Sitting on his porch in Inglewood, Keith Gattis recalls the moment when he knew a career in music was what he wanted. It was July of 1988, and the band he organized from his school’s Future Farmers of America chapter had made it to the Texas state talent contest finals.
“When I stepped out on the stage, there were 8,000 kids out there in the arena,” he says. “I’ll never forget hitting that first chord and hearing it ring through that place. It was the coolest sound I’d ever heard in my life. We started playing and the kids were getting into it — screaming and going crazy — it might as well have been the Beatles. That’s when I got the bug. It was amazing. I didn’t even know such a thing existed. I’d already played bars, but it hadn’t been like that.”
Gattis pauses, and then laughs before continuing. “Now I’d rather play the bars.”
That frank honesty and appreciation for simple pleasures is something that’s immediately evident in Keith Gattis. Since first rolling into Nashville in 1992, he has travelled down all the well-marked paths that the guidebooks say lead to country music stardom: struggling through bar gigs, record deals with major labels, working as a sideman, hitting the “Americana” market through independent releases, getting his songs cut by others and more. Although his degree of success on each these paths have varied, none led to stardom. Instead, they led to something even better.
Born in Austin, Texas in 1970, Gattis didn’t turn his attention to playing music until he was almost in high school, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t soaking up influences at a much younger age.
“Until I started playing, I didn’t realize how much I was steeped in really traditional country,” Gattis says. “All that stuff came naturally for me. I figured out later how much I was influenced by my dad taking me to the bar when I was four or five. He’d set me up with a cherry Coke, and he’d have a couple of Pearl beers, and I’d hear all those songs on the jukebox.”
After an apprenticeship of playing the Texas bar scene, Gattis hit the road to Nashville. “I had 800 bucks and whatever I could fit in my pick-up truck,” he says. “I wanted something bigger, but I really didn’t know what that was.”
For the next eight years, Gattis navigated his way through the Music Row meat grinder — playing in bars, writing songs, getting signed by RCA, recording a critically acclaimed album that flopped in sales, and being dropped by his label. “I was completely naïve,” he says. “I just knew I was going to be a giant star. I was recording really hardcore country music, because that was all I was around. I got away with recording it, but that was about it. I ended up bitter and burned-out. I just felt like Nashville didn’t have anything to offer me or me to offer it.”
By 2000, he needed a change. Determined to expand his style in a rock direction, Gattis set his sights for the west coast. L.A. may have looked like a rock ’n’ roll town from Nashville, but once Gattis arrived he found a natural fit for his honky tonk instincts. “I got there and immediately started playing in country bands,” Gattis says. “The L.A. country scene had a completely different feel. It was inspiring.”
Revitalized, he wrote, produced and self-released the album Big City Blues in 2002. As he began promoting the record, he received an offer he couldn’t refuse. “Dwight Yoakam would show up frequently at my shows in L.A., and he asked me to play guitar for him on some Christmas shows in 2002.”
The success of those shows led to Gattis joining Yoakam as his lead guitarist and bandleader, working with him in the studio and on the road between 2003 and 2005, but that unsatisfied feeling persisted. “It was a hard gig to leave,” Gattis says, “but I still wanted to pursue my own thing. So I finally decided to jump off.”
Gattis returned to Nashville in 2006, thanks to a new record deal with Sony Music, but the meat grinder had a few more cranks left in it. Corporate restructuring led to him getting dropped again, before a record was ever released. He quickly signed with another company that promptly went belly up, leaving him in contractual limbo for almost three years. Gattis was broke and homeless, couch surfing from one friend to the next, when country singer Randy Houser called with an offer to join his road band for a tour.
That musical lifeline gave Gattis enough time and money to re-think his priorities. Returning from the tour, he decided to take his friend Audley Freed’s advice and rented a house on the Eastside. Squirrelled away on a quiet Inglewood street, Gattis concentrated on his songwriting and the hits started flowing. Since 2010, Gattis has written three Top 40 country hits (“El Cerrito Place” and “When I See This Bar” by Kenny Chesney, and “I Got A Car” by George Strait) and a string of album cuts by Gary Allan, Kenny Chesney, Randy Houser, Kid Rock, Willie Nelson, George Strait, Randy Travis, and more.
“I got lucky and had a little success,” Gattis says. “It got me enough money to pay off debts, get square with the tax man [and] put a down payment on my house.
“There were a lot of good reasons to give up,” Gattis says. “It’s butt kicking to say the least. I thought I was going to be a star, but I never really wanted that. I wanted a great career so I could play music for the rest of my life, and that’s what I’ve ended up with. And if I need to blow off steam, I’ll just go play the Family Wash.”