One Track Mind: Kevin Gordon, “Colfax”
Returning with his first new album in seven years, Nashville singer-songwriter Kevin Gordon drills in on the second half of that descriptor — telling stories that resonate like age-old fables, even on the first listen. Produced by Dove Award winner Joe McMahan (Freedy Johnston, Allison Moorer), Gloryland is another milestone in a career that’s already seen Gordon craft well-regarded sides with producer Garry Tallent of the E Street Band, singer Lucinda Williams and Bo Ramsey, now producer and guitarist with both Greg Brown and Williams. Along the way, the Louisiana native’s songs have also been reinterpreted by the likes of Irma Thomas, Southside Johnny, Keith Richards and Levon Helm, too. His powerful new release underscores all over again why Gordon has so quickly soared into that rarefied air. He’s got the goods …
Talking more than he sings, Gordon becomes something of a backwoods griot on “Colfax,” relating one of those every-day moments that quickly dilates into a life lesson.
“Colfax,” a standout track set in Gordon’s native Louisiana from Gloryland, boasts a series of resonant details that draw you in: There’s the kid waxing his braces in preparation for another half-time performance in the school band. Then moving in smart formation, playing “Sir Duke” by Stevie Wonder — a song dedicated to a mid-century jazz legend, though the youngster couldn’t have known that then.
In this way, “Colfax” begins — like every life of every kid marching in his brand-new uniform — with the best of intentions. The kid dutifully rides to the games, remembers his steps and his trumpet parts — doing his small duty, making sure the show goes on. These are the lives we lead, if all goes well. We play our part.
Doesn’t take long, though, for the cracks start to show. There’s an incident involving a Ted Nugent record, swiped by another boy and played over the band-room speakers at full blast. Little things. But that’s how it begins. Cracks become crevices, which become yawning canyons. The plight of their band director — a frustrated African American with bigger ideas of what this all could be — is laid bare: He had other dreams. At the very least, he thought he might be able to squeeze something else out of this moment.
Before the kid can get his mind around any of that, though, there’s the distraction of a girl — “sexy in a hard way, like a first cigarette,” but totally unreachable. Eventually, it all starts to become a whirl of bus tires going ’round, games going by.
Then, just like that, it all comes into sharp, shaking focus — as the KKK, in get ups that the boy can only relate to as dunce caps, comes pouring into one of the games. They start to hand out their screeds, neatly folded in tracts, “like this was normal — another doo-dah day down in Dixieland.” Unsure of what to do, the kid looks to the band director — who just keeps marching, “looking straight ahead,” Gordon sings, in a whisper that becomes a yelp as the song gathers a shambling steam. “Like there was somewhere better he was going, but this was the only goddamned way to get there today.”
It’s a grown up thought, and a turning point — though just what happens with the band leader, or the boy, is unclear. That’s the poetry, and the power, of this song.
Gordon repeats the line — straight ahead— until it becomes a mantra, and then an angry retort. And you suddenly see what the kid saw: What made that band director keep going, what makes us all keep going. We have to fashion something out of this world, something out of the hand we’re given. You pick your spots. And when the time comes, you try make your stand in any way that you can.
Even if it’s just holding your own, and doing what you’re supposed to do. Sometimes, that’s enough. Sometimes, it’s everything.
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