Eliza Gilkyson - Like a natural woman
"Is she still bitter?"
That's what the good ol' boy guitar picker asked me after I told him I'd just visited with Eliza Gilkyson.
"Not as far as I could tell," I gently replied. "In fact, she's at the top of her game."
Maybe I was rubbing it in, because said friend, the Six-String Bubba, has a sourpuss reputation his own self. But I was really being honest.
Bitter? She is anything but.
At 54, Eliza Gilkyson is comfortable being single and living alone, comfortable in voicing her opinion, comfortable in not taking any unnecessary bullshit, and extremely comfortable in her particular place and time. There may be some jitterbuggers in the great Venus-Mars dance who find a woman on top like that to be something of a threat, but in this instance this writer would like to state for the record he is just fine with the position.
The sweetest part of this ascendance is that after 36 years in the game as a recording artist, Gilkyson is finally hitting her stride. Her new album Paradise Hotel, released August 9 on Red House Records, comes on the heels of last year's Land Of Milk And Honey, which earned a Grammy nomination for best contemporary folk album, formal recognition of a six-year burst of creativity that has finally put her on the map. She's been a singer, a diva, a new age artist, a backup vocalist and collaborator (Amazing Rhythm Aces, Iain Matthews, Lonnie Mack, Exene Cervenka, her brother Tony, Andreas Vollenweider), and a backing instrumentalist (Andew Hardin), so she's just fine with being a folk singer at this stage.
Her body of work over the previous six years has established Gilkyson as an exquisite weaver of story-songs that strike at the heart of personal experience, and, increasingly, as a very vocal critic providing commentary about the body politic. From all outward appearances, including recent tours across Canada, Europe, and a run this fall with Richard Thompson, the two sensibilities blend together harmoniously when she's doing the singing.
If I hadn't figured out she's reached her zone of comfort by listening to her recent recorded works, her body language telegraphs it the minute she opens the door of her South Austin home. The interior radiates coziness, comfort, and a strong affinity for Northern New Mexico, with Native blankets and subtle artwork hanging from walls painted in earth tones. Even when informed of the London terror bombings that occurred a few hours earlier, she remains the picture of serenity in her maroon hippie dress, her face untouched by makeup, reclining on the sofa.
"I'd never written a political song in my life," she says as her half-Scottie, half-Bassett hound Harpo curls up below the sofa as if on cue. The cocoon of comfort is so snug, secure and complete, one could tune out the outside world -- politics included -- if one so desired, which Eliza clearly does not. Actually, she's been commenting on subjects such as materialism, greed and war since her album Pilgrims came out fourteen years before September 11. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon moved her, but not near as profoundly as the hardened "either you're for us or you're against us" attitudes that emerged after the fact, typically directed at anyone who questioned a war that now appears to have been prosecuted under trumped-up charges.
"My shtick has always been the human condition," she says. "And no matter who one is or what they think, world events have insinuated themselves into everyone's lives. Politics," she says, "has become personal. Until this point, it's been personal without politics. Not anymore."
Her pointed perspective was simmering on 2000's Hard Times In Babylon and 2002's Lost And Found before boiling to the surface on Land Of Milk And Honey with an uptempo stinging indictment of war titled "Highway 9" and her discovery of "Peace Road", a Woody Guthrie composition that Guthrie never recorded.
This time around, the venom is aimed directly at President Bush, questioning his carefully choreographed image as a so-called "Man Of God" while her brother Tony's guitar slithers in the background like a snake on its belly and a chorus featuring Slaid Cleaves, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Marcia Ball and Ana Egge repeats the chant: "Man of God, man of God, that ain't the teachings of a man of god."
Her one cover, World Party's "Is It Like Today?", takes the longer view of the same situation, her voice quivering with urgency and frustration as she asks, "How could it come to this?" and sighs with resigned emotion, "Is it like today?"
But that's only part of the story. The album opens on a hopeful note of pure smitten love with "Borderline", Eliza crooning and half-yodeling over a high lonesome melodic twang, declaring herself wary and weary but on the verge of giving in to a lover. The sentiment carries over to the title track. She's not looking at what once was, or what could be, but rather at what is -- and "the bird in my hand promises paradise."
She digs deep into her own family roots to tell the story of Brigadier General Jedidiah Huntington, a commander in the American Revolution, painting him in the winter of his discontent in a way that isn't political at all. "I didn't lean him one way or another," she says, "but I think he would have been on our side because he was challenging the status quo."
She takes the listener in church with the prayer "Requiem", exquisitely sung with her daughter Delia, and flaunts her inner shitkicker dueting her way through "Calm Before The Storm" with Shawn Colvin. She comes off muy autentico passionately singing her way in flawless Spanish through "Bellarosa", supported by the backing musicians for balladeer Manuel "Cowboy" Donley. And she gets very, very personal: "Think About You" and "Calm Before The Storm" are straight out love songs with universal reach.
Covering all those bases speaks to the long road taken over the course of Eliza Gilkyson's professional life. She grew up in southern California surrounded by music, songs, and a father who was a critical cog in the starmaking machine. Terry Gilkyson composed "Greenfields", "The Bare Necessities" from The Jungle Book, the pseudo-calypso classic "Marianne", and "Memories Are Made Of This" (covered by Johnny Cash and Dean Martin, for whom he played bass). "My father was a pop folk songwriter," Eliza says, and a craftsman who was very effective at what he did, even though, she relates, seminal folk group the Weavers "absolutely hated" covering his composition "On Top Of Old Smokey" in spite of the fame and fortune it brought them.
Terry Gilkyson's friends were composers, musicians, and other industry types -- folks like Van Dyke Parks, Brian Wilson's collaborator on the Smile project, who added accordion to an earlier Eliza recording. It was the kind of nurturing environment that prompted her to want to follow in her father's steps. When it came time to strike out on her own, she headed to the mountains of northern New Mexico on a quest for personal fulfillment and career enrichment.
"I wanted to be a hippie," she beams proudly. She dove into the lifestyle head first, living in a railroad boxcar in Lamy and in an adobe in Cerrillos. She excelled musically, as a sensitive song poet, and her stature grew throughout the region. Somewhere along the way, she realized that no matter how much talent she had, being the benefit queen of northern New Mexico did not translate into success in the larger world, especially the world her father had come from.
"I thought I could be a star and still live in New Mexico," she laughs, looking back. There were plenty of upsides to the experience, including considerable seasoning as a songwriter and a performer; she also raised her children there, including her son, Cisco Ryder, who drums in her band. But she needed more.
In 1981, she signed a management deal with Michael Brovsky, Jerry Jeff Walker's manager, and made her first move to Austin. Then she headed west. "My ex-husband/manager and I exodused outta Austin in 1986 and shopped around Hollywood and got the Gold Castle deal," she recounts, referring to the label that released Pilgrims and Legends Of Rainmaker. The two albums for music-biz insider Danny Goldberg's company were her most ambitious attempts at commercial success, albeit as a new age artist.
Neither sold what the label wanted.
She invested two years in the early 1990s living in Zurich, Switzerland, where she collaborated and toured with harpist Andreas Vollenweider. She released albums every other year or so, including Through The Looking Glass and Undressed, leading up to 1997's Redemption Road, her artistic collaboration with Austin bassist Mark Andes, whose deep credentials extend back to Spirit, Jo Jo Gunne, Firefall, Heart, Dan Fogelberg and Stevie Nicks; he was also the significant other of her last long-term relationship. After their breakup, she came to the conclusion, "It just ain't gonna happen," with music or with men.
Which is when things started to happen.
Her roots in Austin by now were permanent, with three generations of her family living nearby (yep, she's a grandma). She found the producer she'd always been looking for in Mark Hallman, and their studio collaboration led to the breakthrough album Hard Times In Babylon. In Austin, where outsiders are the insiders, she staked out turf as the independent older woman singer-songwriter, and she built a steady following.
"The audiences are wonderful," she says of her home city. "You can be unknown everywhere else. It doesn't matter who you are or how big you are, as long as you can deliver in person." Not surprisingly, Austin is where she first began speaking out, or, more to the point, singing out.
"It is personal," she says, sitting up in the sofa. "Politics has become personal. Until this point, I have not been involved with politics because I'm all about the personal. That is my thing. That's not even because it interests me, it's where my muse seems to rear its head. That happens naturally. Because politics has become personal -- and it has across the board, no matter what side you're on or what your view is -- beliefs are at stake here. Values and lifestyles. My relationship with nature because of the environment is all at stake.
"So it's coming up in the music. As a woman who's pushing the envelope of what it means to be middle-aged, it's become personal. Before, when I was young, my issues as a woman were all relationship-related, about loving and losing, whichever came first. Those were the topics. Unfortunately, those topics are still there. But these other things have pre-empted them."
While Gilkyson is determined to voice her concerns -- "I don't want to look back on this time and feel like I missed the chance to say what I have to say" -- she's not fooling herself that her music will change hearts and minds. "Minds have already been made up," she observes. Instead, she says she's trying to give a voice to those who don't have one, the 57 million who voted blue but have been shut out of the dialogue.
Her declarations that at this stage of her life, it's OK to be alone, and it's OK to embrace the aloneness -- "once we let go of the dream, reality is a fabulous substitute," is how she puts it -- prompted me to ask if she attracts male groupies of a certain maturity. She may be tough and she may be opinionated, but she is also very much the babe.
She laughs, takes that as a compliment, and shakes her head. "I'm not putting out 'I'm available' vibes when I play," She smiles, pondering the thought. "I've think I've been asked out for a date once by someone in the audience."
She's not shedding tears about it. She's found her calling, writing songs, making albums, performing concerts. And while she has the chops to focus on any one aspect of making songs, she isn't inclined to be partial to one or another. "It's the whole process," she says.
Her goal now is living the reality she's created. "I just want to continue doing what I'm doing," she concludes. As long humans and their conditions are within reach, Gilkyson has plenty to work with.
Joe Nick Patoski is a contributing editor to No Depression. He just completed his first assignment for National Geographic.