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Keith Gattis - Big City Blues, Big Success and a Big Loss

The old cliche is that music is the soundtrack of your life. Yet, some songs, albums and artists become much more than that. They become part of the very fiber of your being. As much a part of you as your blood type. The latter is the type of music that Keith Gattis made and contributed to.

Keith Gattis was cool. In the burgeoning Texas scene of the early 00’s he seemed like some sort of distant shooting star that everyone aspired to be as cool as one day. He was originally from Texas, had done a stint at South Plains College, had gigged everywhere, done a tour of duty in Nashville and more, but he was in LA at this time and making a name for himself. Fronting Dwight Yoakam’s band. Mentoring Waylon Payne. Writing incredible songs. Developing a signature sound.

That sound. His tele sounded and bent like none other. His voice as distinct as the smell in a musty honky-tonk. An early major label deal had left him uninspired in Music City, so he chased his muse west and found it on the southern coasts of California. He met kindred spirits and wrote songs. It was this setting that inspired songs such as “El Cerrito Place”, “Big City Blues”, “The Bottom”, “Reconsider and so many more. It was this setting that would lead to he and Payne dropping one of the best records of the past 25 years in the form of Payne’s debut album The Drifter.

The Drifter was an album we at this website ranked as our favorite of the 2000-2010 decade. Over such stalwarts as Randy Rogers Band’s Rollercoaster. That’s how good and transcendent it was. It sounded like nothing else. It had elements of SoCal and the Hill Country. Payne was singing it, but it was total Gattis. They worked in complete harmony. They set a scene. They created a vibe. Heartache. Addiction. Loss. Hope. It was all there. Musically and lyrically. It was the type of underground record that other musicians told each other about and would pontificate for hours with questions such as “how did they do that?” Songs such as “Her”, “Jesus on a Greyhound”, “Christian”, “Runnin’ from the Rain” and “Momma Drive On” aren’t the type to just easily leave your consciousness after listening. They stick with you. Forever. Again, that’s the kind of music Keith Gattis made. Lasting, impactful, memorable, haunting.

The flowers were still raining down on The Drifter project when Charlie Robsion released his Good Times album. Robison was always deft with his own pen, but smart enough to select the choicest covers when appropriate. For this project, he scooped up a handful of Gattis classics. Robison’s rendering of “El Cerrito Place” remains the signature cut. In the album’s track listing, “Big City Blues” and “The Bottom” roll out right after “El Cerrito Place” and create a moody vibe that is sung by Robison, yet all Gattis.

The buzz and success of the Waylon Payne collaboration next led Gattis to the producer chair for Cory Morrow’s Nothing Left to Hide. At the time, Morrow was as big a start as there was in Texas. On equal footing with peers like Pat Green, Ragweed, Charlie Robison and Jack Ingam. Gattis pushed Morrow into new sonic territories and helped him realize his most well-rounded collection of tunes in a career of solid records.

All of this had folks clamoring for music straight from Keith Gattis himself. He did not disappoint. He dropped the Big City Blues album in 2005. On it were songs now familiar and many that were fresh to the world. This was moody record. The arrangements as sparse as he could afford and still get his point across. It was country, but it damn sure doesn’t sound like anything else on radio or in Texas/Red Dirt. His guitar and voice wouldn’t let it be anything but unapologetically Keith Gattis. And for that, we are all grateful. This album is a landmark of heartbreak, loss and despair. This is the sound of a guy at the end of his rope. Whether he was singing about a lost love, the struggles of a music business that made it hard on him, his never ending quest to find his place in the world, something else or all of it, the bottom line is that the album is perfect.

The quartet of albums he had hands on from 2003-2005 remain important foundational pieces of the Texas scene twenty years later. The ability to get profane when necessary. The notion that you can go there. The freedom of doing your own thing with complete freedom. The confirmation that it is okay to sound like nobody else. Keith Gattis proved that you could do things completely your own way without any molds telling you otherwise. He wrote, sang and played from the heart and it connected with the world.

Keith Gattis remained prolific. Over the next decade he would go on to contribute to the following artists in various capacities over the next few years: Gary Allan, Drew Kennedy, Jamie Lin Wilson, Brandon Rhyder, Eli Young Band, Will Hoge, Sara Evans, Randy Houser, Jamey Johnson, Kid Rock, Roger Creager, Kenny Chesney, Randy Rogers Band, George Strait, Jon Pardi, Brandy Clark, Sunny Sweeney and Aaron Lewis. There are not many people with a list of credits that strong anywhere in the world.

In 2018, he slid back behind the production console to helm Wade Bowen’s fantastic Solid Ground album. As with most of the projects he was involved in, he didn’t just produce it, he wrote for it and played just about everything with strings you hear on the final product. Think of songs like “So Long 6th Street” and “Death, Dyin’ and Deviled Eggs”. Would those sound the same without Gattis’ touch? We’ll never know, but I’m glad we never have to find out.

Keith Gattis was one of those songwriters that all of his peers envied. He made it look easy, despite all the suffering for his art. He could play circles around folks. He had a big heart.

I’m struck of the reaction he got at one of the first Mile 0 Fests. He was a Key West veteran and he became the pied piper of a bunch of lost, confused Texans trying to make our way around the tiny hamlet. Gattis sightings were as much a Key West phenomenon as seeing roosters and six-toed cats. You were as likely to see him straddling a stool onstage with a tele in his hand as you were holding court at a watering hole giving advice to other musicians. Phrases like “hey man, Gattis is over at the Tuna right now!” would cause a mass rush of people to flow that direction. Few others held that kind of sway.

Keith Gattis leaves a lasting legacy of music that will stick around for decades to come. Unique, raw, independent. Texan with a west coast spin. A sound all his own. Vibes for days. Few have ever put heartbreak to music better. Now that all of our hearts are broken due to his passing, I’m thankful we have his music to lean on and help soothe the hurt. He’d appreciate that.

Rest in peace Keith Gattis. Continue to bend those notes upstairs.

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