Artist: John Gorka
Album: Before Beginning
Label: Red House Records
Release Date: 07/22/2016
Sometimes an artist can be so self-critical that he fails to recognize good product, but then eventually reflection brings a new perspective. This is the case with John Gorka, revealing for the first time studio sessions recorded with some of Nashville’s best musicians back in 1985 when Gorka was 25 years old. His debut, I Know, was recorded in New Jersey, the second version of which became a national release for Red House in 1987, thus this album title. Nine of these ten tracks appeared on that debut. The sessions were done in just five days in Jack Clement’s studio with producer Jim Rooney (at the recommendation of Nanci Griffith). Rooney tapped Kenny Malone on drums, Dave Pomeroy on bass and Stuart Duncan on fiddle and mandolin among others including Shawn Colvin and Lucy Kaplansky on background vocals. Gorka brought along his buddy, gifted guitarist Mike Dugan, from Bethlehem, PA, where Gorka was then residing.
Gorka says of the experience, “I can only say that I was finding my way. I had played solo live almost exclusively and I had not made an album or ever done a studio recording with other players. I guess I just didn’t know what I wanted to hear. I know now that there is more than one right way to present a song. In that way songs are bigger than any one recording of a song. It was good. It just wasn’t’ the good I wanted at the time.”
So, as it often happens in these cases, the tapes were essentially set aside before journeying from Nashville to Easton, PA, to New York City to Bethlehem, PA, on to Ann Arbor and finally to John’s home in Minnesota a few years ago. He took them out of storage in 2014, had them cleaned up, and transferred from analog to digital. Gorka’s unique expressive baritone voice sounds as good as it ever has, and the playing, particularly from Dugan and Duncan, is especially sharp. It’s a relatively short listen at just ten songs. Only “Geza’s Way,” which was released on a Fast Folk compilation in 1983 may be unfamiliar to Gorka’s ardent fans. Considering his age at the time, these are remarkable songs that showcase his versatility from the lighter fare like “Winter Cows” to the beautifully aching “I Saw a Stranger with Your Hair.” He couples the serious nature of the blue collar lonely worker with a playful nursery rhyme in “Down in the Milltown.” Throughout, the choruses become instantly memorable and indicate why Gorka stamped himself immediately as a fixture in contemporary folk circles with inspirational tunes like “Branching Out.” There’s no filler here. Take a look at Gorka’s catalog. These songs were the genesis for I Know, which is still considered by many to be his best album. These arrangements offer even more affirmation.