If you were a seventh-grade trumpeter in your middle school band, a white kid so geeky you couldn't even talk to the sexy clarinetist next to you, and your black bandleader led you on a parade through nearby Colfax, La., only to be confronted by the Ku Klux Klan, that would stick with you, wouldn't it? And if you grew up to be a Nashville songwriter whose material had been recorded by Keith Richards, Levon Helm and Lucinda Williams, you'd want to write a song about that incident, right? But how?
Kevin Gordon, who has experienced all the above, faced just that dilemma in 2007. He had tried several times to write that song, but he couldn't figure out how to cram all the details into the kind of hot-wired rockabilly tune he usually wrote. He tried Mississippi Hill Country blues, but that seemed to call for a big Hollywood climax, a confrontation between the Klan and the bandleader, Mr. Minifield. That wasn't what happened, and Gordon found Minifield's actual reaction — continuing to march forward as if the Klan weren't there — far richer material.
"The solution came," he says, "from hearing two of my East Nashville friends perform these long, rambling narratives that really worked. Tommy Womack had that song about a rocker who's growing into middle age, 'Alpha Male & the Canine Mystery Blood,' and Peter Cooper had that song '715' about Hank Aaron. Just by quieting the groove and lengthening the line, they allowed the story to come out.
"So I went back to the table. I just started playing the chord progression that's now the verse, just two bars of I and two bars of IV to infinity. That led to the half-spoken vocal, which allowed me to mess with the meter and line lengths, and that allowed me to keep all the details, all the goofy coming-of-age stuff in there. All this happened in half an hour, when I got 90 percent of the current lyrics."
The finished song, now called "Colfax/Step in Time," ran more than 10 minutes when Gordon started playing it in public in 2008. It acquired an unusual buzz long before it finally appeared on his new album, Gloryland. The song begins, deceptively enough, not with Minifield confronting the Klan, but with him confronting a 13-year-old, pimply boy named Danny Amos who locks himself in Minifield's office and blasts Gordon's copy of Ted Nugent's "Wang Dang Sweet Poontang" over the PA.
"Danny Amos was his actual name," Gordon reports. "When I put that in the song, I liked the way it sounded, and I started using everyone's real name. It was a way of grounding the song, of paying witness to the events as they actually went down. I wanted to let the funny stuff be funny and the scary stuff be scary."
The scenes in which the jazz-loving Minifield has to listen to Nugent's fatuous corruption of Willie Dixon's "Wang Dang Doodle" and in which Gordon sits frozen with fear and desire next to the clarinet-playing Valerie Thrasher — "13 going on 35, sexy in a hard way, like a first cigarette" — are not only funny but they also establish the limited world view of the seventh-grade narrator, who knows as little about racial politics as he does about sex. Thus he is all the more stunned when the KKK show up and Minifield just keeps marching, "looking straight ahead, like there was somewhere better he was going, but this was the only goddamned way to get there." And we the listeners are as stunned as the narrator.
Several more songs about Gordon's North Louisiana childhood find a place on Gloryland. "Side of the Road" begins with a 5-year-old Gordon seeing a white field of ripe cotton for the first time. "Bus to Shreveport" describes a 12-year-old Gordon getting drunk at a ZZ Top concert and getting caught in a bloody racial fight at a McDonald's afterward. But just as many songs are set in the present in East Nashville. "Don't Stop Me This Time," for example — which boasts the album's catchiest chorus — crystallizes the question every struggling artist sooner or later has to face: "The old man wants to know how I'll get my children grown on a poet's hope and a pauper's wage."
"That entire song is uncomfortably autobiographical," Gordon confesses. "That's the challenge that most people in my line of work face: How do you do your work and survive? Some years ago, I came to the conclusion, 'I'm tied to this, regardless of what the world wants for me. This is what I do; I would write songs even if no one were listening.' But when you have a family, it's a weird position to be in. So you take deep breaths and push the plow forward."
A faster, funnier song on the same subject is "Black Dog," which compares an artist trapped between public indifference and family obligations to a locked-up dog growling to get out. The rocking chorus barks appropriately, but it's the Band-like verses that present the hard-to-solve dilemma: "We're married, mortgaged, full of doubt, out of storage."
"The Nashville songs feel different from the Louisiana songs," Gordon says. "The childhood songs are easier to write, simply because there's a chronological distance. I know how the old stories are going to turn out, because they've already happened. I don't know how the contemporary songs will turn out, because I'm still in the middle of them. 'Black Dog' is not just close to home — it is at home. The challenge there is how do you make something honest, when your subject is right in front of you?"
Another song, "Trying To Get to Memphis," is based on an actual incident where a guy who had once cleaned Gordon's gutters knocked on the door and asked for some money so he could take his wife to her father's funeral. Between the verses' Tony Joe White-like lazy blues and the chorus's Dave Alvin-like rockabilly, the narrator ponders his obligations to a stranger who may or may not be telling the truth.
"The last time I saw that guy was just before I wrote the song," Gordon notes. "By asking for assistance, he's bringing larger issues to your front door. Literally. Do you take him on good faith and give him what he wants? Or do you listen to your neighbor who says, 'If you give to one of them, soon they'll all show up with a story'? What does it mean if, as I did, you wish the guy well but you don't give him any money?
"I look at incidents like that as just part of living where we do. I'm not trying to romanticize the criminal element or the poverty nearby, but those things seem to keep me more engaged with the world. This neighborhood is such a great, if confusing, mix of old and new, the gentrified and the unrenovated. Living here feels better than trying to move away from it to a suburb where supposedly such a thing would never happen."
In these situations, Gordon doesn't find much solace in organized religion. The title track to the new album details his skeptical views of churches everywhere, and yet he also fills the record with borrowings from gospel music, most notably when Nashville's Regina and Ann McCrary provide a backing choir on "Colfax" and "Side of the Road."
"Religion is something I struggle with," he acknowledges, "because it's the legacy of my ancestors. It doesn't matter to me if the creation story is literal or metaphorical, or if the life of Christ happened that way. I try to see those stories for the positive messages in them. They're art in a sense. Absolutely. The Bible is not a history book. As science advances and we learn more about how long we've been around, what do you do with that information? Do you stick your head in the ground? I don't understand the insistence on things being interpreted literally. That suggests that people have forgotten the power and nature of mythology."
Gordon most often approaches these subjects through the outsider art that he collects and sells in his other career. These artists — usually African-American, Southern, unschooled and very religious — tackle these big themes in bold, raw images as if compelled to do so without thought of the marketplace. Gordon can relate to that, and on his previous album, 2005's O Come Look at the Burning, he wrote a song about one such artist, the painter Joe Light, and on the new album he has a song about another, the quilter Pecolia Warner.
"I think having that art around my house has been inspiring to me," he says. "I'm just fascinated by the idea of people who have no knowledge of mainstream art or the art market starting to make things for their own enjoyment or their community. Someone like Mary T. Smith filled her front yard with these pieces, not to sell but to proclaim her faith, to make her hometown prettier. That's where I'm trying to come from, a place of writing for the sake of the song, without thinking, 'Oh God, this would be great in True Blood.' I hate that. I think it's hard to be true to the music when you're thinking that way."
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