Kevin Gordon, Americana singer-songwriter: Something Else! Interview

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Over a roots-rocking career decades in the making, Louisiana-born Kevin Gordon has issued a series of acclaimed songs, but none more so than those on his new album Gloryland. Already given four out of four stars by USA Today and featured in the New York Times, the project is an at times brutally frank chronicle of the Southland’s dark passions, fragile hopes and splintered dreams – all of it built atop a muscular Americana sound that might be best described as what would happen if Richard Hugo had ever picked up an old Gibson.

Gordon, who has lived in Nashville since 1992, earned a master’s degree in poetry from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop – but already, he was touring with Bo Ramsey, later a producer and guitarist with Lucinda Williams and Greg Brown. Gordon worked with producer Garry Tallent of the E Street Band on his debut, and has seen his songs recorded by Keith Richards, Levon Helm, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Dukes, Irma Thomas and others. His “Watching the Sun Go Down” was featured in the HBO series “True Blood,” as well.

Gordon joined us for the latest Something Else! Sitdown to talk about Gloryland, a burgeoning passion for outsider art, his early days as a scruffy punk rocker who never took to church – and how the rumbling joys of John Lee Hooker eventually muscled past poetry in a young man’s heart …

NICK DERISO: To my mind, this project focuses more on storytelling whereas your most recent album, 2005’s O Come Look at the Burning, seemed to be all about this shambling groove. Was that a conscious effort?
KEVIN GORDON: When I’m writing, I really try to not be self-conscious – to not think about anything else but what sounds good, or what feels good, at the time. But I think the newer songs were a reaction to some of the songs on Burning. I still love that record a lot; they’re just different. As you say, the new one is more narrative. The drier lyric of, say, “Trying to Get to Memphis” was maybe a reaction to things like “Watching the Sun Go Down,” which was more a more image-based kind of thing. On Burning, I guess I was deliberately letting things stay unresolved or slightly hazy. I think in most cases, it seemed to work with the music and with the production.

NICK DERISO: “Colfax” seems to be the heart of the album, as it follows a young man’s journey from playing in the high school band to the harder, darker conundrums of adult life. Does it get easier to write those kind of story arcs as you enter middle age, or more difficult?
KEVIN GORDON: I think, the older I get, the easier it is to write about childhood stuff. I’m not really sure why that is. When I finished “Colfax,” all those details were just there – in really clear light. You know, it’s an interesting idea of it being one arc like that. I honestly had not really thought of it that way, but it makes sense. I kept dividing the songs into the personal, versus the more worldly songs. But, at the heart of them, it is usually coming from the same area. Having kids kind of makes global issues become more present, more local – just out of concern for them, and my own feelings of almost irresponsibility. The song “Nine Bells” – one that nobody really talks about; it’s fairly obtuse – is about that post-9/11 question of bringing children into this world. I guess that’s what’s behind some of the reaching out toward more global issues in a way that I haven’t before. I didn’t really want to write the last verse to the title track but, at the same time, it seemed like a very contemporary version of the same sort of thing that I was writing about in the first verse – the televangelist, and how religion gets manipulated by people who are seeking power.

NICK DERISO: A strong sense of basic morality certainly runs through that song, and really all of your work – yet I can’t help but sense there’s also an underlying distrust, it seems, of organized religion. Does that suspicion go back to your childhood, growing up in the Bible Belt of rural Louisiana?
KEVIN GORDON: I think so. For some reason, I have always had trouble with organized religion – even as a kid. I remember going to church and never feeling comfortable, always feeling – I don’t know what it was. Was it fear? There was one time when my parents send me to vacation Bible school at a church that was actually half a block from the house where we were living, and the great culmination was that you got baptized. I remember going there that morning, without my parents, and being literally unable to move when the call came to go up and do that.

NICK DERISO: You draw interesting parallels in that song between the fear-based teachings of some Christian churches and the jihadist extremists.
KEVIN GORDON: Those are the art killers, too. And that feels like what I’m here to do – do creative work. So, I just find myself at odds with the other side. I just don’t understand. Well, maybe I do.

NICK DERISO: Maybe you do … but you don’t want to.

NICK DERISO: Let’s talk about the gallery you’ve opened in Nashville. What drew you to folk art?
KEVIN GORDON: I’ve been interested in whatever you call this stuff for about 15 years. I figured out fairly quickly, even though most of the work I am interested in is still very inexpensive compared to so-called fine art, that the only way I could afford to have any of it around was to also sell it. So I made what I refer to as a zen bargain — what comes in might eventually go back out — albeit with a capitalist tinge to it. Hopefully, I will make this a profitable endeavor. It’s been difficult. I don’t have a retail space. I just use my house, and my Web site. It’s been fun, and a great inspiration creatively.

NICK DERISO: I assume this is the genesis for the new tune “Pecolia’s Star.” You’re talking about Pecolia Warner, the famous country quilter from Mississippi, right?
KEVIN GORDON: I got interested in quilts, actually, from the Gee’s Bend phenomenon – all the women in south Alabama whose work has been shown in museums all over the world for the last 10 years or so. It’s been fascinating. It’s this incredible combination of objects that have been made for a very utilitarian purpose, but yet succeed as aesthetic objects. It’s just blew my mind. I was reading a book by William Ferris called “Local Color,” and there was a chapter in there about Pecolia Warner. The way the book is set up, each chapter is a first-person monologue. Some of the things she said, about being a creative person, being a part of her community, making art, it just really struck me. Ten minutes later, I was working on that song.

NICK DERISO: Do you find it to be a metaphorical touchstone for your songwriting – this idea of there being a utilitarian beginning to something that might then have a greater impact for someone later? Is there an equivalency there for you?
KEVIN GORDON: Maybe so, in the sense that I guess a lot of the music that I grew up with basically was dance music – John Lee Hooker, Chuck Berry, or whatever. The whole idea of trying to develop something lyrically that might be more than what’s usually there, I guess that’s related. It’s a good question.

NICK DERISO: You’ve had songs covered by the likes of Keith Richards and Levon Helm, and Irma Thomas. Do you hear new things within your own music through those renditions?
KEVIN GORDON: It’s thrilling. It’s hard to believe, even when you’re hearing it. It is revealing, especially Irma’s version of “Flowers.” That was a totally different rhythmic approach to that song. I didn’t really get it at first, but I ended up really liking it. “Deuce and a Quarter,” I think the first thing I thought – other than the obvious positives – was: “Wow, it sure is slow.” It seems to feel like it ought to feel, now. But the way I was doing it live, at that point, and even the way it turned out on the Down to the Well album, is much faster. It’s almost like a Rockpile kind of thing. I’ve yet to have a cut where I said: “This changed my life.” It’s still the same house that needs a new roof (laughs), the deck is rotting. In a way, I think that’s good. But that’s a part of it I really enjoy, especially because most everybody that’s covered something I’ve written has been somebody that I admired – or, in the extreme, idolized.

NICK DERISO: Early on in your musical career, you could be found fronting punk rock bands at college dives in your home state of Louisiana. There was Puss Green and the Bayou Boys, the Innocent Victims, Fragment 36. What do you draw from those youthful experiences?
KEVIN GORDON: I think the common thread is trying to retain the same energy in a live performance, trying to keep it real – to use a cliché. Just, an honest delivery and to have fun. I understand that there are many ways of presenting songs, but I have always gravitated toward the straight-ahead approach, and I think people respond positively to that. The approach is: “Here’s some songs I wrote, and here’s how they sound tonight.” (Laughs.) For better or for worse! You paid your money, you take your chance. That’s the common thread.

NICK DERISO: Then there was a regionally touring band fronted by fellow Louisiana native Bo Ramsey. Was that like a second post-graduate experience – except this time on the road?
KEVIN GORDON: I started playing with Ramsey in my final year at Iowa, so it was a very almost bipolar experience. You would be in workshop during the week, and then Friday afternoon you’re jumping in the van and driving to places like Cascade, Iowa – which is basically a farm town – and you’re playing J.J. Cale songs, or Chuck Berry songs, originals, or whatever. It was a great counterpoint to the hyper-intellectual thing that naturally occurs in the graduate-school environment.

NICK DERISO: How does that time spent at Iowa inform your work today?
KEVIN GORDON: The main thing I got from workshop was the sense that it was OK to try to devote your life to a creative act. Suddenly, I was surrounded by people who felt the same way I did, except that most of them came from Ivy League colleges or UC-Berkeley – much more generally welcoming environments. I felt like I learned a lot just being with those people, and becoming friends with them. It really did help me grow as a writer, and as a person. The songwriting often almost feels like rebelling against the stuff I was doing in the workshop. I’ve always thought that songs and poems and two completely different animals – though, of course, they share certain common elements. It’s an interesting question. I think a lot of the poems I wrote while I was in the program, and shortly afterward, were much more experimental, and aesthetically much denser than the songs I was writing at the time. The common element for me is the attention paid to the lyric, the sounds of the words. Otherwise, I was having a lot of trouble combining French theory with John Lee Hooker. (Laughs.) Hooker was more fun! So, I feel like my whole project has been trying to combine, as unself-consciously as possible, those two ideas – the densely rhythmic music that shows its roots with an attention to the lyric from a more poetic position, in terms of paying a lot of attention to the way words sound together and what’s possible with rhymes.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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