Tilt and Shine
As I write this, it has been one year since the passing of one of America’s greatest songwriters, Tom Petty. It’s appropriate, then, that I’m writing a review of another “songwriter’s songwriter.” And, like Petty, Kevin Gordon’s formative years were spent in the American South.
Gordon moved to Music City after a stint in Iowa City in the ’90s getting his master’s in poetry from the University of Iowa and spending weekends with Bo Ramsey in a version of his band the Sliders. But it’s not Nashville or Iowa City, but his formative years in Monroe, Louisiana, that he draws from for the colorful stories that make up his songwriting.
In an interview with David Dye on the radio show World Cafe in 2015, he explained why Monroe provides such a good foundation for his craft: “The things that pass and passed for normal seem so not normal to me now,” he said.
Having grown up in rural Iowa, I know what he means. Looking through the lens of what passes these days for civilization, my own hometown appears out-of-step and sepia-toned in its quaintness. And as in Gordon’s Monroe, life there always seemed to involve drinking — what else was there to do? I’ve seen “The Drunkest Man in Town,” immortalized on his latest album, Tilt and Shine, clinging precariously to the bar rail.
Gordon and band deliver a Stones-y, chugging blues riff on that tune, with dirty, fuzz-distorted guitar providing counterpoint to his vocals:
Quiet streets, most folks are asleep
In the tavern there’s laughter
In the company you keep
They’re buying another round
For the drunkest man in town
Gordon captures a mood that leans towards Southern Gothic: looking down a glass, looking down a grave, looking down the barrel of a gun. The heroes are equally either the ones that stay another day or the ones that leave too early. “Saint on a Chain,” the first single from Tilt and Shine, seems on the surface to have kind of a misty-eyed sentimentality, but that belies a darker conflict. The main refrain, “see how it shines, the saint on a chain,” describes the medallion the narrator got from his mother before she died, and at the same time his own tethered conflict between being the son she loved and the troubled man on the run he is.
In the same interview with David Dye, Gordon was careful not to call his songwriting “poetry.” But, if absent in content, his time in Iowa is reflected in form: What fills the songs on Tilt and Shine easily passes as skillful verse to the rest of us.
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 252.