Eliza Gilkyson sings her songs in a wise alto that I like very much. I love that she's such a literate and subtle writer. I love that she's passionate without being didactic or moralizing. I love the sly sexiness of her love songs and how she makes folk music seem so startlingly new. But most of all, I love that Eliza Gilkyson is a grandmother. That, my friends, rocks my little world.
Actually, it's no surprise that I feel an affinity with this Texas-based artist. Her dad, the late songwriter Terry Gilkyson, penned "Greenfields," the folk classic that made me feel very strange inside when I was a wee lass. Sad. Mysterious. Otherworldly. That song actually kind of messed me up. Growing up in Los Angeles, Eliza began singing and playing early and, as a teen, recorded demos for her father. "I got into [music] for all the wrong reasons, more as a survival tool than anything else, but it proved to serve me more than I dared to imagine," Gilkyson writes on her website.
At the end of the 1960s she moved to New Mexico with like-minded souls, eventually raising a family, and all the while writing, singing, and developing a loyal fan base in the Southwest. After a period in Europe working with Swiss composer and harpist Andreas Vollenweider, she returned to the United States and embarked on the career that today has her touring the world and releasing fine records.
Friends had been telling me about Gilkyson for years, but our paths had never crossed until last summer at the Bliss Music Festival, when she took the stage on a beautiful evening and played a powerful, fascinating set. So I did what was expected of me and bought her latest CD, the stellar Paradise Hotel. It's terrific.
Starting from the soaring chorus of the opening song, "Borderline," Gilkyson journeys through themes, places, even across centuries. The showstopper here is clearly "Man of God," a fierce excoriation of our current president and the "faith"-fueled minions that prop him up, move his arms and legs around, and "wait for the Rapture like it's Disneyland." It's also just a great song: compelling, solid, frightening.
But my favorite on this album is "Jedidiah 1777," its lyrics pulled from actual letters penned by one of Gilkyson's ancestors, a soldier during the Revolutionary War. Cold and lonely in "this necessary war," he writes home, politely asks for someone to send him cloth for a new coat, dreams of home, prays for the safety of his family, inquires after "a certain Miss Moore." It's a sad, insistent song. Pump organ, ocarina, and pennywhistle — and the striking unsonglike language — make it sound ancient.
Eliza Gilkyson is at the Ark on a double bill with Tom Russell on Thursday, April 19.
[Review published April 2007]