Perils of Virtuousity?

Danny Gatton was not a household name when he committed suicide in 1994. But he was almost universally recognized in the guitar-playing fraternity as perhaps the most technically accomplished guitarist ever .

He had an entirely homemade and self-taught background and literally had trouble naming chords he painted with. Yet, regardless of style, Danny could reel off feats of guitaristic dexterity that left even veteran players who’d ‘seen it all’ with their jaws agape.  Amos Garrett, no minor guitar-slinger himself, nicknamed him “The Humbler”, referring to this phenomenon.

I’ve listened to Gatton’s playing off and on for quite a while, mostly from a couple of recordings I own from not long before his death. Oddly, while I could never help but be awed, I’ve never really found myself moved by it. I’ve been trying to figure out why.  The reality might be simple:  Virtuousity is a vehicle for emotive playing, but not a substitute for it.

Gatton was known for an inclination to endlessly fiddle in the studio, refining and massaging tracks to some level of infinite perfection. Unfortunately, as a producer, he also tended to throw in so much (unnecessary) instrumental orchestration that he (sometimes) got lost in the clutter. It’s ironic that, in trying to stand out, he got himself lost in the mix (sometimes).

Virtuousity, like any other perceived event, has a habituation effect; you can start to tune it out. For me, that’s the case with The Humbler. Lots of players, with lots less technical facility, can keep me entranced for hours on way less pyrotechnics.

I sometimes wonder if the virtuousity was kind of a curse for Gatton; a coat he had to wear to keep his perceived place in the music universe? His suicide was attributed to depression. I can’t help wondering if he felt he was living in a prison of virtuousity from which the only release was death.

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