When banjoist and pedal steel player Gordon Stone talks about music‚ he doesn't get fancy or mysterious. He mentions that he usually gets the same generic questions in every interview--and it's a drag. Press is a necessary part of his job‚ but he's the epitome of a "can't we just let the music do the talking" kind of musician. But as we keep veering off on subjects like Frank Zappa and old‚ out jazz‚ he makes it clear he's enjoying our conversation.
It was good for both of us. Riffing with Gordon was a true discussion with a working musician who could offer honest insight with no beating around the bush. He's had a long career of making music‚ but he couldn't give any numbers; his wife/manager Jennifer Harwood informed me later that he's played on somewhere between 250-300 records. When discussing his latest record‚ Night Shade‚ he says that his experience tells him you can only try a song three times in one day before it starts to get worse. If you don't have it by that point‚ you're not going to get it.
Perhaps that's one of the reasons there's a refreshing spark on Night Shade. It has the balance of in-the-moment spontaneity and studio deliberation. The playing comes alive as the album moves through many of Gordon's musical personalities: honky-tonk rock‚ a bit of out jazz‚ a balance between bluegrass and newgrass‚ and a tinge of classical. It has that energy of a live take‚ yet some of the most compelling moments are when the studio allows Gordon to play both banjo and pedal steel parts at the same time.
Night Shade also has deep rhythmic flavor: Gordon invited Senegalese drummers to the session‚ and they give the compositions an impressive boost without becoming the focus of the album. The record stays strong and sticks together while covering a vast amount of musical territory.
I sat down with Gordon and Jennifer at Muddy Waters coffeehouse in Burlington one November evening. We discussed the music on Night Shade‚ Gordon's history‚ and his current and future projects. The conversation starts with us talking about a recent grant Gordon received from the Arts Council of Vermont.
You received a grant for this project?
Gordon: Yeah‚ we got this grant from the Arts Council‚ the grant for presenting original pieces by a Vermont composer‚ celebrating Vermont's ethnic diversity.
It starts by telling a story about the sacred forest. So‚ there we are at the beginning. Pape Ba‚ that's the name of the choreographer. He's also a drummer‚ and he's the shaman in the piece. He likes scratching the surface‚ so that piece is going to introduce the shaman. He comes out and does his thing. Then the group comes out and we play another tune‚ and that's the party where the kids are all together. The girl wanders off into the sacred forest‚ becomes possessed by demons‚ and does a swirling‚ demonic dance. Then‚ when they find her lying on the ground‚ we play "Night Shade‚" just the intro part‚ just the scary part. And then he performs the exorcism during "Kaki Lambe." Then there's a big celebration at the end‚ because she has come back.
Jennifer: He saves her.
Gets the demons out of her?
Jennifer: De-demonizing.
What song are you going to play during that process?
Gordon: "Kaki Lambe." This is a real thing in Senegal. It's the Dance of the Devil Mask‚ so it fits in perfectly.
Jennifer: The Dance of the Devil Mask is done when someone is thought to be possessed by or harboring evil spirits. It's done in the village‚ and people that these guys have actually witnessed things happening in and outside of the body‚ and really recommend not playing this song at sundown.
Gordon: Yes‚ not sundown or sunrise because something cathartic is going on in your life‚ and when that tune plays at sundown…
Jennifer: You're vulnerable. It's either coming out or coming in.
Gordon: These guys won't do it. They won't play it. They don't mess around with that shit. [laughs]
Well it sounds like it was kind of spontaneous in the studio when you were recording it.
Gordon: The last piece?
Yeah‚ It sounds like you were stretching out quite a bit.