Kevin Gordon – Poetry of the blues
Midnight. September 10, 2005. Nashville, Tennessee. Joe McMahan, Kevin Gordon’s guitarist, engineer and co-producer, stands back by the Station Inn bar and watches the John Cowan Band play to a packed room. “I don’t know about this crowd,” he says. “Maybe we should open with a gospel number.” His girlfriend, singer-songwriter Jennifer Nicely, looks equally uneasy.
Cowan’s newgrass set runs twenty minutes over. A burning banjo solo blurs into an even more burning fiddle solo into a yet more burning guitar solo. The musicianship is impeccable, blinding, and gratuitously brilliant. The band established they could play in the first 30 seconds, but jam after jam makes sure you haven’t forgotten they could smoke just about every cat in Nashville.
The cutting contest ends, and as Kevin Gordon’s four-piece rock ‘n’ roll band quickly sets up, the crowd thins out. Gordon very nearly didn’t play a showcase at the Americana Music Association conference, so perhaps he should be thankful for any slot, however absurd. He probably is.
By the time he tears into “Watching The Sun Go Down”, the opening song from O Come Look At The Burning, Gordon’s first record in five years, the crowd is down to about a dozen, and the bar hands are ready to clean up. Gordon is drenched in sweat. He grips his telecaster like a branch in a hurricane, shaking it or being shook by it — you can’t say for sure. His drummer and bassist sink into a low, dirty groove at the bottom of an undrainable swamp. They get immersed in the song, and the song gets immersed in them.
“Hundred birds up on the high line,” Gordon sings, with Nicely echoing his damp drawl. “Hundred birds up on the high line. All fly away at the same time. Watching the sun go down.” It’s the sound and feel of the blues, but McMahan will barely play a solo all night, or at least not the solos customary to a blues band. He stalks the stage lightly, rocking on the balls of his feet, focusing like he can hear whispers through the roar, the sustain of his notes hanging in the air like heat lightning.
After four numbers, the bar manager calls out: “Two more, guys!” “Two more beers?” McMahan replies, though he knows they’re pulling the plug. Gordon shifts into a Willie Dixon cover from the new album, singing, “I’m a crazy mixed up kid and I love to dance like this.” He, is and there’s no doubt he does.
Kevin Gordon was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, and grew up in Monroe, a town of 53,000 along the I-20 corridor. He still has family around there, in Jackson and Crowville. He still plays Enoch’s Pub in Monroe, where he first heard Boozoo Chavis and the tough juke-joint blues that defines his sound. And he still likes to soak up the stories of Ouachita Parish.
“Just sitting at the bar at 5 o’clock and listening to people talk and watching the local news,” he says, “I enjoy hearing those voices and what they’re talking about. I’ve written a lot of songs about people down there. It’s an ongoing dialogue with self and with the past.”
In high school, Gordon played in rock bands with bad names — the Innocent Victims and Fragment 36 — covering the Ramones and the Sex Pistols, trying to write songs like R.E.M. His father, who worked in data processing, encouraged him to pursue a practical career. So he spent three years at North East Louisiana University in Monroe, floundering and failing at everything but his guitar playing — he was teaching himself by studying Eddie Cochran records — and his poetry.
A creative writing professor, Dev Hathaway, and a visiting poet, Jorie Graham, encouraged him to keep working at the poems and to apply to the University of Iowa MFA writing program. He was admitted in 1987 and found the loose structure ideal. “You learn as much in the bars as in the classrooms,” he says. “And it was the first time I was allowed to declare myself as a poet. I would get up five days a week, work on my poems, read, go to class, then go to the bars and talk to my pals who were doing the same thing. It’s a big ego circus too, as you’d imagine. But I felt I came away a lot smarter.”
In Iowa City, Gordon frequented jam sessions, where he met kindred spirit Bo Ramsey (guitarist for Greg Brown and Lucinda Williams, among others). Eventually he joined Ramsey’s band, crisscrossing the midwest, playing Little Walter and J.J. Cale songs, and drinking beer with farmers.
By the time he graduated from the program, Gordon had started up his own band — a cassette-only release from that period, Carnival Time, has recently been reissued on CD — and was supporting himself by gigging a couple nights a week. “Expenses were low,” he recalls.
But was a he poet or a guitarist? A bard or a musician? Gordon knew he wasn’t an academic. He merely sensed some need to write and play that never quite materialized as a career path. He thought he might just be good at it. Mostly he was just making up his life as he went along.
“I remember somebody had vandalized one of the hallways outside the workshop,” he says. “It said: ‘Don’t be a writer. Just write.’ Iowa City is one of the few places on earth where you could say that and have it make sense.”
In the summer of 1992, he followed the somewhat inevitable path for a songwriter and headed to Nashville — a choice he doesn’t regret, but which still seems to puzzle him. “I missed being in the south,” he allows, “but I didn’t really know what to do. It was hilarious. I was walking around with a tweed jacket on. The response was favorable, but nobody knew what the fuck I was trying to do. And I didn’t understand the whole Nashville songwriting thing. I co-wrote some songs, but the experience was dreadful. I met some good people, but I wasn’t supposed to be doing that.”