‘Try to be true to the experience’ A pre-Twangfest interview with Kevin Gordon

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If you were cooking up a dish of Kevin Gordon‘s music you’d start with a solid base of rock ‘n’ roll, and then add in various complimentary ingredients of country, folk and blues.

Fans of the country and rhythm and blues records of Memphis and Nashville of the ’50s or songwriters like Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson, Bruce Springsteen and even the Hold Steady will find something enjoyable in his deep, soulful music and poetic lyrics.

I spoke to Gordon via phone the afternoon before he was going to take his teenage son to see Jack White perform at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. When he’s not on the road, Gordon runs an art gallery and retains his chops playing every Wednesday at the Family Wash, a bar a couple of blocks down the street from his East Nashville home.

Kevin Gordon performs with a full band at Twangfest 16 at the Blueberry Hill Duck Room on Saturday, June 9.

Scott Allen: So, you grew up in Louisiana, correct?

Kevin Gordon: Yes, that’s right.

Which artists influenced your music when you were growing up? What stuck out for you?

Everybody goes through those changes when they grow up, but I was always interested in roots music, I guess. When I was a little kid my parents would have these parties and I heard a lot of Jerry Lee Lewis, Ray Charles and things like that. I had a bit of an Elvis fixation a few years later. I guess through Elvis Presley I first heard Jimmy Reed songs and things like that he would cover. In high school, I was a skateboarder and through that I got turned on to punk music. I was into the bigger bands really — the Clash, the Ramones and X. Definitely X was a huge influence.

I would imagine that it would be hard to get some of the records from the lesser-known groups in Louisiana — if you’re into punk especially back then without the Internet. Today you know everything. It might not always be right or correct, but you know it.

[Laughs] That’s right! To see any of those bands we would have to carpool to New Orleans or to Dallas. Sometimes to Jackson, Mississippi which was a little closer. It was an adventure to go. My pals and I went to see the Ramones twice in New Orleans and X at a club in ’83 which was incredible. The Dead Kennedys which was really something. Through that I kinda came back to roots music in a way….

The Ramones covered a lot of ’60s underground and garage rock and hits like Chris Montez. They harkened back to that even though it was a darker image of that music. In many of the interviews I’ve read you mention that you have your Master’s in poetry from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I am more curious in what took you in that direction.

I started playing guitar when I was a junior in high school and almost immediately started trying to write songs, so I was in bands when I was writing my first attempts at songs. I was also heavily into poetry which I got into in junior high. My stepdad was my ninth grade English teacher, a great reader that turned me onto a lot of stuff. I was writing what is loosely described as poetry, which was an emotional outlet for me for the usual adolescent complaints.

My folks had split a few years earlier and I was dealing with that emotional mess. I just kept on doing it. I was lucky enough in college to have a writing professor who knew something about what was going on now in American literature or world literature, for that matter. This was the first time I had ever seen a literary magazine that was current. This was my third year in college. So, he was a great teacher and really helped me with my work.

When it came to my senior year he encouraged me to apply to some graduate writing programs. That year we also had a visiting writer who was on the faculty at Iowa then, who has gone on to be a writing superstar, a MacArthur fellow. She read through some of my work while she was there and encouraged me to apply to Iowa, so I did. Slacker that I was I let all the other deadlines pass for the other programs. I guess I’m lucky because I got in.

When I did get accepted, I took that as a sign as that’s what I was going to be doing for the next two years. I had gotten a B.A. in English, but had not gotten a teaching certificate. That was the last thing I wasted to do was teach. It’s probably still the last thing I want to do. [Laughs] I taught the first semester we moved to Nashville as a way of paying the rent. There were moments that I will never forget. I was teaching at a vocational college where nobody was interested in hearing about poetry or anything other than getting their degrees so they could get a job. I say that with great sympathy. I had a good time trying to turn those folks on to Theodore Roethke and Victor Hugo.


You mentioned moving to Nashville. What were your goals when you arrived?

I suppose when I was thinking about moving here I thought that the songs I was writing at the time could somehow fit into more of mainstream country music business as it was then. This would have been ’92. I had met a few people. I had made some exploratory trips down here with my friend from Iowa, Bo Ramsey. I knew some musicians who had moved here from Iowa. I met several others during those trips so it just felt like a natural move.

It was also moving back to the south which felt good to me. It only took two years of being here to figure out that what I was doing was not going to work. I went through a pretty rough creative year. I had a publishing deal for a year with a manager who was from North Louisiana. I think he did it just to help me live for a year and see what the mainstream songwriting thing was all about.

The realization?

Oh, man, it was my worst creative year ever. I admire people who do artful things in that genre. I just ran screaming the other way.

You identified more with the sentiment of the Robbie Fulks song “Fuck This Town” rather than embracing this change of becoming regimented and lose all your values?

Yeah, you’d end up in these writing rooms with these people, and you’ve never seen them before and they’re really not that cool or someone you’d really want to hang out with anyway. What are we doing here, you know? It was a weird experience. It didn’t make any sense to me. I’ve since co-written with friends. I started writing with my friend Gwil Owen right after I lost my publishing deal and that was one of the best things that ever happened to me. We fit as friends and as creative people. He’s a great editor as he works on my stuff and understood what I was going for.

Since you reside in the East Nashville area, a hotbed for songwriters that don’t fit into that Nashville scene, you probably run into other musicians quite frequently. Are there other songwriters who push you to work harder?

Yeah, some of them are East Nashville folks and some of them live across the river. We share the same temperament. John Byrd, he’s more of a country artist in the traditional sense. He’s really cool. He’s from Alabama. Tommy Womack is one of my local favorites. He’s great. He wrote a song that led me to finish the long song on my record called “Colfax/Step In Time.” He had a long narrative song called “Alpha Male and the Canine Mystery Blood.” It’s just a beautiful piece about his own dilemma at that point in his life. I hate to reduce it to a two-sentence summary. It still chokes me up every time I hear him play it live, and I’m not usually that way.

You mentioned your song “Colfax/Step In Time.” I found it interesting that you’re talking about an event that happened to you 30 years ago. I thought that might crop up on an earlier album. Was there a long gestation period for that song? It’s lengthy in general, but was it something you kept coming back to? Or when you started writing it did it come fast?

It did take a long time. I felt for a lot of years that I wanted to write about that experience. I had started another song about it nine or 10 years ago, but it was a totally different groove. But the vibe of that fragment of that, the groove and the melody all seemed to warrant something really melodramatic to happen at the end. The plain truth of it was that as the song makes plain, nothing does happen; it’s just one of those weird encounters. So, I abandoned that.

A few years later I was hearing Tommy Womack do his “Alpha Male” song and Peter Cooper, who has a long song about Hank Aaron. Both of those suggested, why don’t you go back and try a longer line and a simpler chord progression, a straighter groove? When I did I had 80 or 90% of those words in a hour. It was just one of those things when the pieces fall together.

This happened in your own life and many of the songs on “Gloryland” seem to have origins in events that happened to you. I listened to an interview that you did for WBUR where you mentioned seeing the preacher in front of the church and the building had recently burned down. Are there writer’s embellishments added to these songs or are they pretty straight events as they happened and you’re wording them a little better than most people would?

I try not to embellish, and if I do, like you said, just try to say it a little better. Try to be true to the experience or what the experience means to me. For instance, on “Colfax” all that stuff happened, but may not have happened on the same bus ride. All of that stuff seemed to go together. The straight ahead thing at the end, Mr. Minifield’s reaction, that just all seemed to fit his demeanor in the classroom and as we were that day. A little town encountering these freaks on the side of the road. But it didn’t occur to me until years later — how did Minifield feel about seeing the Ku Klux Klan? I remember all of us feeling that was weird, but it took a while for it to sink in, which I guess when you’re 13 it takes a while for a lot of things to sink in. Years later it seemed like I’ve got to write about that.

This new album, “Gloryland,” is your first in seven years, but the songs seem to have been floating around a while. What took so long between your 2005 record, “Oh, Come Look At The Burning” and the new record?

Some of it had to do with my own writing process taking so long. Other factors were more practical in terms of money and time. My friend Joe McMahan produced the record and we would just work when we could get together based on time and when I could afford to pay the players. We did deliberately want to take our time with this one because his idea for the production being a larger thing not so dependent on a live performance vibe, but consciously more constructed. We knew that might take a while.

I love that live approach and I’ll probably go back to that with a vengeance whatever I do next. Two days and we’re done! I try to think about the connection between the music and the listener being the experience you’re hearing as it’s coming out of the speaker. It’s not necessarily dependent on “it sounds like they’re right here in the room.” I hope that it still keeps some of that. We did cut all the basic tracks in a total of three days. The time factor was studying those songs and figuring out how to present them.

It’s those damn overdubs that take so long.

[Laughs] I tend to take a while, at least during the making of that one. You get the McCrary Sisters who sing on “Colfax” and they are done in an hour. They are total professionals and nail it with passion. I tend to take a little while longer.

Tell me about your song “Watching the Sun Go Down” that was featured in a Dewar’s Scotch ad and slated to be featured in an episode of the HBO series “True Blood.” Have you found it’s easier to live on your earnings as a songwriter getting the occasional break rather than busting your ass as a performer?

It’s always great when those things happen. I think everybody whose working at my level wishes it were happening a little more often to make it a little easier. Actually, the thing about “True Blood” was they licensed the song, but to the best of my knowledge didn’t use it. It’s a terribly embarrassing story. I will tell you the short version.

I had a friend who I went to grad school with who was a story editor during the first season of “True Blood.” He ended up writing the episode that song was supposed to be in; he wrote the song into the script. I got a copy of the license in the mail with everybody’s signature on it. As far as I knew that meant everything was a go. So, we knew when the episode was going to air. We decided to have a little party over at my friend Paul Griffith’s house, the drummer who played on the track. We invited everyone who played on the track and other people to watch the episode.

The song is supposed to play over the closing credits — pretty great placement. So, we watch the whole episode and then it goes to the closing credits and something else plays. Oh, man. It took me a couple of days to come out of that particular hole. I found out years later that because the song had been used in the Dewar’s campaign, which was pretty limited on cable channels on the East Coast for a very short time, they decided not to use it. And it’s really true about things like that, but you just can’t even pretend it’s going to happen until you hear the record or see the film and it’s there. Until then, anything goes apparently.

The reason we are talking today is that you’re opening for John Doe at the Twangfest 16 finale on June 9th at the Duck Room at Blueberry Hill.

Which will be interesting. I met [X] there in New Orleans that time. We were staying at the same hotel they were by chance. We went down to the soundcheck. We were freaked out and [John Doe] was standing outside later drinking a Dixie beer and he gave me the rest of his beer. As a 17-year-old I was…I was… I think I still have the can somewhere in the archives after all these years. I really looked up to them and I still do. It was an interesting turn of events.

88.1 KDHX presents Kevin Gordon at Twangfest 16 on Saturday, June 9 at the Blueberry Hill Duck Room.

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