Kevin Gordon on Rocking 330,000 Miles and Still Rolling

November 9, 2014

Tell us about your tour vehicle.

Currently I’m driving a 2002 Toyota Sienna XLE. Odometer’s at 308,881. Lots of repairs: wheel bearings, of course, multiple times. Timing belt. And every year now when it’s time to renew my TN tags, I have to spend a van-load of cash on repairs so that it will pass emissions. It’s time for a new ride.

How do you eat cheaply and/or healthy while on tour?

When I eat well, it’s usually because the buy-out is enough to afford something decent, or the venue happens to serve something good; otherwise, whatever healthy stuff I eat usually comes from home. I try to bring apples, bananas, granola bars.  I’m not a vegetarian, but I do try to stay away from meat when I’m out. We did scarf some of David Allen Coe’s fried chicken backstage once, eons ago.

How many strings do you break in a typical year? How much does it cost to replace them?

I don’t break many strings–I guess I’m so worried about breaking them on a gig that I change them often. Also, I use heavier gauge flat-wound strings on most of my guitars, and they seem to hold up longer. Only on my Tele do I use something as skinny as a 10. And if I do break a string, it’s usually on that guitar. I currently have a string sponsorship with Fender, so that helps a lot.

Where do you rehearse?

My rehearsal space is usually the stage. Occasionally we’ll get together at Joe McMahan’s studio, if we’re working up new stuff with the band. Players are busy around here; it’s hard to get people fired up about rehearsal … I’d say more often than not I’m emailing the band some Dropbox links to tracks and we just count ’em off and go, right there on the gig. Keeps things interesting . . .

What was the title and a sample lyric from the first song that you wrote?

Whew . . .that’s a hard one. The first song I wrote that I played with a band was probably something called “Burn For You” . . . I don’t remember any lyrics, but musically it was like the chord progression in “Gloria,” just a lot faster and louder. Aggro, man . . . punk rock.

Describe your first gig.

Junior year of high school, “talent” show. I was the singer (wasn’t playing guitar yet) in a band, Nobody’s Heroes (which I think came from a Stiff Little Fingers song or record) that, at our peak, played something like 19 Ramones covers and Anarchy in the UK. This was with a drummer whose hero was Neil Peart from Rush. (You might say the exact opposite of Tommy Ramone.) But–the guy was/is a great player and played the stuff right. I think we did 3 songs in our set that day: “Blitzkrieg Bop,” “Teenage Lobotomy,” and “California Sun,” a cover of a cover. I was big into skateboarding at the time, and I wore my knee pads that day–when the band started playing, I ran across the stage, grabbed the mic stand and slid all the way to the other side. That was a last-second idea. Worked pretty well–got people’s attention. Of course we were bludgeoning the tender ears of 400 Monroe, Louisiana kids with something loud most of them hadn’t heard before. I was really shy in school, so people freaked–kind of a Jekyll and Hyde thing. Felt like it all went by in about 5 seconds.

What was your last day job? What was your favorite day job?

Not sure I ever had a “favorite”! The last job I had working for someone else was at an art gallery downtown here in Nashville. It was one of those things where you say you’re just gonna work there for a few months til something better comes along . . . and you look up 2 and half years later and you’re still there. I have a master’s degree; let’s just say my level of compensation was not in line with my education! But I learned a lot about that business, and use some of that experience in my own gallery, a home- and web-based operation,   The gallery’s just an extension of my own aesthetic obsessions–most of which center around so-called outsider/self-taught/folk art.

How has your music-related income changed over the past 5-10 years? What do you expect it to look like 5-10 years from now?

Though not much feels like it has changed, I am doing better than I was ten years ago. The show pay hasn’t gone up much, but I’m working more, and in better venues, and the royalty streams are doing better. Hopefully this positive trend will continue! My son’s 17; my daughter a year behind him. We’re looking at colleges and the expenses are staggering. But–there are things I plan to do, like working harder on the publishing side of things–trying to get more film/TV placements, and songs cut by other people who sell more records than I do! Otherwise, I must break my own bad habit of releasing a new record every 5 or 6 years. That’s fatal, in the current short-attention-span culture.

What one thing do you know now that you had wished you knew when you started your career in music?

Focus. Ask the hard questions: What am I doing? Why? Where am I going, and how do I plan to get there? Being able to enjoy the life–the many good things about playing music, like connecting with fans, playing with great musicians, putting on killer shows, etc., while also asking those hard questions of yourself, and of those who work for you.

It’s all too easy to embrace all the fun and joy associated with playing music, and forget that, for your “career” to make any kind of sense in the long run, you have to embrace the business side, too, and learn as much as you can. And act on that knowledge. It’s hard for me–I’m an artistic person, not a businessman. I want to play my guitar or write a song. I don’t want to have a meeting. It’s understandable: there’s always been a kind of otherworldly air of fantasy about success in this industry; you want to believe all the egregiously optimistic stuff you’re told by a manager or agent. A lot of that energy is built on hope. That’s not necessarily bad. But you gotta try to hang in there and separate the wheat from the chaff. Take what’s true for you, what works for you, and move forward.

A Louisiana native, now 20-year East Nashville resident, Kevin Gordon is a touring recording artist and songwriter. His 2012 release, Gloryland, garnered high critical praise from The New York Times, USA Today, Rolling Stone, and many others. His songs have been covered by Keith Richards, Levon Helm, Irma Thomas, Ronnie Hawkins, and more. The title track from his Down to the Well CD, a duet with Grammy winner Lucinda Williams, was featured on two prominent compilations: the Oxford American Southern Music Sampler, and No Depression: What It Sounds like, Volume 1. Also a published poet, Gordon earned an MFA degree from the renowned University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

You can find Gordon online and on the road.