Interview

Kevin Gordon’s “Long Gone Time”: Making Poetry Out of Living

On Long Time Gone (Crowville, 2015) Kevin Gordon asks in the jazzy blues, almost spoken-word “Cajun with a K”:  “How do you make a living out of poetry?”  Gordon can turn a real event into song, and proves that if you can’t make a living out of poetry, you (okay, he) can make poetry out of living.

“GTO” tells the true story of his father’s stolen car, in a catchy rock and roll tune driven by Chuck Berry-inspired guitars and crashing cymbals, in a worthy addition to the cars and guitars canon of rock and roll. Digging deeper, Gordon sneaks in some social commentary to tie up the story and loose ends:

I never knew why it mattered that they were black,
The GTO was gone it wasn’t ever coming back.

“Goodnight Brownie Ford” finds Gordon turning a short  chance conversation decades ago with the cowboy, rodeo rider, and country singer, into a moving six-minute acoustic late night tribute. More than 20 years later and Gordon, based in East Nashville, continues to follow Ford’s sage advice:

Don’t let ‘em mess with your music if you move to Tennessee.

Kevin Gordon is an extremely talented singer-songwriter, and he’s been championed by none other than Lucinda Williams, who said, “He’s writing songs that are like short stories.” His songs have been covered by Irma Thomas, Keith Richards, Levon Helm, and Todd Snider’s Hard Working Americans.

On the electric tracks of Long Time Gone, the band rocks out with some piano that would bring a smile to Professor Longhair, fat guitars that recall Dave Edmunds and Rockpile, and the driving beat of  swampy Louisiana blues. Gordon dials it down on several acoustic tracks in the middle of the album before turning it back up to close out the disc.  Long Time Gone is on my very short list for "album of the year" and if Kevin Gordon isn’t on your radar, do yourself and your ears a favor, and pick up a copy.

I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Gordon about his music, his art gallery, being a parent, and more.

Hal Bogerd: I read Joe Wolfe-Mazeres' review of your show celebrating the release of your new album at the City Winery in Nashville. I wish I could have been there!

Kevin Gordon: It was great fun. Really had a ball. We didn’t know how it was gonna go, being a Monday night and all. It exceeded our expectations.

That show was with a full band. Are you playing with a band or solo on the road?

Actually we did a quartet. It was me and Joe McMahan (he produced the record) and a rhythm section. That’s kind of a rare thing for me to do the quartet touring because it is more expensive. But being release week, I wanted to kick it up a notch. We had a good time other than I had to rent a larger van at the last minute because their stuff literally would not fit in our van. It was a new rhythm section and their gear was bigger than the usual rhythm section’s.

On No Depression, there’s this ongoing debate what to call this music. When I asked Todd Snider he replied “Medicinal Americana.” What would you call your music?

I struggle with that every day. Every time I get on an elevator with a guitar on my back, some well-meaning citizen asks me that question. I tend to revert back to just saying rock and roll. That is a term people understand, or singer-songwriter. I guess I kind of straddle both of those worlds in a way, probably to my detriment [laughs]. I get tired of saying C.C.R. or Bob Dylan, not that I compare myself to those people, but to get it into some kind of musical ballpark where the mainstream music person might get it.

I resist Americana because it sounds like an antique. I guess it’s good in that it is one word. I find the actual breadth of the genre to be much narrower than the name of the genre seems to imply. When I think about Americana, I think American music which should include Cajun music, Latino music, you name it. I understand that it is impossible for one radio format to encompass everything, but therein lies the issue. I’m grateful to everybody on the Americana team who helped me. Goodness knows it’s good that we strangers stick together. A couple of weeks ago I saw some guy on Facebook post as a comment [saying,] “I don’t listen to anybody that calls their music Americana” [laughs]. There are obvious flaws in that statement, or shortcomings, but I think there is some of that attitude out there.

Two of your songs refer to the struggles of poetry as a career.  “Don’t Stop Me this Time” from Gloryland, where you sing,  “The old man wants to know, how I get my children grown on a poet’s hope, and a pauper’s wage.” And “Cajun with a K” from Long Gone Time, with the line, “How do you make a living out of poetry?”  You musicians think you’ve got it tough? Try making a living as poet! That’s the really hard job.

I’ve taken, hopefully, a less-than-100% serious attitude towards that debate. But yeah, I think it is true [that] singer-songwriters tend to have more fun. It’s a less solitary form of communication and it’s a more immediate sense of gratification. If you’re working on poems, it’s a bit of a lonesome enterprise -- in the creation of them and afterwards too. I suppose it is different if you’re wildly successful and you’re publishing books and you’re giving readings. It seems like for performing songwriters there is a bit more of an obvious support system.

If you play a gig and only 30 people show up that’s probably 29 more than would show up for a poetry reading.

That’s right [laughs]. I think most poets are just reading each other. Of course I guess the same could be said of some of us singer-songwriters.

You’ve got a couple of kids?

I do. My son is 18 and my daughter is 16. My son is a freshman in college.

Several of your songs are autobiographical. Do your kids ever listen and ask “Dad, did that really happen?” I’m thinking of “Bus to Shreveport” from Gloryland (2012).  Twelve years old and going to a ZZ Top show!

That was a true story. I discovered later that I wasn’t 12, I was at least 13. It’s one of those tricks of the mind. Memory. I know I was 12 years old and in sixth grade. I found the ticket stub a couple of months ago. And dating it, I was 13 years old. Not that that makes a significant difference. But yeah, those subjects come up and there is no easy answer. But I don’t think my kids listen to my record very much [laughs]. They’re big into Kendrick Lamar and stuff like that, which I am interested in. Before my son left for college, he’s such a sweetheart, he gave us all gifts. The presents were some of his favorite recordings and he gave me the latest Kendrick Lamar record. He gave it to me and he said you have to sit and you have to listen to it all at once. It’s not just a track-by-track thing. Of course, I haven’t had time to do that yet.

The idea of an album is fading away.

I was intrigued by the whole enduring idea of the concept album, among artists like Kendrick. And Mr. West of course. A day earlier, I got the Leadbelly box set in the mail. Of course I purchased that for myself. So it is a very interesting pair of recordings to ponder. That’s one great thing about having kids, hearing about records I would normally never hear a word of.

It has to be flattering when someone appreciates your song enough to record their version. One that comes to mind is “Down to the Well,” which Eric Brace and Peter Cooper covered, and then Todd Snider more recently covered it with the Hard Working Americans.

It is always flattering to me anytime someone hears something I had a hand in scribbling out, yodeling forth, and they want to record a version of it. It’s been a weird journey for me in that way because when I first moved to Nashville I thought that what I was doing might allow me to sneak in the back door of what was then the country music business. It took me a year to figure out that that was not the case. It was the worst creative year of my life. It drove me crazy. It was a good experience because I learned a lot about what that world is like. And I did meet some good people and I do admire people who have mastered that craft. I think it is a craft. But I apparently do not respond well to market-driven incentives [laughs].

Fairly early on, anything I would have recorded by another artist or placed in a film, it was always a song I had written for me. Not even thinking about it. Just writing a song for its own sake wherever that might take it. Maybe that was just dumb luck but I took it as a bit of a message that I should stick to my guns and do what felt right. I did and it hasn’t been the easiest thing, but it is something I feel good about. I’m happy that some of my absolute heroes have recorded something I had a hand in writing. The Irma Thomas cut was a real shock.

How does a cover come about?

Most of the time for me it’s been a personal kind of thing, a connection. It is hardly ever something I have pursued. In the case of the Irma cut, my friend David Egan, a wonderful songwriter based in Lafayette, Louisiana, was pitching some of his songs for that project to the producer and he included my version of “Flowers” at the end of his demo. The producer liked the song and the next thing I know they cut it. Quite often it is happenstance.

You took Brownie Ford’s advice in “Goodnight Brownie Ford”: “Don’t let them mess with your music if you go to Tennessee”.

That was a ten-minute conversation that just stuck with me.  I’ve been trying to write about him for damn near 30 years. I met him right before I moved to Nashville. At the time, I wasn’t quite sure how to take it. He was kind of a stubborn old guy, very much a trickster. But I really liked him and it is only been as time has gone on that what he said to me has taken on more meaning.

I love how you turned that short conversation into a song. Years ago, I was on a Greyhound bus between Houston and New Orleans and this elderly African-American gentleman sat down next to me. He starts telling me about Cookie and the Cupcakes and to be honest I hadn’t heard of them. But I remember he told me about “Mathilda” and sang it to me while we rode the bus. That short conversation stuck with me and a few months later I picked up a vinyl copy of By Request: Cookie and the Cupcakes.

Man, that’s a great story. I got to see them play one time.  Joe McMahan was still playing with Jo-El Sonnier and they needed somebody to sell merch on this one show in southwest Louisiana in Lake Charles. Did I want to get on the bus and go sell merch? Hell yes! Cookie and the Cupcakes were on the bill. It was a multi-act at the Colosseum at the college and it was that guitar player that played that original solo.

Let’s talk about your new album. “GTO” reminds me of Rockpile but that ultimately leads back to Chuck Berry. And it has to have a car in it.

Oh yeah [laughs].

That track and really all of Long Gone Time has a captured-live feel.

It was very much deliberately done that way. That was Joe’s [McMahan] idea to ... do the record as kind of a half-and-half thing. Half songs with all acoustic instruments, and half being more what you’d expect from me. An electric band kind of thing. But also that we would track everything, if possible, live, simultaneously in the same room. Which harkens back to Cosimo Matassa, another Louisiana influence, of recording the live performance with everybody in the same room. Of course other studios did that too, but that’s what we were thinking about. It was a lot of fun. And there are very few overdubs on the album, especially the acoustic stuff. I don’t think there are any. That was particularly challenging for me not exactly being Frank Sinatra, having to get a keeper vocal in a very quiet performance environment. Most of the acoustic tracks were just me, Lex Price, and Bo Ramsey. It was challenging but it was a great way to work, and I think it brought out some good performances.

Could you talk a little bit about your gallery, the Gordon Gallery?

If you ever come to my house, you’ve come to the gallery. It exists on the walls of my house. It’s pretty much the storefront. Most of my sales are via internet, through email, or talking on the phone with people. Most sales are to collectors who are knowledgeable about the kind of outsider, folk art that I’m into. Most of them are from out of state and usually in New York, New Orleans, or California. Very few local clients. The Nashville art scene is so conservative and trendy in that predictable way that the mainstream art world can be. Keeping it a small operation allows me to work at my own pace and only represent the work that I believe in. I don’t have to dilute what I’m putting out there for the sake of paying the rent. It’s worked pretty well.

There’s been this weird kind of equilibrium. If I’m on the road touring then I’m not getting many emails about art, but then if I’m off the road I’ll have some inquiries come in. It’s usually pretty easy to balance the two. I’m more of a curator or scholar than a salesman by far. God knows there are easier things to sell [laughs].  It allows me to keep it around and learn from it and think about it. I feel really lucky that I’ve been able to do it as long as I have.

The cover from Long Gone Time is a painting, “After the Flood (Katrina),” by Michael Noland.  We just passed the ten year anniversary of Katrina. Did that factor into the selection of the artwork?

I’ve always liked Michael’s work. He’s a trained artist from Illinois and we know each other because we both collect folk art. I was familiar with his work and we were searching and searching for a cover and I didn’t have any ideas and then I went to Michael’s site and started looking at the paintings. I thought the graphic qualities of his work might work really well as an image on the cover, and then I saw that painting of the deer in the river and the title. [I thought,] this might be the one. It seemed to fit the mood of the record.

What are the things about being a full time musician that you find most fulfilling, that keep you engaged and creative? Or does that depend on the day and how things are going?

It often depends on the day, but I just feel incredibly fortunate that I can do this even on my level. It’s not exactly champagne and caviar. I feel like I get good things from touring. It puts me in a place where it is easier to write. There’s more to write about. From meeting people and being the guy in the van going 75 mph for 10 hours a day. I think that does something to your mind. You come home or you get to the hotel and there’s something that wants to speak. There’s a song in there.

And I like being home. Today is a typical weekday. My daughter is at school and my wife is at work, and I’ve got the house to myself. Of course right now I’m doing more [of] printing shipping labels than anything. But ‘tis the season, with the record just coming out. It’s a good problem to have.

Great interview Hal that has introduced me to what appears to be a great artist. I'm glad I finally took the time to read it. Now to find some of his albums. I hope they are available in stores since I hate ordering online and refuse to download. At least in Seattle here we do still have some great "record" stores that have, so far, managed to stay in business. 

Since he is a painter himself does he use any of his own paintings for album covers? Just wondering...

You can hear in interview with Kevin Gordon where he talks about meeting Brownie Ford  and you can hear tracks from the album on Americana Music Show #269.