There is a warmth to the fire of songs fresh from the pen and voice of a gifted songwriter. It’s the comfort you feel sitting by the hearth’s window, while two major drought-ending storms crash through the otherwise sun-filled domain of California’s Southland.
It’s the unique feeling that never fails as the embers that burn from the soul of the songs of singer-songwriter John Gorka.
With the 2016 release of Before Beginning: The Unreleased I Know, Nashville 1985,” there is a feeling of coming full circle, hearing these well-conceived raw recordings completed in five days in Nashville in November of 1985. Newly mixed in his 20-year home in Minnesota, the recordings confirm the timelessness of this enduring singer-songwriter’s legacy. If his voice has gained resonance and rough edges over the years, these recordings, completed when he was in his late 20s, still captures the pieces of life that become his own original poetic reflections.
The circle of creative warmth continues as Gorka moves into his fourth decade of recordings and live performance. But, at the center of it is the song he creates with such seeming ease and grace.
But, he wasn’t always a songwriter and, as he began, the path before him was strewn with good fortune.
Gorka has been a musician ever since, in his youth, he was given a banjo for Christmas. From this gift, at 18 years of age, he formed the Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band, a kind of new sounding, bluegrass band founded among friends, Russ Rentler, Doug Anderson, and Richard Shindell. The music they made while in college at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in the late ’70s, helped to form Gorka’s musical foundation, which would later find him championing folk music, leaned decidedly toward roots-acoustic country.
The trip across the stylistic road from banjo and bluegrass enthusiast to folk-based songwriter wasn’t a far stretch for Gorka. “I began writing songs in high school,” Gorka explains, “but I became more serious in college. In high school the desire to write songs came from the reading I had done of writers like Thomas Wolfe. I found the parallel of words and music was fulfilling for me. Music became the best way to express myself in words. There were things I could express with words and music that could only be released in that way,” Gorka said.
But, it was during his first year of college that he cofounded the Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band through participation in a local open mic night. He would discover his own voice both as a singer and a writer when the band and the banjo were put to rest. “I started hanging around a local coffeehouse in Pennsylvania and was given the chance to open for Jack Hardy. That was in 1979,” Gorka explained. “He was the first person I’d met who wrote songs on a schedule. I knew novelists who would write like that. But, I’d never considered a songwriter doing that. Jack told me if you work on a schedule instead of waiting for the song inspiration, you improve faster.”
Gorka found Hardy’s sage advice to be true to his experience. He gave himself a deadline of one song a month and soon, as he described it, he had more songs than months so he began doing two songs a month. This began a momentum and a routine of songwriting that still drives the singer-songwriter more than 30 years later. It is a routine that can be better described as a spiritual ritual that has led Gorka into moments of epiphany through his craft. “I found I had my best ideas waking up in the morning or going to sleep at night. It seemed like the song would begin to materialize through a word, phrase, a chord, or a chord pattern.” Gorka said. “Often in the morning the idea would present itself to me.”
It was these series of songs that were quickly laid down in 1985 for the Nashville demo sessions that became Before Beginning. But it was also the small Pennsylvania coffeehouse named Godfrey’s that would become the fertile ground for his first album to be born. “I gained a lot of influences and help through Godfrey’s. I was opening for people like Nanci Griffith, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Eric Andersen,” he remembers. It was during this time that his trajectory was aimed for the national folk scene. The period from 1985 to 1988 when new folk became a viable part of the music industry, especially when Tracy Chapman launched her first Grammy-winning debut album, swept John Gorka into its current as well.
“I won at the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas for my song, “Branching Out,” which was eventually on my first album” Gorka said. He recorded his first album for Red House Records three times before he was happy with the results. One of those recordings became Before Beginning in Nashville.
But during those days between the release of the first album and the break-out success of Tracy Chapman in 1988, good fortune smiled upon the singer-songwriter again.
As his 1987 debut album, I Know, was released, he caught the attention of the usually new age, soft-jazz label, Windham Hill. “I was signed to Windham Hill in 1990. I did five albums with them. The result was that I was put on rotation on VH1 and the Country Music Channel.”
The success at this time in Americana music history found Gorka at the time that Steve Earle calls “The Great Credibility Threat of the ’90s.” It was a time when, for reasons yet unknown, artists like Earle, Lyle Lovett, k.d. lang, Roseanne Cash, and the Desert Rose Band found a place on national country music charts and in regular video rotations on adult album programmers like VH1 and CMT. Gorka was swept along with this and gave Windham Hill fans something to contrast with the modern smooth new-age jazz of most artists as he began a series of fine albums for the label. As the years moved on he was dropped by Windham Hill and once again picked up by Red House, which remains his record label to this day.
With his last release, 2014’s Bright Side of Down, John Gorka felt the need to chime in on the politics of the day in September 2016, as the current presidential administration was on the electoral rise. While Gorka’s political songs have been rare, when they come they have been potent and insightful. The new song, released as a free download on his website, titled “Four-Letter Word, Five Letters Long,” describes the anger and frustration of voters that many ignored, “as jobs leave for China or Mexico.” The chorus rings in with
I get the anger sir but it can really go wrong
Watch the language son because it won’t make you strong
It a four-letter face from a four-letter place
It’s a four-letter word, five letters long.
These are sobering words from a songwriter who is used to giving us language and stories that tell the truth as they dig deep into the human spirit with a degree of comfort. And this song, written before the contentious November 2016 election, foreshadows a weekend when a new presidential administration calls for the kind of change that brings with it uncertainty for many in the country today. And Gorka, with “Five Letters Long,” brings us his truth as one of the worst winter storms of recent times pours and floods Southern California. So, we sit by windows and listen to the songs of artists like John Gorka and wait.
John Gorka will continue to bring songs of comfort and restless discomfort, as needed by the times, while the march of history moves on. But it is the job of singer-songwriters like him to allow us the time to sit down, reflect, remember, connect with the present, and look ahead to a future that can only continue to be lined with the golden hope of one more new song to see us through another day. Especially if that song is by artists like John Gorka.
See John Gorka in concert on Saturday, February 25, 7:30pm, AMSD Concerts @ Sweetwater Union High School, 2900 Highland Ave., National City.