The town of Monroe, Louisiana, sits in the northwestern part of the state on Interstate 20, halfway between Vicksburg and Shreveport, not far from the Arkansas and Mississippi borders. The Ouachita River flows through the western edge of the town — population around 49,000 — and though it's not strictly Cajun country, it's a rich melting pot of Southern cultures all the same.
Northern Louisiana is the world that suffuses Long Gone Time, the new album by Kevin Gordon, an East Nashville, Tennessee-based songwriter who for three decades has been wrestling with the forms of rockabilly, blues and country-folk — and making them his own. Gordon has left a personal and poetic mark on those genres, somehow infusing them with fresh imagery, characters and insights that are as tough as they are tender. Anyone who has heard his duet with Lucinda Williams on "Down to the Well," his classic rocker "Deuce and a Quarter" (which Keith Richards, Scotty Moore and members of the Band covered) and his ten-minute-long American epic "Colfax/Step in Time" know just how wide-ranging and wide-open rock & roll songwriting can be.
It was in Monroe where he first learned to play Buddy Holly songs on the guitar and fronted a proto-punk band that covered the Ramones and the Sex Pistols to the shock and awe of high school gatherings. He studied in the Iowa Writers' Workshop under Marvin Bell and Jorie Graham, but eventually learned that it wasn't exactly poetry he was after, but songs and music that could connect with an audience and still capture something only he could express.
"Marvin Bell told me, 'Always write from a young person's perspective,'" Gordon says on the phone from his East Nashville home. "'Try to retain that outlook.' Just because you're older, you're not banking on your experience. You're still curious about the world. I always took that to heart."
As much as Gordon learned as a student of poetry, it was becoming a student of blues and rock & roll that left the deepest impression. In Iowa he met one of the godfathers of Midwestern blues, Bo Ramsey, who remains best known as producer and sideman to folk hero Greg Brown.
"He encouraged me to write more," Gordon says of Ramsey. "He was the first guy that I had a lot of respect for that said, 'Yeah, that's good. Let's work this up with a band.' That gave me a lot of needed self-confidence. At the time I was in grad school, which is a wacky zone to be in, especially poetry school. It can be a pretty precious environment. Ramsey was great because I got to escape from all that and jump in a van and play music God knows where. We never traveled more than a couple hundred miles, but it was a great reconnection with something that resembled reality."
Gordon recorded his new album Long Gone Time in the East Nashville studio of friend and collaborator Joe McMahan. Two years prior to the sessions, a fire wrecked the home-based studio; McMahan rebuilt and redesigned what was left of it. The tracking was live, with Gordon going for keeper vocal takes every time, as his mentor Ramsey and steady-on bass player Lex Price guided the rhythms and feel.
The songs on Long Gone Time, Gordon's sixth full-length, move from an opening blues march about the mystery of music and the honky-tonk life to a spare, shotgun-backed prayer, from an encounter with legendary Native American cowboy singer Brownie Ford to an embittered (but still loving) letter to the whole of his native land. "I'm on the outside now, can't get a line back through," Gordon sings on "Letter to Shreveport." But in every song he makes a connection to the music, the stories and the people who yet remain inside him.
"Living in Nashville gives me some distance to write about Louisiana," he explains. "I've been going back more in the last few years, maybe just to figure it out, I don't know. I have places where I can stay, gigs where I can survive. And I can just listen to people talk, and I get to eat well. I wanted to reconnect. I've seen some of my family pass away; my favorite great aunt died a few years ago of cancer. You feel that generation going, and then you also feel yourself getting closer to that place."
When Gordon is not consumed by songwriting and making music, he pursues his passion for visual art, specifically "contemporary self-taught/folk/outsider/vernacular" art, as he describes it on the Gordon Gallery website. It's a cumbersome expression, but Gordon is careful when talking about that work, especially when it comes to making connections between his life as a musician and the life of an outsider artist. The men and women who have made this "outsider art" have lived lives far different from and far more demanding than his own. The work he collects and curates by artists such as Howard Finster, Mose Tolliver, Joe Light, Jim Sudduth and Sarah Mary Taylor is astonishingly beautiful, and it is so because it arises from their utterly unique and singular experiences.
"When I started out, artists like Mose Tolliver and Jimmy Sudduth were still alive, and a half day's drive from here," he says. "For me that's where the fun was. Just visiting with those people, but not because they were eccentric. Seeing and being there helped me understand the art that they made. In the case of Joe Light and the song [Gordon wrote about him], it was meeting him and his family that cast a harsh light on what it means to be an artist or a creative person in this time. I don't compare myself to those people. But to live a creative life requires some determination."