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.