibly fast, but always with a soulful tone, a passionate pyrotechnician.
If you were a guitarist, Gatton was the Humbler.
That’s the title of a documentary about the late guitarist that just launched a fundraising effort at IndieGoGo.com. Filmmaker Virginia Quesada met Gatton in the late 1980s when she was putting together a feature on three local musicians: Gatton, singer Mary Chapin Carpenter and sax player Buck Hill.
“While working on this, we lose Danny,” she said. Gatton killed himself in 1994 after a day spent working on one of his prized hot rods. He was 49.
“It was kind of shocking,” Quesada said. “We thought, ‘What do we do now?’ “
What Quesada did is interview musicians who knew Danny, worked with him or were inspired by him, a roster that included Les Paul, Albert Lee, Vince Gill and Rodney Crowell.
Gatton grew up in D.C.’s Anacostia neighborhood when much of the neighborhood was white and working-class.
“He wanted to play everything,” Quesada said. “He could play the history of the guitar in one song – and did.”
For all his technical brilliance, Gatton sometimes struggled with fame.
“He would have been happy playing behind a curtain,” Quesada said. “He was brilliant, but he wasn’t a showman.”
And he was hard to pin down, segueing from an American standard, say, to the theme song from “The Simpsons.”
This was a problem at a time when radio and record stores needed to know where to file an artist. Gatton lamented the trouble he had getting a major label contract, “They said you had to be categorized into one thing,” he told an interviewer. “Why? There’s more than one color in nature.”
Apparently, sometimes the colors in Gatton’s life were dimmed. Friends think he suffered from depression, and took his life not because of dissatisfaction with his career but because of his illness.
“I think he hid it pretty well,” Quesada said. “I think that in the sort of good-old-boy rednecky world he was part of, you didn’t talk about your problems. You kind of manned up and dealt with it.”
Thanks to clips of him on YouTube, Gatton continues to gain fans around the world. The fundraising campaign for “The Humbler: Danny Gatton” ends Oct. 24. Last I checked, the campaign was a third of the way toward the goal of $36,000. (For info, visit thehumblermovie.com.)
Danny Gatton was just one of a number of acclaimed D.C.-area stringbenders, a list that includes Roy Buchanan, Roy Clark and Link Wray.
“What is it?” Quesada asked. “Something in the water?”