This place is just concrete split with weeds
Child’s handprint imbedded, dated 1973
They spell Cajun with a K on the next-door store sign
Selling crawfish, cigarettes and fishing line
So sings Nashville-based singer-songwriter Kevin Gordon on “Cajun with a K,” in his bluesy, smoky rasp. It is not difficult to conjure vivid, detailed images as you listen to the record on which that song lives, Long Gone Time, which Gordon released this past September. The disc has garnered praise across the board for its deep, descriptive lyrics – some of Gordon’s best ever, they say. And though his voice is not a new one – he’s been at it for 25 years – Gordon is mining some new territory on Time. He digs to the root, touring the details of life and what it means to be a Southern man in 2015, a topic that feels particularly weighty amidst the steady stream of complex dialogue we’ve heard this year on topics like the still-present Confederate flag, religious extremism, and an onslaught of racially charged police brutality. More than ever, Southerners are questioning their identity, and Gordon is no exception.
“It’s the tension between wanting to live a better way in terms of getting rid of some of those ideas … while still loving your family members [from] different generations — older generations — who are just products of their time and experience,” he says. “Not to say they’re off the hook, but I understand it more now. I’m sympathetic while holding entirely different beliefs. It’s hard for me to talk about it because it’s something I still think about a lot.”
He’s working through some stuff and there is nothing simple about it. Lucky for listeners, we get to be a part of it.
A Passion for Poetry
Kevin Gordon grew up in Monroe, Louisiana, about 100 miles outside Shreveport, which his more rural great-grandparents considered “the big city.” After college, he ventured off to the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop graduate program. “That whole program just kinda blew my head way open in a way I needed badly,” he says. “I had lived in Monroe or Shreveport my entire life until I graduated from college, so moving to Iowa to write poetry just seemed like an insanely fun thing to do.”
Poetry was, and still is, Gordon’s passion. Influenced by a wide range of writers, including James Wright, Jorie Graham, and Theodore Roethke, Gordon honed his creative writing skills and learned the importance of letting the art lead him where it wants to go. But he never stopped playing music – something he had picked up in his late teens – and continued to play in bands through college, always “writing in both of those voices” he says. He eventually finished his master’s degree, but settled on a career as a musician, and has put out a steady stream of records ever since.
But Long Gone Time is particularly special in the lineup. It finds Gordon exploring not only his own heritage and history, but also the region that raised and shaped him. Songs like “Cajun with a K,” “Letter to Shreveport,” and “Shotgun Behind the Door” are intense meditations on grappling with a strange mix of affection and shame for a place – a theme not uncommon in literature and music from Southern artists. By dredging up memories that still feel vibrant in the present, and feeling haunted by ghosts of his past, Gordon deftly captures his inner monologue. We all have these intricate dialogues in our heads, especially when revisiting places that hold meaning to us, but Gordon has the innate ability to lay it all out, no matter how ugly. He’s a storyteller, and a prolific one at that.
Just listen to “Walking on the Levee,” one of the crown jewels of Time. Gordon’s lyrics play out like a stream of consciousness as he walks through his old hometown, now a grown man. He remembers a woman he was in love with named Karen, and her tragic death by lightning strike just before 9/11. He focuses on a single tender moment, the smell of her hair, in an impactful scene from his youth.
“That’s one weird thing about my songs,” he explains. “I’m usually writing about real people and very seldom do I change the name. For years I had been wanting to write about her. I knew she was gonna show up somewhere and I’m so glad that she did.”
She is not the only real person who appears on Time. Singer-songwriter-storyteller Brownie Ford shows up in “Goodnight Brownie Ford,” as does a cashier named Becky and a district attorney named Johnny Carl in “Cajun with a K,” and folks called Charles Ray and Ms. Martha in “Crowville.” It’s not always clear when all of Gordon’s characters are real, made up, or some combination of the two. But just ask him. No doubt, he’ll have a story to share.
“I guess songwriting for me has always been about things that I love or people that I love,” says Gordon. “It’s definitely kind of an affectionate nod.”
The Southern Dilemma
What really stands out about Time, though, is the way it positions Gordon within a larger canon of male songwriters who have dug proud roots in the South and who have also dedicated their songwriting to changing the conversation about antiquated ideals in the socio-political conundrum of the region. Take Lee Bains (of Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires) and Patterson Hood (of Drive-By Truckers) for example. Both seem to be on a never-ending quest to determine their place in the kudzu-like tangle of it all, and both have both been particularly vocal about the Southern dilemma in interviews. Like them, Gordon is part of a more progressive generation, but he has never forgotten the context from whence he came. His songs do not shy away from the unflattering bits, yet they also strongly embrace the unique intricacies of the places he holds dear.
“I think it was [Bruce] Springsteen who said one time [that] you know you’re an adult when you realize that the ideals you were told about when you were a kid no longer apply. You see them for what they are,” says Gordon.
“That’s what, as an adult, just scares the shit out of me,” he adds. “That there are millions of people walking around who just kind of pick their Bible verses and go about their business. Like selective morality. Whatever fits the old way. Some of that’s changing, but I think it’s gonna take a lot longer than anyone realizes.”
“Shotgun Behind the Door,” for instance, came from Gordon’s memories of his great-grandfather’s house, but the main character is more a representation of the antiquated ideals and racially charged paranoia of an entire generation of Southerners.
The song tells the story of an angry old white man who constantly has his guard up in the form of a loaded shotgun he keeps at the ready.
In the city he sees, behind his eyes
Trouble’s face is always a shade of brown.
It is a commentary on racial tension in the South, particularly an unfounded fear white people have of African-American people. To hear Gordon tell it, though, the song transcends this idea. “It becomes more about generational differences and about how elderly people at some point feel very isolated from the contemporary world around them because it’s often so different from the world they grew up in. And that’s where the fear comes in.
“I twisted it more toward [the character’s] own kind of racial paranoia,” he adds. “I think there was just so much of that back then. Of course there still is now. That whole image of the gun being where it was and the fear behind that, and what that says about faith … the people who are religious and yet feel the need to have a very real means of defense if trouble happens to come their way. That’s what I was trying to get at – that push-pull thing between religious faith and what some people would refer to as ‘common sense.’”
This isn’t something Gordon read about in a book or newspaper. It’s something he has a uniquely personal understanding of, and something that came naturally when crafting the character in the song. Earlier this year, he told Glide Magazine, “The guy in the song definitely isn’t the same guy as my great-grandfather. So it was an interesting thing for me in the way the literal was blended with the imaginary. I’m all for lying for the sake of the larger truth, you know.”
In fact, this is something Gordon feels strongly about when it comes to art. At one point in his life, he struggled to teach a young class of writing students how to allow art to take the lead.
“It almost feels like if the description is there, then the story builds itself,” he says. “And that’s really how I much prefer to work. It’s just the images and the power that they have. It feels a lot less deliberate doing it that way.” Gordon was particularly moved by the whole idea that art shouldn’t really have a tight allegiance to truth or reality. And he had manifested that philosophy in his own work, finding harmony in the blending of fact and fiction.
“The last thing I would want when people listen to [‘Shotgun’] is to come away with the impression that I was deliberately trying to talk about a social issue, because that ruins it for me,” Gordon elaborates. “It’s like fiction or poetry … for me I just always want to feel like I’m living through that experience. I don’t want the politics to be hitting me on the head with a hulking hammer. It’s the [W.B. Yeats] idea about the difference in imagery – the truer images being acts of imagination – what he called them – versus acts of will. I’ve always been fascinated by that concept. It’s the work that comes from you that you’re not thinking about. Is it an emotional place? I guess it is.”
Pictures in Words
With his background of studying Eastern poetry in depth, particularly haiku, the profound understanding and appreciation of imagery comes naturally to Gordon. He’s a visual person who values having the option to elaborate and get specific in his songwriting. You can find this in the details, whether it’s the “gold-flecked Formica” in “Cajun with a K” or the “black ink between blue lines” in “Letter to Shreveport.” Or on “Crowville,” which is bursting with color and life, much like a haiku:
Red wing bird splits the sky
Green grows wild on the highway side
In “Walking on the Levee,” he sings:
Wasp on the grass, a floating red thorn
Sun coming up, day being born
Gordon has a love for language that is so ingrained, it makes his already fascinating stories even more hypnotic. His turns of phrase are as delicious as the biscuits and “hot coffee in a percolator” the lyrics describe so well.
For this, he expresses gratitude to the writers who have inspired him and from whom who he has learned. Though his songwriting is intimidatingly good now, he started off trying to replicate writing he loved, just like the rest of us. “I like to think that I’m always learning, but in [grad school], that’s what a lot of people are doing. They’re copying their influences to learn from them,” he explains. “But it’s the same thing [with music]. Why do I want to learn a John Lee Hooker song? Because I love it so much. I want to get inside it. I want to be in it. I think the same thing goes for poetry.”
Even longtime producer Joe McMahan has taken inspiration from Gordon’s lyrical poeticism. “The take on Long Gone Time was more of a folk approach, even on the electric recordings,” McMahan says. “We wanted it to feel much more like a live performance at all times … with very few overdubs. Maybe a little tamborine here or there. [Gordon’s previous record] Gloryland was a much more epic production by comparison, and we felt it was time to return to a rootsier and more honest approach. The acoustic tracks are probably my favorite of the new stuff. I think it’s a fresh direction and sound for Kevin, and it beautifully fits the new songs.”
How did Gordon channel those long-practiced poetry-writing skills into the complicated emotions he unleashes on Time? A lot of reflection and remembering. When I mention the idea of Southern literature and where he fits amongst other prolific writers like Cormac McCarthy, Larry Brown, William Faulkner, and Flannery O’Connor, he zeroes in on the “strange cauldron” that is the South. With its rich history of literature, art, and poetry, as well as its dark past of racial prejudice and corrupt politics, it is indeed a kind of cauldron. It is prime poetry and songwriting material.
“That whole box of issues is something that I’m still working through,” he says. “And in some ways this record was the beginning of that.”
And it’s certainly not the end. He is still mining new material to flesh out more songs. He mentions dabbling with songs that draw connections between Emmett Till and Eric Garner. “I had a very interesting hour in therapy one time where all we talked about was the overwhelming presence of the idea of redemption in the South, especially for Southern men,” he says. “‘You must be redeemed.’ And how that goes all the way back to the Civil War, and a lot of what we are still dealing with are the echoes of that shame, whether or not anyone would say that it’s shame. It’s just such a deep thing.”
Ultimately, though, Gordon is able to look affectionately upon his hometown, and his writing comes from a place of love, albeit a complicated love. And it doesn’t keep him away from his old stomping grounds. Gordon still returns to his usual venue in Monroe, where he likes to just sit at the bar during happy hour and immerse himself in the conversations buzzing around him. Some of the stories he hears are “stranger than fiction,” he says. Some of the stories he’s learned there are so strange, in fact, that he’s often asked whether or not he made it all up. “It almost feels like if the description is there, then the story builds itself, and that’s really how I much prefer to work,” he tells me. “It’s just the images and the power that they have. It feels a lot less deliberate doing it that way.”
Long Gone Time leaves you feeling deeply ingrained in the goings-on of these places and the people who inhabit them. We see them through Gordon’s often dark, twisted sense of humor and his photo-real memories. It’s a place many of us may never go, but we feel thankful to Gordon for taking us there. He’s peerless in his ability to turn vivid, detailed narratives into gorgeous, bluesy Americana tunes that play out like an epic novel.