Dodging the Smoke and Mirrors with Kevin Gordon
Kevin Gordon has been making great blues-informed roots rock for over 20 years now. He’s honest and authentic and believes in what he does.
Bill Frater: What got you started in the music business and when and why?
Kevin Gordon: Hmmm. Music business. I suppose my first real contact with the business side of things (other than venues) was when I first started coming to Nashville; Bo Ramsey and I made some exploratory trips down there, when I was still living in Iowa back around 1990, and that was when I had those first awkward appointments with publishers, managers, etc. Music itself was something I was drawn to at a very early age, 5 or 6.
What other music related jobs have you done over the years?
I don’t know if this a good answer to your question, but it makes me think of a club I worked at as a bar-back when I was 18 or 19, in Louisiana. Little Caesar’s, it was called (before the pizza chain was around). A bar that catered to the over-30 crowd, most of whom seemed to be falling out of a marriage or suffering some other catastrophic romantic collision. Some of the scenes in my song “Cajun with a K” took place there. Sometimes my boss would let me DJ during happy hour, before the “real” one got there. This was the Prince 1999 era, and although I love that record now, back then I would dig into the vinyl and play Chuck Berry and Carl Perkins, much to the disgust of whoever happened to be in there at the time.
How do you describe your music and or songs to someone who’s never heard you?
I don’t have a memorized elevator pitch, etc. – so I usually just mumble something about writing songs, rock n’ roll, or occasionally the dreaded triangular reference to bigger names everybody knows: “CCR, Lucinda Williams, Springsteen” … but even that can bewilder some people. When I hear somebody in a hotel lobby who sees the guitar case ask “What kind of music do you play?”, it’s pretty much downhill from there, ha ha.
What was the first artist or album that got you into roots music?
Early rock ‘n’ roll and pre-1960 blues remain my cornerstones, I guess – and I probably heard a lot of that stuff through Elvis Presley records, which I got into as a kid. Not just the Sun stuff, even the early ’70s live records, where he’s throwing in Jimmy Reed songs, et al.
Who are your favorite artists from any genre?
Blues: Skip James, Muddy Waters, Fred McDowell, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Hooker.
How do you define what Americana music is?
I still struggle with that term, frankly. Because I still play a lot of places that have no idea what that means. But it’s been good for folks like me who are under that umbrella – it’s a steadily growing movement; you don’t have to look any further than the annual AMA conference/festival to notice a pretty incredible surge in interest in the music. But it’s a little weird to me, because I feel like I’m doing what I’ve always done – it’s not a style, you know? And over the years different labels have been put on the music: roots rock, alt-country … but in a world choked with information, via social media, etc., to have one banner represent a field of widely disparate music is truly a good thing.
Where do you see Americana radio going in the future?
I just hope it keeps growing, because it’s still a great way to hear music you haven’t been exposed to before. I think radio is an important part of the Americana community. The music is still underexposed, and radio remains a viable way of changing that.
Where do you see the music business going?
Let’s see, where’s my next gig? Taos, NM, today, L.A., San Diego, and Santa Barbara this coming week. Seriously, I don’t know. It’s bewildering. In the mainstream world, it all seems to be about the single again – and about streaming and downloads. But at my shows, I’m still selling primarily CDs of full-length records. Good to see the resurgence of vinyl, but the quality control in manufacturing can be a nightmare.
What recent albums or artists are you excited about?
Aaron Lee Tasjan. He’s a pal, and frighteningly brilliant. He stopped me dead in my tracks one night at the 5 Spot in Nashville several months ago –I’d seen him play an acoustic set earlier in the week that was great, but on this gig he was playing electric guitar, fronting a trio. Totally different. I just stood there with my mouth hanging open, thinking I was glad I didn’t have to follow THAT guy.
What are your most memorable experiences or memories from working in the music industry?
Oh let’s see. Positive: Having Keith Richards, Levon Helm, Scotty Moore, and the rest of The Band cut “Deuce and a Quarter” for the All the King’s Men record, a tribute to Scotty and Elvis’s first drummer, D.J. Fontana. Even though the record’s out of print, you can hear the track on YouTube and elsewhere. Getting to know Lucinda Williams a little bit, back when she was living in Nashville; having her sing on “Down to the Well” was great fun and brought a lot to the track.
Not-so-positive: I played guitar on a tour with Southside Johnny in Europe, Spring of ’99, I think. A stripped-down quartet, no horns. First gig, no rehearsal since doing some US East Coast dates two months earlier, was the Queen’s Day festival in The Hague. 30,000 people? Maybe more. Set goes well; we get an encore. John calls for “Sweet Virginia,” which we’d been doing on some of the East Coast dates. I totally blank. Deer in the headlights. Can’t remember the chords, and there was a capo involved, and I needed to start the song with John, who was playing Mick’s harmonica riff in that intro. Two or three really bad guesses, then I get it. The most embarrassing moment onstage ever. Probably the only time I’ve gotten drunk out of sheer rage afterwards.
What keeps you going?
It’s still about writing those songs – that’s the heart of the whole thing for me. Touring is great, for the most part – like anything else, you love the great nights, and try to have as many of those as possible. Also, hearing from people at shows, about how something I wrote or recorded positively affected them. That always kinda blows my mind – because when I’m working on a song, I’m not thinking about how it will affect other people, I just want it to be as good as it can be, period. Very personal. So to get that kind of response from folks later is kind of a shock.
How do you want to be remembered?
Haven’t thought about this much. I suppose as a guy who tried to do his best, who lived and worked honestly, and, in a business with all sorts of smoke and mirrors, just tried to keep it real.