Share it




The image is one of the most enduring in all of music… a lone guitarist meeting the Devil at the crossroads where he obtains mystical playing ability for the price of his soul.

It was Tommy Johnson who reputedly did this, though it was later (almost universally) attributed to Robert Johnson instead, who had the added benefit of singing a song about it and dying young which fed into this belief.

But whichever Johnson was there that fateful night, maybe he should’ve looked over his shoulder because chances are he would’ve seen Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown standing there waiting his turn.


What A Sad Affair
The one word we left out of that intro of course is the word “blues”, as you rarely hear of a polka playing accordionist or tympani players in an orchestra selling their soul, or anything else, to Satan for improved playing techniques.

Since Gatemouth Brown was frequently marketed as a blues artist himself and since this record plays into that enduring image of the genre, even if the particulars of the story as related in the lyrics are much different, you might wonder if this record truly belongs in a rock history overview.

If we leave it out though then you surely won’t mind in 1968 when Cream releases their version of the Robert Johnson song that shares this theme and part of its title if we also exclude that record… and virtually all of Cream’s other work along with it… not to mention The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin and many others that a few of you are no doubt anxiously looking forward to us covering around here.

That’s the thing about certain genres that happen to meet at the proverbial crossroads of music… when you’re in the midst of that intersection, which road are you actually ON at the current time?

Gatemouth Brown, at least in the early 1950’s, is primarily a rock act, just as Cream was predominantly a rock act fifteen years down the road. They both dabbled in blues, even drew heavily from it at times, but didn’t give themselves over to the blues with its more limited structural components and smaller potential audience.

As a result, despite its overriding theme and a few obvious blues touches, Dirty Work At The Crossroad, one of the coolest titles in a career full of them for Brown, is firmly at home within rock ‘n’ roll’s welcoming arms.

Yeah, it straddles the line, like so many other records, but don’t let that bother you unless you want every record that shows even the faintest hint of not just blues, but jazz, pop, gospel or country to be jettisoned in the future.


My Best Friend You Did Adore
With a title like this, you know the story has got to be pretty good no matter what window dressing accompanies it and in that regard Gatemouth Brown lives up to its promise, giving us a vibrant tale that may skimp a little on the particulars, but at least sets an ominous tone throughout, kicking off with moaning horns, a faint beat and his guitar slicing and dicing its way through the transitions with brief showy licks.

His vocals are dejected but still full of life, never moaning in defeat but defiantly trying to fight his way through the anguish of being betrayed by the one he loves. That’s a theme that fits equally well in multiple genres of course but the resiliency in the fact of this Dirty Work At The Crossroad, not to mention the steady horns that showed up there in the dark of night to have his back, keep it firmly tethered to the rock moorings.

As good as he sounds singing, those guitar riffs almost distract you from his misery, all of which are very creative, intense and colorful. He’s not using the instrument to carry the song, but rather merely to comment on the situation within the song. His playing here highlights his diversity, as at times those responses sound surprised, accusatory and disapproving, while at others they show signs of forgiveness and sympathy as well.

It’s a record that is determined to use all of the tools he has at his disposal, courtesy of Jimmy McCracklin’s supporting band. He’s not pushing the horns aside just to show off his licks, yet not confining the guitar to taking just a short intro and brief solo either, and both of the instrumental showpieces are always acting in support of the vocals which convey what is clearly a heartfelt story, making sure you listen with your mind as well as your ears to get the most out of it.

What you choose to focus on says more about either your personal preferences, or about your tolerance, or lack thereof, for sounds that seemingly don’t fit as well into your conception of whatever musical genre you’re classifying it under. A pure blues fan is going to get annoyed at the horns while a rock fan of this period is going to think the guitar is a little too bluesy for their liking.

But that’s the balance that gives the record its tension too, and which are the precise components to what would be called “blues-rock”, wherein elements from different backgrounds combine to create something unique and allows you to dig deeper to find that the end result winds up being more than it seems on the surface.

It may not be the most comfortable fit in our neighborhood, we’ll grant you, but we don’t believe in putting up fences when you reside in the same community, even if you are situated on the outskirts of town.


I Still Love You Baby
We haven’t even touched upon two non-musical elements that normally would’ve led off this review, the first being that – as we talked about with the last record we covered – there’s some confusion as to when this was released thanks to the same annoying habit of Peacock Records grouping catalog numbers by artists too much rather than just assigning them chronologically.

This would appear to have been something released in summer, but all of the ads for it are in December, as are the reviews, and Gatemouth Brown was a big enough name by now to be well promoted when he’s got a new single coming out. Besides, we know the label jumped the gun for a hasty cover song with Marie Adams, assigning the first available number and jumping others slotted ahead of it to strike while the iron was hot… though it did them no good.

The second aspect of this which is sure to draw a little notice from eagle eyed readers is that the original title was Dirty Work At The Crossroad, singular, but in later years they added an s, even though he doesn’t sing it that way. I’ll admit Crossroads sounds more logical, since the entire point of the word is to describe where TWO roads intersect, but it can be used either way and remain grammatically correct.

But with that out of the way we’ll circle back to the dominant theme, the one about blending two distinct genres into one and say that while we wholly approve of such musical miscegenation in theory, we also are aware that sometimes some distance between two rival camps is good for the identity of both. So, as with any other song straddling genre lines, it’ll be slightly penalized for it, since we’re concerned not only with how good of a record this is – it’s very good – but also how it advances rock’s cause at the current time.

In this case, were it to become a monster hit leading to more of the same ilk, that would drag rock closer to the blues, blurring the line between the two in ways that might limit their abilities to forge new paths in the future.

Luckily there’s a solution to all of this, which is simply to respect the genres equally, acknowledge the sometimes uneasy balance certain artists or records possess, but enjoy them all for whatever it is you personally can get out of them.


(Visit the Artist page of Gatemouth Brown for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)