Slide into your 50s, and sometimes things you put aside years ago don’t look as bad as you might have thought. That’s the perspective legendary folk singer John Gorka gained recently when he took a look at an album he recorded in 1985 at age 27 with producer Jim Rooney at Cowboy Jack Clements’ studio in Nashville, Tenn. Backed by a full band, Gorka recorded the album in five days — and then he shelved it.
“It was too band-like, too different from hearing me by myself,” Gorka said in a phone interview on Monday from his Minnesota home north of St. Paul near the St. Croix River. “I guess I didn’t know it at the time, but songs are bigger than any individual record.”
Gorka, now 58 and with 13 albums in his repertoire, returns to Homer for a performance at 7 p.m. Friday at Bunnell Street Arts Center.
Part of the Fast Folk circle of folk musicians, Gorka burst onto the scene after winning the New Folk Award in 1984. He grew up in Colonia, N.J., and joked that he comes from the Blind Driveway Mid-Atlantic Suburban Piedmont Style of blues. He studied history and philosophy at Moravian College, Bethlehem, Pa. He got his start performing at the folk coffeehouse, Godfrey Daniels, in eastern Pennsylvania. He moved to Minnesota 20 years ago because “I couldn’t take the Pennsylvania winters any more,” he said, joking.
Many of the songs from the Rooney recording session appeared in his first published album, “I Know,” released in 1987 by Red House Records.
Buried in basements and garages, carried with him from Nashville to New York City to Bethlehem, Pa., and finally to his home in Minnesota, the Nashville tapes survived less-than-archival quality storage. In 2014 he got them out again. They almost didn’t make it. With the help of Rob Genadek at the Brewhouse Recording Studio in Minneapolis, he resurrected them. Genadek even had to warm the tapes with a hair dryer so the magnetic particles would bake into the film and not flake off. They transferred the recording to digital and fired it up.
“Hey, this sounds pretty good,” Gorka said of the tapes.
Redhouse Records of Minneapolis released the revived recording last July as “Before Beginning: The Unreleased I Know.” With a 1980s photo of Gorka looking a bit less gray, it’s as if the album got stuck in a time warp and suddenly appeared 31 years later. Gorka calls it his “newest and oldest record at the same time.”
“It was kind of a fun thing. I think it works with the whole package with the story and how the cover looks,” Gorka said. “It’s almost like putting out somebody else’s record. I don’t really sound that way any more. I sound different. I look a lot different.”
“Before Beginning” features Kenny Malone on drums and percussion, Dave Pomeroy on bass, Jay Patten on saxophone, Mike Dugan on electric guitar, Ralph Vitello or Biff Watson on keyboards and Stuart Duncan on fiddle and mandolin. Guest vocals are by Shawn Colvin and Lucy Kaplansky. That full band gives his music a different energy. People have called the tempo more upbeat. Gorka still does a lot of the songs, with some appearing as well on “I Know,” like “Down in the Milltown,” “Love is Our Cross to Bear,” “Winter Cows,” “Downtown Tonight” and “I Saw a Stranger with Your Hair.” Gorka said he still performs a lot of those songs.
“I still think I probably did the right thing in putting ‘I Know’ as the first thing,” he said. “I’m also glad I put this out as another take on those songs.”
Response to “Before Beginning” has been positive, Gorka said.
“I’ve been getting some comments on email and Facebook,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of life in those recordings. I’m glad to get them out.”
Michael Armstrong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
John Gorka Performs
WHEN: 7 P.M. FRIDAY
WHERE: BUNNELL STREET ARTS CENTER
TICKETS: ADMISSION, $26; TICKETS ON SALE AT BUNNELL OR ONLINE AT BUNNELLARTS.ORG.
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