Corrections or additions?

This article by Richard J. Skelly was published

in U.S. 1 Newspaper on March 4, 1998. All rights reserved.

Meet John Gorka, Bard from the ‘Burbs

If you met John Gorka in a coffee shop on Nassau Street

for an hour or two, you’d come away with some distinct impressions

of the guitarist, singer and songwriter: words like shy, thoughtful,

modest, reserved, and polite would come to mind. Nonetheless, Gorka,

who hails from the Colonia section of Woodbridge Township, has found

success entertaining the masses. In recent years, the 39-year-old

folk singer has found himself performing at festival and theater shows,

and his videos have aired on CTN, the country music cable channel.

Banished, for the most part, are the hole-in-the-wall coffee houses

of his past, from his years spent paying dues on the way up. During

the summers of 1996 and 1997, he toured across the United States,

Canada, and Europe, playing to large crowds in all these places.

Gorka says the business of projecting confidence — if not actually

being confident — in front of an audience is still something he’s

working on. "I guess it’s an on-going process," he says. "I

was drawn to performing from the beginning, and it’s only recently

I’ve gotten much better. I’ve been enjoying it now more than ever."

Fortunately, Gorka has a good booking agent who keeps him on the road

150 nights a year. Only in the last four months, with the birth of

his son, has he taken some time off from the road to spend more time

at home in Minneapolis, where he moved two years ago after living

many years in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. In fact, he points out, that

was his first substantial time off since 1987.

In 1987, Gorka was signed to the Minneapolis-based Red House Records

label. He considers that his first big break, and now he’s back at

the company where he started. Recently, Gorka ended a long relationship

with a major label, Windham Hill Records, a subsidiary of a massive

company, BMG Entertainment. To him, it’s a relief to be back where

he started.

"I feel like it’s a step up," he says, candidly. "Major

label distribution and marketing promises a lot, but I don’t think

it actually often delivers all that much."

As Gorka sees it, a major label isn’t necessarily the

best place for a niche artist like him. He sings original songs. Sometimes

they’re humorous — "I’m From New Jersey" and "Winter

Cows" — and other times they’re a bit of social commentary,

like "Houses In The Fields" or "Brown Shirts." Other

than what he does with his guitar and his voice, he has no single

style, per se. He freely mixes it up at his live shows: funny song,

sad song, social commentary song, perhaps a self-penned blues, and

then back to another funny song.

Gorka says the quality of his music is not compromised at an independent

label like Red House Records. More importantly, "they like what

I do and they’re not trying to change me into something that would

be easier for them to market. And I think that’s the plight of any

major label artist these days."

Gorka’s critically-hailed debut, "I Know," was released on

Red House Records in 1987. That’s the record that got radio airplay

and launched his career as a touring folk singer. Eleven years later,

he’s still convinced "I Know" is the best possible record

he could have made at that time, and he’s justifiably proud of it.

In 1990, he began his relationship with Windham Hill Records, but

just two years later, the people who were his champions at the label

had quit or been fired. Gorka says after Windham Hill Records founder

Will Ackerman left, he began to grow increasingly uncomfortable with

his former record company.

It’s an often-told story in the record business: an artist or group

is signed to a major label deal by their champions; then, two, three,

or four years later, these people are fired or quit and a new regime

is in.

He recorded five albums for Windham Hill before leaving the label

and returning to Red House in 1997. The pattern of his Windham Hill

releases is ample evidence of his strengths as a songwriter, as well

as his growing unease with his former record company: "Land of

the Bottom Line" (1990), "Jack’s Crows" (1991), "Temporary

Road" (1992), "Out of the Valley" (1993), and finally

"Between Five and Seven" (1996).

Still, in the midst of the uncertainty he felt with his old label,

Gorka says there were some bright spots. He continued to tour, of

course, and he married Laurie, a woman he met at a folk festival she

was running at a nature center in Hastings, Minnesota.

More recently, having a child has changed his perspective considerably.

"I’m in the process of re-orienting my whole life," he says.

"I’m trying to figure out a way to be home more yet to still have

a road life."

Asked about his earliest inklings of ambition to become a folk singer,

Gorka says he had ideas of wanting to pursue music when he was in

high school, but didn’t know anybody who made their living in music.

Gorka’s father, a printer, died when he was 13. He credits his mom,

a housewife, for being most encouraging of his earliest efforts as

a singer. Although Gorka’s father wasn’t particularly musical, he

recalls his dad enjoyed listening to "Happy Bernie’s Polka Party"

on WCTC-AM, New Brunswick, a locally legendary show that’s been off

the air now for several years. Later, while attending Moravian College

in Bethlehem, Gorka’s vision was crystallized when he met living,

breathing examples of the folk tradition like Rogers and Schmidt.

As a songwriter, he takes his cues from people like the late Canadian

folk singer Stan Rogers. He cites Rogers and Claudia Schmidt as big

influences. They taught him to specialize, to focus in on his own

unique gift for songwriting. In his early days at Godfrey Daniels

Coffee House in Bethlehem, he recalls, he played a multitude of instruments

in a range of styles, singing both traditional folk songs and his

own material.

After graduating from Moravian in the 1980s, he began making regular

visits to lower Manhattan and became part of a loosely assembled group

of folk singers who called themselves `Fast Folk.’ The musical cooperative

released several self-produced compilation albums. In addition to

Gorka, the group boasts such prominent alumni as Suzanne Vega, Christine

Lavin, David Massengill, and Shawn Colvin.

"There were a lot of really good people involved in that group,"

he recalls, "and Suzanne Vega was one of the first to be signed.

Those are still some of my most favorite times, it was very exciting

to be around people who were really talented and then to see these

people reach a large audience."

Finally, by 1988, after his debut was released on Red

House Records, Gorka began to realize he might actually be able to

make a living as a folk singer. "Then, for the next nine years

at least, I did about 150 shows a year. I hit the road pretty hard,"

he recalls.

Despite his focus as a songwriter, Gorka lets the rest of the pieces

fall where they may in performance. He knows how to use his shyness

to his advantage on stage, using silence for humorous ends. And audiences

all over the country find him funny.

"One of the things that Claudia Schmidt told me that I really

took to heart was to take the work seriously, but not to take yourself

too seriously. I always thought those were good words to live by,"

he says. He argues that one of the differences between the folk music

of today, "contemporary folk," if you will, and the folk music

of the 1960s, is back then, people were much more serious about it.

"Those people were a pretty serious lot," he says, noting

they were the same people who wanted Bob Dylan to remain a protest

singer and stay pure to their vision of what folk music was all about.

The traditionalists were kind of the moldy figs while there was a

whole new generation of people — Dylan, Tom Paxton, Richie Havens,

Joni Mitchell and dozens of others — who wanted to write songs,

but still considered themselves part of the folk music tradition.

Gorka bristles at the suggestion that he was part of some 1980s "New

Folk" movement. Yes, there was a renaissance of acoustic music

then; but like any good blues singer, he sees himself as just a small

part of a long and living folk singing tradition. "I’ve never

shied away from the folk word, but I think it’s more of a continuum

than it is a new thing," he says. "Folk music never goes away.

It’s music about people’s lives and the world around them."

Precisely because he’s never been part of any fad or style, Gorka

will always have an audience. Did we mention that Gorka is also notorious

for being extremely good to his fans, hanging around until every last

album is signed?

Saturday’s show at McCarter Theater will be a homecoming of sorts,

he says. "In the land of my people," as he refers to New Jersey

with a chuckle, he doesn’t have to explain as much about his songs.

While "Houses in The Fields" strikes a chord with people in

rapidly developing areas all over the nation, it takes on a special

significance in New Jersey, where the effects of the go-go 1980s real

estate market are still visible.

Songs like "I’m From New Jersey" and "Houses In The Fields"

are songs that feel right to do in the Garden State, he says.

The travel, the autographs, the momentary butterflies in the stomach

before going on stage, these things are all part and parcel of a lifestyle

Gorka has chosen for himself. Yet he’s quick to acknowledge he’s blessed

to be doing what he does for a living. And the fact that he’s never

had a substantial radio hit is a blessing, he insists.

"I remember asking [guitarist] Leo Kottke what was the secret

to his longevity as a performer. He said he thinks it was because

he never became part of a trend," he says. "I think that’s

true of me as well, to some extent. I’ve been able to develop a body

of work over time and never be associated with any real popular moment

in time or any style or fad in music. Since I was never connected

with a certain time, I can’t be a has-been."

— Richard J. Skelly

John Gorka, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place,

609-683-8000. With guest Dee Carstensen. $18 to $22. Saturday,

March 7, 8 p.m.

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