Kevin Gordon – He can’t get no
Kevin Gordon couldn’t be more at home with his musical roots. The West Monroe, Louisiana, native inhabits the swamp blues, honky-tonk and rockabilly he heard growing up in the ’60s with the unassuming ease of a performer twice his age. The roots that lend Gordon’s music its tension are, rather, social and historical.
On Illinois 5 a.m. (Motherlode), his new seven-song CD, Gordon wrestles with the desire to transcend what he calls “that feeling of unwilled stasis” — a feeling born of entanglements such as home, work and family of origin. You hear it in the mortgaged dreams of “Company Car.” It’s there in the only half-joking “Blue-Collar Dollar.” But nowhere does Gordon express this longing for release as poignantly as in “Dissatisfied”, a wistful meditation on the ever-elusive brass ring that approximates Margaret Ann Rich’s “Life’s Little Ups and Downs”. “Baby wants a house and a car and a pony she can ride,” sings Gordon, his voice both weary and matter-of-fact. “She ain’t got ’em, she’s just dissatisfied.”
“That song is really personal,” admits Gordon. “The first time my wife heard it she was really upset with me, understandably, because it’s a pretty hard look. We’re driving through Belle Meade,” he continues, referring to the part of town where Nashville’s old-money lives. “We’re on our way to the Kroger in a rusty 1983 pickup and I turn and notice my wife looking out the window at the houses. And not that I’m not doing the same thing a little bit — that’s probably implicit, that desire not so much for the material things themselves, but for the implied peace that comes with that sort of situation.”
Gordon comes by this class-consciousness naturally. Although he grew up in a comfortable home — his mother teaches algebra, his dad works with computers — it’s his grandfather’s experience that resonates most deeply with Gordon. “My grandfather grew up in Smackover, Arkansas. He went to high school with Lefty Frizzell — just a wonderful cat who busted his ass all his life working in heating and air conditioning when he was smart enough, if he’d had the financial resources, to have gone to school and gotten out of that.”
As a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers Workshop whose poems have appeared in Denver Quarterly and Southern Poetry Review, Gordon is acutely aware of the distance he’s put between himself and his middle-class roots. “I had this wonderful little aesthete sort of existence in Iowa City,” says Gordon. “You go to the bookstore, you go to the bar and you drink, and you talk about writing and you get up in the morning with a hangover and you write your poems. Part of that’s really wonderful, in that people are so passionate about ideas, but part of it’s just silly to me now.”
Perhaps, but in the midst of that indulgence, Gordon also played the economically depressed farm and factory towns of Eastern Iowa with singer-songwriter Bo Ramsey. As with his previous stint in the roadhouses of Northwestern Louisiana, that experience kept Gordon connected to the world of working men and women, something he doesn’t necessarily believe an artist has to live to portray.
“Forget lining up your bio to make it look like you worked in a factory for 15 years so that you can write a song,” bristles Gordon. “To me it’s either on the tape or it’s not. The tape doesn’t lie.”
Indeed, Illinois 5 a.m. — most of it produced by the E Street Band’s Garry Tallent — brims with empathy and passion. “Company Car” wouldn’t sound out-of-place on an album by Tallent’s former boss; “Junior’s Guitar” suggests Guitar Town-era Steve Earle; on “City of Refuge”, Gordon displays facility with the sanctified blues of Blind Willie Johnson.
Two Gordon originals not included on the album, both co-written with frequent collaborator Gwil Owen, have lately caught the ear of several roots music legends. Unreconstructed rockabilly great Sonny Burgess, who recorded for Sun Records in the ’50s, included a version of “Fast Train” on his self-titled 1996 CD for Rounder. All The King’s Men, an ad hoc supergroup anchored by former Elvis Presley sidemen D.J. Fontana and Scotty Moore and featuring guest stars including Keith Richards and Levon Helm, recorded “Deuce and a Quarter” for their Sweetfish Records disc released in August.
“It’s still a bit unreal,” Gordon says of these celebrity connections. “We didn’t even pitch those songs. They were from tapes that I’d made for Garry [Tallent], just some acoustic work tapes of songs that I wanted to put on my record. The next thing I know I’m in Oxford, Mississippi, doing a gig, and the phone rings: It’s my wife on the phone and I think something awful has happened. ‘There’s some weird message on the machine about Keith Richards cutting one of your songs,’ she says. And I said, ‘What?’ I’ve been here long enough that I don’t believe it until I hear it or see it in writing. Sure enough, three weeks later they cut it.”