Rolling Stone recently called vocalist John Gorka "the preeminent male singer-songwriter of the new folk movement." It's a description that would thrill most artists, but not Gorka. "That's not my thing," he says simply. "It's kind of silly." In fact, he adds, he's not sure that the music he makes can be considered folk at all.
Most listeners would argue that Gorka is wrong: His work, marked by highly literate wordplay and subtle witticisms, certainly seems to fit the folk bill. Even Gorka admits that his folkie roots run deep. At age sixteen, for instance, he gravitated to the banjo. He explains that he "wanted to learn how to play bluegrass" like his early musical influences, which include Earl Scruggs and Bill Monroe.
Six months later young Gorka added the guitar to his repertoire; he taught himself to play using an instrument borrowed from his brother. As he remembers it, songs started coming out almost immediately, "even when I just knew three chords. I tried to make whatever I knew how to do sound good and work within those limits."
Still, Gorka didn't begin to consider music as a viable career option until 1976, when he was attending tiny Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He graduated from Moravian with degrees in both history and philosophy, but he still had enough time on his hands to play banjo with a combo called the Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band, which featured Richard Shindell on lead guitar. More important, he discovered Godfrey Daniels, a neighborhood coffeehouse where he got the opportunity to hear a wide variety of singer-songwriters ranging from the semi-obscure (Jack Hardy and Claudia Schmidt) to the now-prominent (Nanci Griffith, Greg Brown and Bill Morrissey). It was their talent, Gorka insists, that inspired him to move from hosting open stages to trying out his own material in public.
Before long, Gorka was packing his notebooks full of songs to venues on the New York City and Boston folk circuits, and in 1984 he won the coveted New Folk Award at Texas's Kerrville Folk Festival. Three years later, his debut recording, I Know, appeared on Red House Records. Since then, the artist's profile has continued to rise, thanks in part to appearances on Austin City Limits and CNN, as well as considerable airplay on adult-contemporary radio stations and video outlets.
But in spite of his growing popularity, Gorka remains unassuming, almost to a fault. With his somewhat stocky build and a wardrobe that leans heavily toward jeans and T-shirts, he won't be gracing the cover of GQ anytime soon. His demeanor during interviews is equally modest. He pauses frequently and modifies previous statements, creating the impression that either he chooses his words with extreme care or, as Gorka himself has suggested, he really doesn't have much to say outside the subject of music.
Nonetheless, Gorka claims that those listeners familiar with him only through albums such as Jack's Crows, Land of the Bottom Line and Temporary Road may not have a fully rounded picture of him. Those fans, he suggests, "tend to think I'm going to be real serious all the time." But, he goes on, his performances balance the melancholy and often brooding nature of many of his best-known tunes with a greater sense of fun than most people expect.
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Not that humor has come easily for him. Gorka confesses that he's only recently learned how to make lighthearted ditties work as well on disc as they do in a live setting; he feels he's done so by substituting appropriate studio arrangements for the gestures and facial expressions he can use on stage. As a result, he believes he can pull off positive numbers such as "Good Noise" (from Out of the Valley, his current release on High Street Records) with more authority. Some observers have attributed this change to the recent stability of Gorka's love life, but he refutes that interpretation. He says his current relationship actually predates the most recent changes in his performance style.
Although Gorka's bouncier numbers might make for good window dressing, they probably never will be his forte. Out of the Valley provides an example: "Carnival Knowledge (Second Hand Face)," in which Gorka's observations are delivered by a world-weary clown, is one of many compositions that focus on people stranded in what he calls "the margins of society." Bad love gets a workout in tunes like "Bigtime Lonesome" and "Up Until Then," while "That's Why" is a striking elegy for Elvis Presley that manages to be reverent, unsentimental and realistic at the same time. Moreover, many of Gorka's newest lyrics are written in the third person, lessening one's inclination to hear them as purely autobiographical. As for the album's sound, it incorporates elements associated with rock and country even as it recalls offerings by Gorka heroes such as John Prine, Richard Thompson, Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne.
In other words, Out of the Valley isn't a major detour from the path Gorka has followed since the late Seventies--a path that he feels has been unfairly characterized. "I don't think of those songs as all that sad or depressing," he says of his early efforts. "Some of it was obviously heartbreak stuff, but for the most part I didn't see it that way. And I knew that there was more to me than what some people were seeing."
John Gorka. 7 p.m. Thursday, May 4, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $16 in advance/$17 day of show, 447-0095 or 830-