Friday, April 22, at 8 p.m.
Callaghan’s Irish Social Club, 916 Charleston St., www.callaghansirishsocialclub.com
Tickets: $7 at the door
Songwriting is a skill steeped in many literary qualities, with some of the best songs penned by skilled poets who can interpret life in a lyrical form. Nashville’s Kevin Gordon is such a songwriter. His raw, juke-joint style of music has gathered him a dedicated cult following that includes Keith Richards, Irma Thomas and the late Levon Helm, all of whom covered his music.
Gordon also has an eye for Southern folk art. He combined both of these passions in creating his latest collection of songs, “Long Gone Time,” a collection of sonic interpretations of art from his personal collection. Gordon spoke with Lagniappe about his musical inspirations and his ongoing refusal to live the Music Row songwriter lifestyle.
Stephen Centanni: You base some of your inspiration on coming up in Northwest Louisiana. When people think about Louisiana, their thoughts instantly go to a South Louisiana-type culture. My mom grew up in a little town between Monroe and Shreveport called Gibsland, and it’s nothing like that. It’s almost like a precursor to Texas. What was it about your time in Monroe that inspired your music?
Kevin Gordon: Well, you know, I guess it was anything, like the music I heard on the radio as a kid. When I was living in Shreveport in fourth or fifth grade, my grandmother listened to KWKH, which was a legendary country station. I remember them playing stuff like Johnny Horton, and they always had a thing for Elvis, of course. There was just a real and obvious lack of Cajun influence on the culture. I didn’t really hear Cajun music until I was living in Monroe and going to college. There was a very hip club there with a jukebox that had Clifton Chenier and D.L. Menard other Cajun acts.
People who came out of Shreveport and that area always resonated with me, be it James Burton or Elvis in the “Hayride” days. Even the great blues harp player, Little Walter, was from Marksville, which is a little farther south. That music and that landscape always stuck with me, and I keep going back to it and trying to figure it out.
Centanni: What do you think about having the title “Juke Joint Professor Emeritus” Rolling Stone gave you?
Gordon: [chuckles] I’m still trying to figure out what that means. I think what they were getting at is that musically, at least, the band tends to play music that is more, how do you say it, in the cracks. It’s not a straight beat, and it’s not a shuffle. It’s somewhere in the middle. That’s part of that whole vernacular of music thing. We’re not your typical uptight, professional mainstream country band or anything like that coming out of this town, talking about Nashville. We’re probably the exact opposite of that. We’ll play my songs live, but we’ll play Slim Harpo and whatever else we feel like playing that feels good.
Centanni: You make part of your living writing songs. People like Keith Richards, Levon Helm and Irma Thomas love and have recorded your music. What’s it like having legends like that loving your music?
Gordon: It’s one of the weirdest and coolest things about writing songs. It’s knowing something that I started at my dining room table here at my house, where I’ve lived for 20 years, Keith Richards ends up singing or Levon Helm ends up singing or Irma Thomas. It’s surreal for me, but in a good way. I feel honored when somebody covers my songs, and it’s even better when it’s somebody like that who has sold a few more records than I have.
Centanni: “Long Gone Time” is your latest release, and you used your personal collection of folk art as your muse. What made you want to give a musical translation of these pieces?
Gordon: The visual art thing has always been something that I’ve been interested in. I’ve been obsessed with it for the past 15 years or so. There are things about it that I just emotionally respond to. It’s the honesty and the earnestness. Of course, every story is different, as far as artists are concerned.
When I first moved back to Nashville, I moved back to the South after being in Iowa for five years going to grad school and playing music up there. I was looking for a visual equivalent to the music that I loved like Robert Johnson and Skip James. That’s what I found when I discovered people like Jimmy Lee Sudduth, who was from Fayette, Alabama, and Mary T. Smith from Hazelhurst, Mississippi. It just had a real grounded feel about it that appealed to me and has been really inspiring over the years.
When I first got to graduate school at the University of Iowa, somebody had broken into the writer’s workshop where I was attending and spray-painted on the wall “Don’t be a writer. Just write.” I always took that to heart. I think it’s the same with these artists. They’re not concerned with their own identity, as far as what they’re called. They just know they have to do this. That’s always stuck with me. It’s about the work.
I’m a songwriter. I try to focus on the end product or the end result. It’s “Is it a good song” not “How much did that song make me” or “How well is my catalog doing,” much to the detriment of my financial well-being. Anything I’ve ever had recorded by anyone else is something that I wrote for myself. I noticed that early on. I thought that I should keep going in that direction, instead of trying to do the Music Row thing and sitting in a cubicle with someone you’ve never met and write another dumb song about a dirt road, a pick-up truck and a girl in cut-off shorts. I wasn’t interested in that.
Centanni: Your show at Callaghan’s could be considered a rare performance. I was reading an NPR profile on you that said you rarely perform outside of Tennessee. Looking at your tour schedule, you’ve got a couple of dates in Iowa, and the rest are close to home. Even so, you’ve got a pretty dedicated cult following that spans the country. What keeps you from getting out on a major tour?
Gordon: Part of it is economics, and part of it is going to the places that you’ll know you’ll do well. Part of it is having the right infrastructure in place, such as management and booking. I’m actually going out west in December. I went to Iowa in March for a few days. I go back to Iowa, just because I have fans there and friends there. It’s kind of a second home in a way. We’re trying to get out there. I’ve been going back to Texas a lot more, which is something I should’ve been doing 20 years ago. I should’ve been playing Texas three or four times a year.
I’ve got a good team behind me now that can help me with my own lack of skills, as far as organizing tours. It takes a lot of pre-planning, and I’ve never been good at that. I’m usually busy trying to finish a song, which is my favorite thing to do, besides play live. Hopefully, we’ll fill in the gaps.