Spouse Work

American roots music just wouldn't be the same without the Gordons, a married couple who make unstuffy traditional music

Sep 18, 2002 at 4:00 am
Whatever happened to the Gordons? In 1975 they were on the road, working the interstates, every other town along I-55 and I-57, across Missouri, Illinois and Indiana and through the South, playing their sui generis version of country music, somewhere in between and yet precisely in the middle of bluegrass, old-time, folk and the blues. Roberta and Gary Gordon, companions since high school, may not yet be riding the latest acoustic-music revival, but without them, the currents of Americana (whatever that is) wouldn't flow quite the same.

The Gordons' catalog, covering nearly 30 years together, remains sublime and, though insufficiently known, an essential thread in the broadcloth of American roots music. They came of age under the influence of the Byrds, the Desert Rose Band and even the Grateful Dead, but their music anticipates the vision of the finest duos of today: Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Robin and Linda Williams, Tim and Mollie O'Brien. They grew up together on the land where they still live, the farming country around Sparta, Illinois. Gary runs a music shop and Roberta, a fine artist, paints signs for churches and stores in towns along the nearby Mississippi.

But their music has never faltered. Heretical as it sounds, the Gordons have recorded the definitive versions of traditionals such as "Omie Wise" and newer songs such as Greg Brown's "Train That Carried Jimmie Rodgers Home" and Norman Blake's "Slow Train Through Georgia." This month, they released their seventh and perhaps finest studio album, Time Will Tell Our Story.

The story time will tell begins, oddly enough, with the British Invasion. Gary played in a high school rock & roll band, and Roberta had recently been swept away by that sound. "I think I became aware, as a person, when I saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan," Roberta says. "I knew that I had changed. I became aware of myself, separate from my family. Dad loved country music, but I truly became aware when the Beatles came, and then, from there, to Jimi Hendrix. One of my first concerts was Jimi Hendrix. I found out through radio that you could buy tickets. I didn't know you could actually see these people. And then here comes Gary to my school, playing this music, and he's going in the same direction that I am. We continued to play rock until we were married. And then Will the Circle Be Unbroken came out."

The path from Jimi Hendrix to Doc Watson and the Carter Family isn't nearly as thorny as it might seem. Like fellow Midwesterners John Hartford and the Dillards, the Gordons connected with a 1970s counterculture weary of the excesses of the rebellion they had led. "It sounds funny, but FM radio was a new deal then," Gary says. "It was underground, but they'd play your album and play long songs. But the break really came when the other guitar player in my band went to Doc Watson, started flat-picking. And I just thought, 'Man, we've got this truck of equipment and three roadies.' I was ready to just carry an acoustic guitar. The volume was affecting me, too, because I played with a tall stack."

"We fell head over heels for the sound," Roberta says of the first time she heard the old-time music of Circle. "It wasn't foreign to me. By that time, I was a mother; we had a family. Gary had bought an acoustic guitar, and he gave me an autoharp for Christmas. We started playing in the house together, learned a dozen-and-a-half songs pretty well. We'd play for friends and start passing the hat. And we found we could make a lot more that way -- we'd just walk into bars with our instruments and ask if we could play."

But like Hartford and the Dillards, the Gordons met resistance from the traditionalists then running the bluegrass circuit. "All through the years," Roberta explains, "bluegrass people that go by Bill Monroe's book of rules, they'd shudder when they'd see me approaching with an autoharp. When they heard me, though, they'd change their minds. Over time, the bluegrass community has come to accept me."

"We were more or less shunned by the powers that be," Gary recalls. "We played nothing but bluegrass, but there were a couple of reasons: First, we had long hair, and hardly anyone else did. Then we had the autoharp and an electric bass. It was aggravating. We've kept some of those letters that shot us down. Especially in those days, bluegrass was more narrow than today. In the end, though, would you really want to narrow yourself down to where all you could do is work bluegrass festivals? If we wanted to, we could do nothing but a bluegrass set with banjo and fiddle. But it would nice if they opened up a little to us -- you know, let it rip."

In their own way, the Gordons do just that on Time Will Tell Our Story. Though it's far from a return to their country-rock beginnings, the album features progressive-bluegrass greats Alison Brown on banjo, Robert Bowlin on fiddle and Katsuyuki Miyazaki on mandolin and a stunning recovery of "John Barleycorn," a traditional tune best known as Traffic's FM-radio hit. As with every song to which they lend their harmonies -- two voices that share a single intent -- the Gordons' rendering nearly cancels all those that have come before.

Though they still cross Europe and play festival dates around the country, the Gordons understand the score. "I think it would be pretty spooky to do that today," Gary says of their old, steady touring routes. "I don't think you could hardly do it. It'd be nice to do that again in a year or two. If not, we'll just wait it out." Patience isn't a frequent ally of working musicians. Eventually the demands of life -- raising a family, making a living -- dim the luster of another gig and jade whatever spirit makes music genuinely vital. But when Gary and Roberta sing together, everything we'd like to believe about music -- that it revives and endures -- seems genuinely possible. "For us, music is more fun that it's ever been," Gary says. "That sounds crazy. But we were playing down in Carbondale, at this small place that still gets some of the best national bands. It was such a dynamite gig, and there we were with 30 bucks. And yet everybody feels so good about it at the end. It ain't the money." And, together, Gary and Roberta laugh.