The most lovely thing about doing 20-inch previews of music shows for any given local paper are the turns a conversation might take when both parties aren’t in any rush to get off the phone. I previewed Kevin Gordon’s latest show at the Elk Creek Cafe in September and during the course of our conversation, other topics came up. You can read a lot more about Gordon in this cover story from the Nashville Scene.
We talked about his experiences attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the late ’80s for poetry.
“For me it was exactly what I needed,” Gordon said. “I needed to have my head blown open. I went to college at Monroe State for four of my five years in college, with the other year at Louisiana Tech … I was fortunate enough for three of the five years to have an incredible writing teacher who had gone to school in Virginia, Dev Hathaway.”
That was the first time Gordon had “ever seen a literary journal that was current, with poems written in the last year,” he said. Jorie Graham was a writer-in-residence and encouraged him to apply to graduate programs.
“I got in, and the slacker that I was said this is what I’m going to do for the next two years,” Gordon said. The other option? Move to Austin and become a singer-songwriter, like his friend Kevin Russell, who’s now playing with the Shiny Ribs.
“It was an ego circus as you can imagine,” Gordon said about Iowa. (And what follows, it should be noted, are scattered sentence quotes from a stream-of-consciousness conversation.)
“We were always the juvenile delinquents of the program. I’m still amazed I didn’t go to jail more than once. I was incredibly lucky. We were doing crazy shit. We were living the so-called intense life. The passionate life. Jorie was saying one time in class, urging us to live our lives full of experience. All we took it as was I should fuck as many people as possible; drink as much as I can; and hey, what are those pills you’re taking? At the same time it was also really serious I guess in that I never had as much time before or since to read.”
Frank Conroy would show up at the bars and play pool and talk after-hours. And the students had responsibilities for throwing visiting writers their shindigs. Meaning they had to buy the booze. Gordon drew Seamus Heaney.
“I thought he’d want some Irish whiskey, or single malt. I asked him at the bar, and all he said was ‘Jack Daniel’s, love.”
Though Gordon is slated by critics into the “singer-songwriter” genre, whatever that means, he says he grew up on punk rock in Monroe, Louisiana.
“For some reason our parents let us drive to New Orleans to see people like the Dead Kennedys at an absolute shithole like Jimmy’s. It’s now a college dance bar. Back then it was just a pit.”
“The punk thing came from my own interest in skateboarding,” Gordon recalled. “I was one of five people in Monroe who subscribed to Skateboarder magazine. I was exposed to what was going on in California from that magazine. It took a few years for people to be aware of what that even was.”
“The punk thing kind of made sense to me because it was tied to the early rock and roll stuff I liked … that my parents listened to. They were pretty much Beatles generation people. Their tastes were Jerry Lee Lewis and Ray Charles. I remember that a lot more than the Beatles.”
If a musician must have a day job, there are worse ones than dealing outsider art. That’s Gordon’s other gig, besides playing and songwriting.
“I really despise all the terminology,” Gordon said, “… but it became an aesthetic obsession.”
“I figured out pretty quickly, even as economical as folk art was, in some cases, I still couldn’t afford it. I couldn’t be a collector. Over the years it just became that kind of zen bargain that what comes in might have to go out someday. God knows there are easier things to sell. I get to live with the work, I get to learn about it. And write about it occasionally.”
“It’s primarily artists that are deceased. Most of them are already widely collected and exhibited,” Gordon continued. “It’s not like I had the time or capital to help build someone’s so-called career. The first time I heard the phrase “folk art career” — by a kind of nouveau folk artist who was about 25 – when my career started, Oh my God, it sure has changed.”
Southeastern art students of the ’80s and ’90s knew who Howard Finster was, Gordon continued. “The results sure are different. There’s a certain aesthetic integrity that I find in the real stuff that is totally missing in the folks who have cable TV and smartphones and such.”