Don’t let the “Reverend” prefix lead you astray: it’s an authentic title, all right (though that’s another story), but this Reverend’s fervor isn’t deity-driven. Rather, rock ’n’ roll is what most often inspires Rev. Keith A. Gordon to offer praise, though the longtime rock journalist is also a relentless voice of support for music of virtually any stripe whose makers are unjustly overlooked or undersung.
Gordon—a Nashville transplant from Erie, PA who is perhaps the Music City’s only bona fide link to the rock-critic royalty that emerged in the 1960s and ’70s via such magazines as Creem, Crawdaddy and Rolling Stone—spent years toiling at small and struggling publications that helped midwife the Nashville rock scene. It was not an easy birth. As Gordon tells it, the local rock contingent encountered a mostly closed-minded country music industry, which exuded disdain for its young locals and exercised its power in an attempt to squelch their self-expression.
“The traditional industry,” he explains, “had a lot of influence on the local government and other institutions. This made it difficult to open rock-oriented clubs, to promote certain types of rock ’n’ roll shows, even for bands to get their music heard.”
Gordon, one of the first writers to champion the local rock scene, is an outspoken type who eventually found himself regarded as a pariah among the country music industry. “I refused to write [exclusively] complimentary reviews about country records and attend [the labels’] parties,” he says. “Like the early rock bands, I was loud, obnoxious, opinionated, and had a forum that I wasn’t afraid to use to call ‘bullshit’ on their antics [such as] attempted censorship of bands. I soon got a reputation among the ‘grown-ups’ as an incorrigible ‘loose cannon.’
“I probably deserved a fair amount of their disdain,” Gordon allows, “because my early writings lacked subtlety and tact, but I’d do it all over again . . . with a blade rather than a bludgeon,” says the writer, who cites radical thinkers such as Abbie Hoffman and Frank Zappa among those who influenced his journalistic voice—a force which would unexpectedly rise beyond Nashville in the 1980s via the local rock rag The Metro.
“What really cheesed [the country industry] off,” he explains, “was that my penchant for self-promotion helped earn [Metro] magazine and, by extension, myself, a national reputation. By the end of the ’80s, as improbable as it might seem, The Metro was taken seriously by all sorts of people unbeholden to Music Row.”
Improbable, as Gordon puts it, because The Metro (now long defunct) was frequently a fly-by-night, shoestring operation. These days, he continues to write and also self-publishes anthologies drawn largely from his own backlog of work. Even as a former Nashvillian now living in upstate New York, he remains passionate about the rock scene in his longtime Tennessee home base. Recently, he published The Other Side of Nashville: An Incomplete History & Discography of the Music City’s Rock Underground, 1976-2006, the most ambitious project of his career thus far. The book—an encyclopedia of the Nashville rock scene during its rise and peak years—is a 620-page beast that took Gordon more than six years to complete, compiling it from decades’ worth of interviews, articles and reviews from the local Nashville rock press and beyond.
“I was honored to have been able to cover the growth and evolution of the Nashville rock scene as a music journalist during the period the book covers, and have always been a big champion of the city’s musical talent,” he says. “What began as a ‘love letter’ to a music scene that I was proud to have been part of and documented,” continues Gordon, “would later become an obsession in the drive to finish the project. I wanted the world to know that Nashville rocked long before the Kings of Leon, Paramore and Ke$ha began selling truckloads of records.”
The gargantuan task of finishing the book wasn’t enough to sour the scribe on the subject; he’s following the oversized volume in quick succession with a small but similarly inspired compilation in tribute to the band that many contend first cranked Nashville’s rock scene up to 11: Jason & the Scorchers. The seminal country-punkers, who have since been recognized as forerunners of the Americana movement, received the Americana Music Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008, and are currently active in a revitalized lineup that features founding members Jason Ringenberg and Warner Hodges.
Though Gordon says the connection wasn’t an entirely conscious one, he agrees that his Jason & the Scorchers Scrapbook (available in print and as an e-book) makes sense coming on the heels of The Other Side of Nashville. As he recalls, Jason & the Scorchers “were the first local band that I really got behind. Their impact on the Nashville rock scene, and in getting people outside of Davidson County to listen, cannot be overestimated,” asserts Gordon, whose previously published writings (including the band’s very first appearance in the national press) comprise the majority of the book. “They were really the first local rock band to earn any sort of national—and later, international—fame and respect. They opened the door and built the foundation for later bands to enjoy and succeed [upon].”
The Scorchers have gone on to become an institution of independent music-making, yet ironically, notes Gordon, they remain representative of the way Nashville rockers are generally regarded by the country industry. “During the 1980s, the country music establishment hated bands like Jason & the Scorchers, viewing them as some sort of bastardization of a hallowed musical tradition. Little has changed in the decades since . . . rock ’n’ roll is still largely ignored by the labels on Music Row.”
It’s a moot point now, though, as regards the Scorchers; as Gordon points out, “Their influence on the Americana genre puts it all in perspective. After almost 30 years playing together, Jason and Warner can still crank out an album as vital as [2010’s] Halcyon Times and play to a rabid European fan base, so it really doesn’t matter what Music Row thinks of them anymore.”
Gordon agrees with the notion that today’s Americana artists are contemporary kin to the seminal Nashville rockers. Like them, Americana’s practitioners are as likely as not to be passed over by the country industry—but unlike their predecessors, their presence is harder to ignore.
“I don’t think that Music Row really knows what to do with the Americana genre,” says Gordon, “but whether they like it or not, it’s beginning to exert an influence on the so-called traditional artists. Considering that folks like Jason & the Scorchers, Webb Wilder and Steve Earle influenced the first wave of Americana—No Depression artists like Uncle Tupelo and Slobberbone during the 1980s—we’re seeing, I believe, the third generation of Americana artists beginning to emerge. I think that it’s funny that T Bone Burnett, one of the granddaddies of alt-country, is picking the music for the hit TV show Nashville. Like much of the recording industry, Music Row is waning in influence, and it must seem [to the country music establishment] that the inmates are running the asylum.”
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