My title this week comes from our musical guest Kevin Gordon, quoted in a recent cover profile in the Nashville Scene. He’s telling super-journalist Geoffrey Himes about the visual artists whose work he collects and brokers as a sidelight to his music career. These southern painters and sculptors fall in the “outsider” category, and Gordon sees a purity of expression in their unschooled and guileless outpourings. They are, he believes, born artists who are unaware there might have ever been a choice in the matter. He compares it to his own fierce habit of songwriting, recording and performing, something he does with as much impact and lasting quality as any artist in our fecund Americana terrain. Oh, and that’s my assessment, not his. He’s as humble as they come.
Gordon has wrestled with whether his path is “realistic” and whether it can support a family and offer a validated self to his loved ones. But we know about irrepressible callings. We feel it ourselves and we see it in most of the musicians who play our stage, with this week being no exception.
To us music commentary types and a great many fans, Gordon validated his place in the first tier of American music a long time ago. His 1999 album title song “Down To The Well” appeared on the Oxford American Southern Music sampler in a duet with Lucinda Williams. That was my initial electric zap of recognition of immense talent and reserve. His song “Deuce And A Quarter” was recorded by Keith Richards, Levon Helm and Scotty Moore. Gordon’s “Colfax/Step In Time” is perhaps his best–known masterpiece; I heard it at a tiny stage at a tiny festival around 2003 and it rearranged my molecules with its piercing poignancy. He is an exceptional writer and memoirist from a story-rich place (Monroe, Louisiana) whose medium happens to be songs.
Allow me to borrow some of Geoffrey’s words summarizing Gordon’s strengths, because I’d only offer a pale imitation:
The songwriter doesn’t have the prose writer’s luxury of descriptive catalogs; the lyricist has to find the few telling images that can evoke a time and place and introduce the tale’s leading characters. This Gordon does with rare vividness and economy. The songwriter then has to allow his opposing forces to collide and ricochet where they will, resisting the all-too-human temptation to impose a happy or exciting ending. This too Gordon does better than almost anyone.
As a songwriter, he tells Himes that he honors “a whole mess of traditions,” and with so many regional influences and a trained poet’s observational powers, this leaves enormous room for Gordon’s individuality to animate and inhabit the music. He disdains pat answers and tidy resolutions. His characters realize things and feel things and lose thing but they won’t catch him pretending that they figure it all out. You feel that as vividly as ever on his new Long Gone Time album, which is a half-and-half affair. There’s a moody, minimalist side with personal recollections such as the going-home song “Walking On The Levee,” while the rest is classic roadhouse country swampbilly set to the irresistible beats of Paul Griffith and the guitars of Gordon and Joe McMahan. We are thrilled to welcome Gordon back to Roots at a time when this album is getting widespread attention and acclaim.
The work of Minton Sparks makes a perfect bookend to Gordon’s songs, for they are both storytellers who traffic in vivid southern characters. Sparks’s musically levitated spoken word pieces spring from her like a fierce habit. Like many of the outsider artists Gordon admires, Sparks found her voice and muse well into life, and the results feel unforced and intrinsic. We’ve loved watching her show evolve from a rather spare affair with one backing musician to fronting a band that fleshes out the sound with cinematic flair. Her most recent album is 2014’s Gold Digger, but what we remember is her most recent set at MCR, which was spellbinding.
Hope Country is the project name of Brent Johnson, a Wisconsin-reared, Minnesota-based songwriter who’s been playing and touring since his teens. He’s unafraid of beauty and ennobling sentiments in songs that come across as straight-up Americana with a salty grandeur. When CMT Edge caught up with him in 2014 upon release of his Mumfordish single “On Our Own” he was about to open shows with Nashville’s Judah & The Lion. Anyone who enjoyed them at Roots a few months ago (and how could you not?) will get swept up in Johnson’s romantic fervor.
Rounding out our night of fierce habitués of song is emerging trio Fort Defiance, a Nashville-based folk group that got rolling just last year as the newly acquainted duo of Jordan Eastman and Laurel Lane. They added drummer Dave Martin and began to get in front of audiences with what writers have called “vigorous honesty” and “bellies of fire.” This year they released the debut album Worry Has No Home, a sentiment that seems to go with this week’s theme. The corollary of no worries is not, as a sweet pop song once said, being happy. It’s being alive and creative.