Kevin Gordon is a Jazz Fest veteran, whether playing guitar with Kenny Bill Stinson and the Ark-La Mystics, or on his own as a roots rocker. Though he lives in Nashville, his years growing up in North Louisiana provide much of the subject matter for his current album, Gloryland. Gordon will return to New Orleans tonight when he’ll play Chickie Wah Wah as part of the Kevin Gordon Trio.
Much of the early press on Gloryland has proclaimed Gordon a poet – not a stretch since he earned his MFA from Iowa, but not quite right either. Gordon’s far more of a storyteller on the album, if anything plugging into the oral storytelling tradition. “Bus to Shreveport” recounts an eventful trip with an uncle to see ZZ Top that ends with his uncle pulling a gun on some bikers who were beating up his friend. The lines aren’t metrically exact and don’t fit neatly into bars. On “Colfax/Step in Time,” he speak-sings much of the story of his high school band and its African-American band director encountering the Ku Klux Klan on the streets of small-town Arkansas. In each case, he says, that casual line helped him stay truer to the experience.
His writer’s sensibility shows up in the big picture. In “Colfax/Step in Time,” one verse focuses on a girl in band, Valerie – a digression in a story about the band director dealing with racism in its many forms. But that moment gives the story dimension and life. What else does a teenaged boy think about besides girls? And the detail about spilled bourbon drops a quick, strong hint about the life she led and the lives of the people in Gordon’s community. When he goes for his uncle’s gun in “Bus to Shreveport,” he finds a book on the Klan which, when connected to the Klan’s presence in “Colfax/Step in Time,” provides a quick reminder that racism was a fact of life when he grew up.
Although words and stories drive Gordon’s songs, he’s not precious about them. Gloryland is still a rock ‘n’ roll record, so he sets his lyrics in a bed of hard, distorted electric guitars. His guitar was central to the creation of Gloryland, and rather than get the bass and drum tracks right first – the traditional sequence when recording – producer Joe McMahan recorded Gordon and his guitar first, then built around his rhythms. And the music is central to songs; it’s not just chord changes a beat to prop up a story. He evokes mid-’70s ZZ Top with a blues/boogie groove for “Bus to Shreveport,” and the melancholy chorus in “Trying to Get to Memphis” invites the listener to hear the story of guy begging for money to take his wife home for her brother’s funeral as true while Gordon tries to decide if he’s being scammed. He never tells – once again, true to the experience, because who ever knows in situations like that? – making the listener feel both situations, his and begging man’s.
The heart of the album is “Pecolia’s Stars,” which serves as a balance to the straight-faced, hard stories that dominate. While much of the album churns a wall of guitar, “Pecolia’s Stars” is gently melodic, with added shimmer on the chorus courtesy of a celestaphone (from the autoharp family). While much of the album is narrative, Gordon writes a tribute to quilter Pecolia Warner that effortlessly articulates the aesthetics of quilting and presents Gloryland‘s loveliest thought: “You’d be safe and warm / under Pecolia’s stars.” The song was inspired by a chapter on Warner in a book that was, in effect, a lengthy monologue. The title comes from her favorite thing to quilt – an eight-pointed star – and while racism is a thread that runs through the album, her song presents another point of view. As an African-American woman from Mississippi, she lived the racism that we only see from Gordon’s young, white perspective. When he evokes it, it’s in terms of shame, violence, secrecy and threats. In her song, drawn from her words, it’s the unspoken backdrop against which basic human warmth prevails because the alternatives are so joyless:
“This is something good
from my hands to your hands, child –
This here will keep you walking
straight ‘cross a crooked world.”
Kevin Gordon performs Tuesday at Chickie Wah Wah at 8 p.m.