Hill Country Live Presents
410 7th St. NW
Washington, DC, 20004
"Dude's a juke-joint professor emeritus."--Wil Hermes, Rolling Stone, 3/12
Kevin Gordon’s voice is made from dust and red clay. And the songs on the Louisiana-born performer’s sweeping new album Gloryland are chiseled from the bedrock of life — the honest facts of rambling, needing, loving, soul-searching and experience.
“I like the unfinished ending — the story that just continues when the song’s over,” says Gordon. “Life never sums itself up in three-and-a-half minutes, and a good song doesn’t need to do that either. But it should tell a story.”
All 11 numbers on Gloryland have an elemental feel — proof that Gordon’s working at the peak of the songwriter’s craft. His characters, from the school kid narrating the coming-of-age yarn “Colfax/Step in Time” to the panhandler in “Trying To Get To Memphis” to the folk artist Pecolia Warner, the subject of his lovely duet with fellow Americana singer-songwriter Sarah Siskind, “Pecolia’s Star,” have a depth and personality that brings Gordon’s songs of the South into sharp focus, even if their essential questions about the mysteries of faith, truth and humanity hang in the air as he moves on to the next tale.
It’s not just Gordon’s poetic vision and the raw character etched in his sinewy voice that gives his fifth studio album such remarkable substance. He and producer/multi-instrumentalist Joe McMahan have created a fresh, dynamic sonic approach for Gloryland that’s equally deep.
McMahan built a low-end foundation around the gutty, gritty dialog that Gordon maintains with his vintage electric Gibson hollow body guitar that’s anchored by two full drums kits and buoyed by careful mixing. That keeps the spotlight focused keenly on Gordon’s spare, evocative singing and playing, and gives the songs an uncluttered feel that contributes to their sense of place.
“I was skeptical at first, but as the album began to take shape that approach really allowed me to let the songs take their course,” Gordon says. “This time around I concentrated on narrative more, whereas on the last studio album, (2005’s O Come Look at the Burning), it was more about vibe and capturing the essence of something. For Gloryland, I wanted the stories to be literal. And if I can write a song that tells a literal, linear story and I can still feel myself getting emotional over what I’m writing about, then I know I’m getting somewhere.”
Gordon’s own narrative begins in Monroe, Louisiana, where he “grew up the son of well-intentioned, but backsliding parents. I was a very confused young man.”
Like many other children of the 1970s who fit that description, Gordon wrote poetry and discovered skate-boarding and punk rock despite being weaned on the region’s early rock, blues, honky-tonk and rockabilly sounds. He sang in a high school band whose repertoire was entirely Ramones and Sex Pistols covers. But his own fusion of words and music ignited after a girlfriend’s parents gave him a guitar and he discovered the more literate and worldly compositions of the influential Los Angeles roots- punk outfit X.
In the late-’80s Gordon moved to Iowa City, where he studied poetry and graduated with a masters degree from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. At the same time, he became indoctrinated in the world of the working musician. Gordon graduated from blues jams to playing guitar in a regionally touring band led by Bo Ramsey, who went on to become a producer and guitarist for Greg Brown and Lucinda Williams.
When Ramsey took a hiatus, Gordon began fronting his own group and writing his own songs, which he’s continued to do for more than 20 years. He moved to Tennessee in 1992, and four years later recorded the numbers that would become his first nationally distributed album, Cadillac Jack’s #1 Son, with producer Garry Tallent of the E Street Band, which was released in 1998 on Shanachie.
Gordon also has his own connection to Lucinda Williams, who he befriended in Nashville. She sang on the track “Down To the Well,” which was the title of his 2000 album and one of the most popular cuts on the 6th annual Oxford American Southern Music Sampler. The song also appeared on No Depression’s What It Sounds Like compilation.
“Many fans have discovered me because of that,” says Gordon. His songs have been cut by a host of artists. Keith Richards and Levon Helm performed Gordon’s and Gwil Owen’s “Deuce And A Quarter” with Scotty Moore on the former Elvis Presley guitarist’s 1996 solo album. New Orleans soul queen Irma Thomas recorded “Flowers” from O Come Look At the Burning on her Grammy-winning post-Katrina album After the Rain. Southside Johnny, Webb Wilder and Kate Campbell have also covered Gordon’s songs. And in 2009 Gordon issued his own live tracks, demos and rarities collection, Salvage & Drift Vol. 1, which examines his musical history in previously unreleased recordings from 1994 through that year.
“When I write a song, I have nobody else in mind but myself,” Gordon says. “When I first started writing songs it seemed like absolute freedom for me — exactly the opposite of what I was experiencing in the Writers’ Workshop. Except for the year when I had a publishing contract and discovered writing by numbers was anathema to me, that’s what it’s been about ever since.”
So it’s no wonder that occasionally Gordon follows his muse to unusual places. Gloryland’s “Black Dog” was inspired as much by his own middle-aged angst as by the rescued pit bill his family keeps. And in the title track he gets inside the heads of both a desperate evangelical and a bomb- strapped jihadist as he plumbs the religious undercurrents that flow through several of the disc’s tunes.
“I tend to write about preachers and religion because they scared me so much as a kid,” he offers. “For a while, my mom and stepdad went to a charismatic church where people would ‘get the spirit’ and fall out on the floor. It was fascinating and horrifying, and I sometimes still don’t know what to make of it.”
A more blithe spiritual theme underlies “Pecolia’s Star,” the duet with Siskind, a friend of Gordon’s who has written songs for Allison Krauss and Bon Iver. The lyrics are in the voice of the late Mississippi folk artist Pecolia Warner, who saw her captivating, colorful quilting as an extension of God’s positive influence on Earth.
Not surprisingly, Gordon’s connection with Warner and, more broadly, the creative outsiders of the folk art world is significant.
“For 15 years I’ve been obsessed with contemporary self-taught art to the point where I’ve opened a gallery in my house,” he explains. “But what’s really been inspiring about entering this world has been getting to know artists like Mose Tolliver and Jimmy Lee Sudduth.
“These people started making art of their own volition,” Gordon continues. “They already worked long days at hard jobs, often in the fields, and there was no market for their art, no dealers at their doors (until they were discovered and exhibited). That really reinforced, for me, the basic reason why I write and perform my songs — which is because I feel like I have to.”