Interview with folk duo of Gary & Roberta Gordon (The Gordons) - reverberations by American roots music

"All generations experiment with music, they just take what they learn from their root influences and take it somewhere new. The roots reach back to different times."

The Gordons: The Echo Of Experiences

The Gordons are a folk music duo consisting of Gary Gordon and Roberta Gordon, who are husband and wife. Accompanied by Gary's tasteful Gallagher guitar and dobro, Roberta plays the American born Appalachian autoharp. With many recordings to their credit since 1976, harmony singing is their signature. The Gordons have been bringing their music to audiences since the 1970's, when they began touring throughout the Midwest. Their band featured guitar, banjo, fiddle and upright bass with Gary on lead guitar, dobro and vocals and Roberta Gordon singing and playing the autoharp. During this time The Gordons recorded two albums, both of which received national radio airplay. Just as The Gordons had built a solid fan base through the Midwest, they amassed a sizable following in the Carolinas throughout the 1980s, playing festivals and fairs as well as making two acclaimed performances at the Mint Museum in Charlotte. In 1989, they recorded with dobro great Josh Graves and bluegrass fiddler Kenny Baker, from Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys. The resulting album, Old Time Radio Show, and live concert at Cincinnati's celebrated Old Time Music Hall were considered triumphs by critic and fan alike. The Gordons kicked off the ‘90s by releasing Wasn't Born To Follow, which also featured fiddle great Wade Ray.

In 1995 they released Family Bible, and their unique sound began to receive national and international recognition. European acceptance of Family Bible added to the thrill of The Gordon's 1996 tour in Ireland. In the spring of 1997, together with Reception Records, The Gordons released End of A Long Hard Day. In the following years, The Gordons returned to Europe many times. During this time they also released Summervilla - Home in the Heart, from Reception Records, recorded live in the historic anti-bellium mansion Summervilla located on the Cape Fear River in Eastern North Carolina. On the heels of the Summervilla album came The Gordons - Live in Holland from the Dutch label Strictly Country Records, featuring Gary and Roberta returning to their duet roots. In 2002, they released "Time Will Tell Our Story".  While they took time off from the road to focus on Gary Gordon's new recording studio, Inside-Out Studio, they did not stop writing songs and recording, and the result is the latest release, in 2007, "Our Time".

Interview by Michael Limnios

How do you describe The Gordons sound and what characterize your music philosophy?

Roberta: The Gordons sound is the sound of experience. The harmony singing is our signature with 40 years of performance. The notes change directions at the same time like a school of fish or a flock of birds that parallel with every move. Recording together since 1976 has taught us how to play our instruments and sing to an audience with the same timing and dynamics as a recording. Playing together is second nature, and although it takes great concentration, it becomes easy to devote complete awareness to our audience. We look at them and sing directly to them, hoping to pull them in to our love message about the human condition.

From the very beginning in 1974 we instinctively knew how to capture and honor people's attention. You have a very short time when you hit a stage to earn their friendship and respect. We prepare ourselves emotionally to emit kindness and by the end of the first song folks are listening to the lyrics and putting themselves in the content. Every performance is special and will not happen again. The size of the audience matters not, we are there for one purpose, to communicate to other human beings and share the spiritual place that music takes you.

Gary: The music I make has integrity. It's real. My music is clear and clean, uncluttered, with tone rather than "flash". The songs are to the point, concise with something to say. No noodling round. My philosophy behind the music is to find, write or co-write strong material. To share the songs with the players who work with me, that is, feature others as well as myself.

What were the reasons that made your generation to start the Psychedelic Blues, Folk and Rock experiments?

Roberta: All generations experiment with music, they just take what they learn from their root influences and take it somewhere new. The roots reach back to different times. Mine goes back to the 50's listening to the Grand Old Opry with my father and then through the 60's when the whole nation began to listen to the youth.

Gary: I think the best reason why we got the Folk, Blues and Psychedelic forms happening simultaneously is television became available in most homes and radios in most cars. That in turn helped create a demand for live music and experimentation. We had music going on the radio when travelling and a radio in the barn when we were working. I got familiar with The Everly Brothers, Johnny Cash, Flatt and Scruggs later The Beatles first thru radio. Blues artists were featured on TV by '66 and '67 perhaps sooner. I got excited by the music of Furry Lewis, Lightnin' Hopkins, Ray Nance and Ray Charles, then onto Canned Heat thru TV shows. And, I wanted to see those artists. Also the school library kept Downbeat Magazine. I loved every issue.

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio session which you’d like to share with us?

Roberta: Gary and I grew up with The Beatles, Dylan, Jimmy Hendrix and all the greats where available to influence us. We still carry those inspirations in our writing. Grandpa Jones was very exciting and we sold out of our newly pressed Vinyl Record.

Gary: There are so many great memories from gigs and sessions that it's almost impossible to to really remember one over other. We had a great booking agent who really kept us busy and we liked that. We played three gigs in one day and at the final gig, (a college concert that started at 11PM) our bassist laid down onstage during the break and went to sleep. When the band started again he got up and played flawlessly immediately after standing. Brought the house down.

I had a session in Cincinnati years ago with Dobro guitar legend Josh Graves from Flatt and Scruggs. Josh took a good look at me in my t-shirt and long hair and called me over saying "We don't want any of that bomp itty bomp shit" I laughed and replied "There won't be any". We became fast friends and remained so.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Chess with the "White Blues" of 60s (Butterfield, Gravenites, Goldberg, etc) and continue to your first 70s blues band, FARM?

Gary: Paul Butterfield brought real blues to young white audiences. He'd hire great black players like Sam Lay on drums. For me Chess Records was the best link to authenticity. I bought a lot of their LPs and soaked em up. I never attempted to copy any licks, but just absorbed the feel of the music. Especially Muddy Waters.

What do you learn about yourself from the blues and what does the blues mean to you?

Gary: Blues music gives me confidence in my own playing and production. And blues is a good vehicle to bring folks together. I'm cutting a new and quite different version of Spoonful and musicians love being a part of it. Working musicians don't get to play music like this so often. It’s a million miles from "bar band blues". Blues is very important to me being my early inspiration. I still carry that timing and since of dynamics today.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

Roberta: Gary and I recently went to a festival in Missouri and after the stage show finished we carried our instruments through the campground in search of a jam to enjoy like the early days. We only found one small session after looking the whole campground. Seems musicians today only concentrate on their own writing and songs that are worked out and memorized.

I think it's a shame that they never get out of their comfort zone to learn new things or rather old things. I suppose this is what I miss in today's music.

Gary: I miss good sound and dynamics. It was easy to hear shows that sounded great when I was young. That has slowly changed into almost all shows featuring lousy e.q. and mix. I was at a small show this week that had a 49,000 watt P.A. And the engineer was a novice. Too bad but all too common in America.

My fears have been realized. Folks are numbed and dumbed down to accepting awful live sound. They are listening on a cheap home system too. In the '60s and '70s folks took pride in having a fine turntable and amp along with the best sounding speakers. Not for volume but for quality. Paul Butterfields band wasn't loud, nor was Muddy or Bo Diddley. Today's blues events are hopelessly loud afraid, more akin to a poor rock concert except louder. Bluegrass is getting loud too. Folk is the last bastion of quality here. I've heard and been part of many gorgeous "folk" shows. Just performed all acoustic on TV and they got it right. Sound was still very good. Being an engineer, producer and player I'm always desiring the very best sound live.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

Roberta: The only caution I have for anyone in music is to beware of drugs and alcohol.

It will hinder your God given talent and can rob you of the destiny to be all you can be with your art.

Gary: Since music isn't selling much these days I'm hopeful that the theft can be stopped. Writers and artists should be paid for the work done. I know folks with a lot of hits that face a very uncertain future unless music starts to sell again. I'm also hopeful that songs will continue to inspire people. For good, for change.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

Roberta: Concert going has always a great influence for my inspiration and memory bank.

I've played with John Hartford and another memorable concert was with Kenny Baker on the fiddle. The best advice I’ve ever been given is not to waste movement.

Gary: Important meeting for me would be.... Hooking up with a guitar teacher at age 11 who took me to see great artists live. Webb Welten knew the importance of that, of helping me in that way. Meeting those who became my bandmates in Farm. Our sound engineer George Leemon who ensured we always sounded our best. Our abilities accelerated like a rocket during that time. Meeting folks with record labels that wanted to help us. Genuine folks who respected our music and appreciated it. The Loyd Agency in N.C. and Strictly Country in Europe.

Wade Ray told me to "play for the song" Keep the song foremost not the individual players. You get a lot better performance and set the ego aside.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Folk and continue to Bluegrass and Roots music?

Roberta: Personally I love and appreciate all music, it is valid and the root of all good and it all comes from the same place. I have no complaints about where music goes, it is a crucial element of life. People must express themselves in order to cope and thrive.

Gary: Blues, Bluegrass and Folk have a lot of similarities. In fact, when I was a boy blues and bluegrass were simply considered "folk music" marketed that way, since the folk music boom was going strong. A lot of bluegrass vocal styling can transfer well into folk music. The Gordons, Tim O'Brien and Tony Rice have all done that well. The sparseness of the blues music I first heard, definitely transfers well into the clean and precise playing we use today in our own songs and in my production style for others. And of course as a basic, you've got a one, four, five structure with a six and a two. You can grow from there, those "basics".

What does to be a female artist in a “Man’s World”? What is the status of women in Bluegrass?

Roberta: As a female artist I have never felt insecure about my music in a so called Man's World.

I have always been accepted and respected when other musicians got to know me and heard what I had to offer.

What has made you laugh and what touched (emotionally) you from the FARM era and activity?

Gary: That era is filled with good memories for me. When I'd look over at Mike Young onstage, he'd be grinning. And, I was set up next to Jim Elwyn's bass so the feeling of power from the combined bass and drums was easy to play to. The timing was impeccable. You couldn't help but feel good about it. The noise we were making onstage, and never the exact same way twice. Always evolving. I had fun watching Del as he got into it and we interacted back and forth with our guitars. Del would get very charged up sometimes and the music elevated, shot right up to another level and the band went right it. I thought of it then and now as the opposite of progressive rock. Feel good music with power is what we did. You couldn't help but feel good about it. When we had our re-union concert, two shows one evening in 2007, several fans and friends came to meet me with tears in their eyes. Folks had travelled from many states and some from abroad to see and hear us after 34 years. It was touching to meet and see old friends again.

The feeling I got onstage was a lot like I got when I was smack in front of Albert King or The Who. Awesome power, along with awesome amount of "feel good". It's kind of hard to put into words. I've gigged alongside of Artimus Pyle, drummer with Lynyrd Skynyrd, a friend and a powerful drummer. But, I don't think he equaled the timing, power and feel that Mike Young brought to every gig. The only sad thing about Farm is the LP didn't convey how we were live. We had live tapes that were far beyond the LP. Those tapes burned and our original eight track recording of the LP burned too. I remastered for the cd from the original master tape which was kept at another studio and had survived. To not have those live tapes is such a shame. Still, I've been blessed to make a lot of good music and Farm was a most important part of that.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

Roberta: In 1971 our son was born and being a family was such an adventure. We absolutely fell in love with Bluegrass and Folk Music with the festivals and fellowship being such a wholesome atmosphere. The bookings and campfire jams were a classroom and the environment was safe and fun for the whole family. I think that's where I would like to go.

Gary: There's a lot of time's I'd like to return to. Especially since some of my friends have passed on. Well, how about back once again to a little theater called "The Palace" 1967 seated about 10ft. in front of Albert King!

The Gordons - Official website

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