John Gorka: March 2018 Album of the Month

By John Gorka
Redhouse Records

It's almost impossible to imagine that in July, John Gorka will turn sixty. Wasn't it just yesterday that Gorka was touring his 1987 debut, I Know? The voice grabbed you right away: an expressive, smooth and powerful baritone, but he was so painfully shy  he had trouble looking at his audience and he lacked the polish for stage chat. Gorka got over it by working harder at his craft than just about anyone I ever knew—right down to forcing himself to write everyday. Try that if you think it's easy. For Gorka it has meant lots of throwaways, but also truly memorable lines and tunes.

Fourteen albums later there are few performers as respected and beloved as John Gorka. Time in Time is both old school and nostalgic, and he has earned the right to indulge in both. It also helps that it's a terrific record—the kind that, when reviewed, finds critics split over which is the best song and which the weakest. That's also a logical evolution of Gorka's music. You can call him a folk artist, but you might also be tempted to slap on labels such as blues, country, or acoustic café jazz, the last of these suitable for the dreamy "Fallen for You," or the title track, which was inspired by the nearly simultaneous deaths of Debbie Reynolds and her daughter, Carrie Fisher.

I confess great fondness for his autobiographical "Nazarene Guitar," which is filled with insider wordplays that are Gorka staples. I've known John since he first hit the road and this song takes on additional meaning when you know that his reference to becoming a "South Mountain star" is self-deprecating humor. Gorka hails from New Jersey, but honed his skills in the rounded hills of eastern Pennsylvania. For a time he was the adopted house act at Godfrey Daniels, a venerable Bethlehem, PA club and that Nazareth is a small town four miles away. It's a catchy tune that's enhanced by Joe Savage's pedal steel. One suspects his time in Pennsylvania also factored into the tongue-and-cheek "Mennonite Girl," rendered in an acoustic country/gospel mash. Plus I'll listen to anything that spotlights Lucy Kaplansky's backup vocals; she's a wonderful solo performer, but she's among my all-time favorites when it comes to texturing other people's songs. Another one with small jokes is "The Ballad of Iris and Pearl," in which Gorka imagines two women as the hidden muses of Bill Monroe, Elvis, and Dylan. It's also the case that Iris and Pearl are the names of friend Eliza Gilkyson's dogs! Gorka's humor is more broad in "The Body Part Medley," but it's a goofy send-up of what those of us getting on in years call the "organ recital," the litany of physical woes that foregrounds way too many conversations between old friends who are also old.

That same crowd and those with ancient souls will also enjoy "Arroyo Seco," Gorka's tribute to the glories of a time-warp New Mexico town: It was a place where the hippies won/In the land of the supermoon/Where the dream was never done/And there was still room for you. If you're wondering, it's real place near Taos and yes, there are still for-real hippie enclaves. (Madrid, NM is another.) "Cry For Help" is a sad and serious song about a man drinking to get over the one who got away, and you'd be right to think that doesn't work very well. There's also a cowboy song ("Red Eye and Roses"), the bluesy "Tattooed," and a spread-the-love-but-stuck-in-time "Crowded Heart." Want some good writing? In the last-mentioned song he sees himself looking at vintage photos: Pictures of what once was/Not what's come to be. It's only appropriate that I draw this review to a close by referencing "Blues with a Rising Sun," which is Gorka's letter to legendary bluesman Son House, who died in 1988—just as Gorka was starting out. A coincidence? Given the way John Gorka writes, probably not.

There are hints of rust in Gorka's voice, but his remains one of the most memorable set of pipes in the business. I also appreciated his clarity of enunciation and the way he syncopates rhythms to accent that voice. True in Time is a mature and superior endeavor.

Rob Weir

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