For the past two decades, guitarist John Gorka has been heralded as one of the finest singer/songwriters in this country.
A gifted lyricist with a disarming knack for penning insightful, thought provoking stanzas, Gorka’s best lines stand easily as poetry, even without the crisp, wintry acoustic and electric modern folk/rock which usually accompanies them on disc.
A mainstay on the theater, festival and listening room circuits, he’s built a name for himself as a captivating solo performer whose solo shows are highly anticipated by a legion of diehard fans — and he’s done this with only scant mainstream press, attention, promotion or airplay.
A “songwriter’s songwriter” in the tradition of Richard Thompson, John Hiatt and James McMurtry, the 59-year-old Gorka is a former winner of Texas’ prestigious Kerrville Folk Fest, and has toured with Suzanne Vega, Shawn Colvin, Christine Lavin and Dave Van Ronk — peers all.
Famously named “the preeminent male singer/songwriter of the new folk movement” by Rolling Stone Magazine in 1987, his latest release on respected indie label Red House Records is 2006’s Writing in the Margins. It finds the singer in wonderful form, and includes a heartfelt take on the late, great Townes Van Zandt’s number “Snow Don’t Fall.”
Gorka spoke to me by phone (from a shopping center parking lot in Weymouth, Ma.) in advance of his upcoming headlining appearance at The 18th Annual Savannah Folk Music Festival. It was 10:45 a.m., and he had played a show the night before.
I saw on your website (www.johngorka.com) that you’re trying to get the hang of blogging. Blogs seem very narcissistic to me, yet they’re almost becoming the norm.
John Gorka: Yeah, it’s odd. For me, writing songs and valuating words as I do, I do a lot of picking and choosing. I only want to have something to say when I have something to say, you know? I don’t want to waste words on things that are not important. I’m not into adding stuff just to add it.
You like to be very precise in your writing.
John Gorka: Especially words and music together. I knew I wanted to be a writer long before I knew music would be the way I’d do that. When I started writing songs, the combination of the two was so much more powerful than what I could express in words alone. It’s the pairing of what I can articulate in lyrics, music and sounds.
When you were first getting your sea legs as a stage performer, was it difficult to find what you perceived to be your own voice?
John Gorka: I was always drawn to performing, but never really comfortable at it. (laughs) I have a lot more fun doing it now than when I started! It was very... tortuous. (laughs) I was willing, but not very able! (laughs) I think writing songs and then playing them for people was my way of overcoming shyness. That continues to be the case, but it’s more fun now.... I still get nervous, but I also still get excited.
What’s it like to be considered one of the finest examplars of contemporary folk?
John Gorka: It’s not something I think about all that much. I’m glad to be a part of a tradition, you know? I think of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie and people who’ve done really grand things with their music and lives. That’s a pretty high standard. (laughs) I have quite a ways to go, but I’m fortunate to do this for a living.
Could you see yourself ever going completely indie, and distributing your own music?
John Gorka: I think I could do it. It’s just a matter of whether it would take too much time and energy away from what I’m good at, which is writing and performing songs. If it’s gonna take more time to do that, I’d rather just create music. I know I could also tour more than I do, but that would be at the expense of my family, and so that would be too expensive.
On tour, do you travel by yourself?
John Gorka: It’s just me. I’m my own road manager.
Does that cause problems when the road manager screws something up?
John Gorka: He gets fired all the time! He’s pretty slack. (laughs) But he’s always hired back before time to drive to the next town. That’s pretty much the pattern. (laughs)
Do you prefer playing outdoor festivals, or are you more of a club and theatre man?
John Gorka: I come from the coffeehouses, so those are the kinds of places I know the best. But I love playing in all kinds of situations, when they present different challenges. That’s the stuff that makes this life fun. I like the idea of this Savannah show being in a Minor League Ballpark. I’ll have to see if I can come up with any baseball songs.
Have you ever played Savannah before?
John Gorka: No, this is my first time. I don’t know much about the town, but then I remembered that old Blind Willie McTell song called “Savannah Mama.” The funny thing is it sounds like it’d be about a woman who lives in Savannah, but the line is actually, “I’m goin’ to Savannah, mama.” So, she’s not even there at all! (laughs)
Anything else we should know about?
John Gorka: Well, I just released a high-definition concert DVD. Hopefully, I’ll have some there. I literally sold out the first night of the tour. I have to figure out how to get some shipped to me on the road.
Well, you now who should be dealing with that? Your road manager! I think you need to sit that guy down. He’s not doing his job.
John Gorka: (laughs) Oh, yeah! You know what? You’re right. I gotta get him on that right away! (laughs) The only problem is, I’m pretty sure he’s not even awake yet.
In addition to John Gorka, this year’s 18th Annual Savannah Folk Music Fest (organized by the Savannah Folk Music Society) has a full schedule of local, regional and nationally acts all playing their own unique brand of family-oriented, acoustic roots music. As in the past, this popular event is completely free for ALL-AGES.
Everything kicks off Friday at 7 p.m. in City Market Courtyard, with sets by a group of established local singers, songwriters and musicians — most of whom are frequent contributors to the SFMS monthly First Friday for Folk Music concert series. Those acts include Hank Weisman, Jean-Paul & Dominique Carton, Melanie Mirande, Chris Desa, Cynergy (Bob and Judy Williams), Michael Maddox and Bill Schumann. In the event of inclement weather, this outdoor event moves a few blocks away to the Trinity United Methodist Church.
The next day at 2 p.m., in the old Publix location on Abercorn (near Savannah Mall), the finalists in the SFMS’ Youth Song Writing Competition compete for $1,000 in prizes. Then at 8 p.m., an Old-Time Country Dance —for both experts and novices— will be held in Notre Dame Academy’s gymnasium (1709 Bull St.), with live contra dance calling and music by noted Fl.-based string band Valla-Thomas-Williamson.
That group will also appear Sunday as part of the “big show” at Grayson Stadium. Also on that bill: Josh White, Jr. (award-winning activist/singer and son of the late folk/blues/gospel icon), Steve Gillette & Cindy Mangsen (a married duo of guitar, banjo, concertina and fiddle whose repertoire includes original songs covered by the likes of Garth Brooks, Nanci Griffith and Kenny Rogers), and the winner of the aforementioned Youth Songwriting Competition.
Entertainment starts at 1 p.m. and runs till 7 p.m. The days is essentially divided in half, with each artist playing one set early in the day and another, different set in the later afternoon. This makes it much easier for interested parties to fit the concert into their own schedules, with some choosing only one set by each act and others opting to stay all day and catch the “whole” show.
Throughout the festival, the SFMS will also be auctioning off several Gretsch guitars which have been either hand-painted by local artists or autographed by such folk luminaries as Buffy Saint-Marie, Guy Clark, Jesse Winchester and Tom Paxton.
For more detailed info, visit