by Kelly McCartney (@theKELword) for FolkAlley.com
Singer/songwriter Kevin Gordon grew up in the northeast corner of Louisiana, in a town called Monroe. He played in the school band, probably fished in Black Bayou, and went to football games at what was, back then, Northeast Louisiana University. Although Gordon has left Louisiana, Louisiana has never left him…or his music. The places and people that comprised his youth are ever-present in his songs, including the ones that fill his new album, ‘Long Gone Time’.
Kelly McCartney: You moved to Nashville quite a while ago, but you still visit your Louisiana homeland. How have things changed or not changed down there in the past few decades?
Kevin Gordon: It’s still “home” – the cliche says you can’t go back, but you really can’t get away from it, either. It’s a fascinating, beautiful, and nasty place, full of contradictions … the best music and food; poorly funded public schools and exceptionally corrupt, eccentric governance. There’s nowhere else like it. And I keep going back. I guess I think I’m going to figure it all out somehow. Or, I just have the need to drive south for a good po-boy once in a while.
Your songs are often cited for their literary qualities. Is that a style you chose to pursue or did it choose you?
I don’t believe in style as a conscious choice, at least as a way to make art or music that’s honest. I just try to be true to whatever I’m hearing in my head, to what feels good and right at the time. Yes, I did go to grad school in poetry … but I’m also, essentially, a self-taught guitar player, and my deepest ties to music have more to do with rhythm, with the body, than with any high-minded thoughts about melodic structure or lyrical complexity.
This is a three-parter: What’s the trick to getting inside the heads and hearts of your characters? Do you have a favorite character? And do any of them have recurring roles in more than one song?
I don’t have any tricks, though listening critically seems most important to me for just about all aspects of songwriting. You have to forget it’s you when you’re listening back to a draft of a song. Most of my characters are or were “real” people – so I either still hear their voices in my mind or, in the case of Brownie Ford — who appears in two songs on ‘Long Gone Time’ — I read interviews with him and combined that with the memory I have of meeting him that one time in Monroe.
I don’t have a favorite character, though I have written four or five songs about a guy who closely resembles an old friend from Monroe, who doesn’t seem able to keep his life together. (This friend used to come to my shows down there, and would request those songs.) There’s a song on ‘Gloryland’ about a woman I read about in a book, called ‘Local Color,’ by folklorist William Ferris. She was a quilter, named Pecolia Warner, from Yazoo City, MS, and the prose on the page was in first-person, like she was just sitting there talking to you. I read the chapter on Ms. Warner and, within five minutes, had started what became the song “Pecolia’s Star.”
So many glowing articles about you make mention of how you are under-appreciated. But you do a pretty specific thing, musically. These aren’t three-minute pop songs you’re writing. Obviously, you want people to hear your music, but what’s the ultimate, long-term win for you?
I just want to keep writing songs and making records, and hopefully get better at it as I go along. I think that when you start feeling too proud of, or satisfied with, your work, you’ve kind of lost it – the idea of why you’re doing this in the first place. To stay humbled by the persistent mystery and wonder of this life feels like the most important thing to me, as a creative person. To not give a damn about what people think is also important. Practically speaking, though, things seem to get a little better out there with each record. So I keep going. This is just what I do. I want to keep doing it as long as I’m able.
“Colfax,” from your last album, caught a lot of ears off guard. If that song turns out to be the pillar of your legacy, how would you feel?
I’m glad I finished that song; I’d been trying to write it for several years. I wasn’t sure where I was going with it – except that I wanted the song to stay true to the story as it actually happened. But that presented a problem, because the story didn’t have some sort of Hollywood, CGI-induced, bombs-and-glory ending*. (And that kind of monotony, that lack of drama, ended up being one of the things the song is “about,” I think – the constant, often silent struggle that victims of prejudice face, and their often quiet, yet heroic, push-back against all that.) But the song had to be about the experience itself first, including all the goofy adolescent stuff, which everybody can relate to. So, yeah, if whoever decides these things thinks “Colfax” is at the top of the heap, I’m fine with it.
*And the first version I came up with, which had a kind of north Mississippi, hill-country blues groove, seemed to want that. But I heard a couple of friends play their own long, linear, lyric-driven songs (Tommy Womack, “Alpha Male & the Canine Mystery Blood”; Peter Cooper’s song about Hank Aaron, “715”) and that inspired me to go back and try again. Once I simplified the chord structure and the groove, I had 90 percent of those lyrics within an hour. They just fell out. I’d never written anything like it.
Stream ‘Long Gone Time’ in its entirety in the player below!
October 4 – Roots Music House Concert – Peace Dale, RI
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(October 9 – Folk Alley Session taping – Saranac Lake, NY)
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