Hair dryers and five-letter words: John Gorka returns to Minstrel in Morris Township, July 22, 2016

July 19, 2016

By Kevin Coughlin

Photo by Joe del Tufo.

Fans usually want to hear greatest hits from beloved performers. But at The Minstrel this Friday, John Gorka may sing a song so new, the ink hasn’t dried on the lyric sheet.

It’s called Five-Letter Word. Care to take a guess?

“It’s not O-b-a-m-a. It’s not N-i-x-o-n. It’s not me,” hints G-o-r-k-a. You’d best pay attention.

“I’m hoping this Five-Letter Word song will have a very short shelf life,” he says.

When Gorka takes the stage in Morris Township on July 22, 2016, he also will bring some original numbers with a very long shelf life. More than three decades, in fact.

His “new” album, Before Beginning, available this month from Red House Records, was recorded in 1985, during five whirlwind days in Nashville.

It features crackerjack musicians such as Stuart Duncan on mandolin and fiddle, and Shawn Colvin and Lucy Kaplansky singing harmonies, on songs that would be re-recorded in Gorka’s native New Jersey and released two years later as his debut record, I Know.

A dozen albums would follow. Yet Gorka’s songwriting range already is on full display in Before Beginning, from evocative scene-setters such as Down In the Milltown and Blues Palace to the udderly delightful Winter Cows, to wistful ballads like Out of My Mind and I Saw a Stranger with Your Hair.

They sound remarkably fresh. Unlike most albums that are painstakingly assembled, layer by layer, these Nashville sessions were recorded live in the studio, like a concert. .


So why in the world did these gems sit in storage for all these years? “I was trying to find my way,” says Gorka, 57. “I wasn’t sure of the direction I wanted to go. This seemed not right at the time.”

Raised in Colonia, Gorka honed his skills at Jack Hardy’s Fast Folk circle in Greenwich Village. With encouragement from Nanci Griffith, he won the coveted New Folk Award at the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas in 1984.

Gorka remembers playing a cassette from the Nashville sessions early on, after a show at one of his favorite haunts, the Godfrey Daniels coffeehouse in Bethlehem, PA. Jesse Winchester gave a listen after his set. “He comes over and says, ‘I like it. It sounds commercial!'” Gorka says with a laugh. “I knew it was good, but I didn’t think it was the kind of good that I wanted to start out with.”

Gorka graduated from playing banjo — the Beverly Hillbillies theme hooked him–to his brother’s guitar. Now he often plays a nifty portable guitar tuned to G-sharp, and piano. Arguably, however, the most important instrument connected with Before Beginning is … a hair dryer.

An audio engineer used one to “bake” the magnetic particles on the aging master tape, so they would not flake off as the songs were transferred to the digital world for this year’s belated release.

“The hair dryer definitely helped the process,” says Gorka, whose first Minstrel appearance was in April 1982, as an opener for Sally Rogers, according to Minstrel Chairman Mike Agranoff, who booked them.

Since then, Gorka and his soothing baritone voice have carved out a loyal following across North America. He plays about 100 gigs a year and is a favorite at Falcon Ridge and other folk festivals. His advice to aspiring singer-songwriters:


Eliza Gilkyson and John Gorka perform at the 2010 Falcon Ridge Folk Festival. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“Follow your heart but use your head. In general, I recommend having high standards, low overhead and realistic expectations.”

The Minstrel show will be a homecoming of sorts for Gorka, who now lives near Minneapolis — a place rocked by the recent police shooting of a black man and before that, the untimely death of pop icon Prince.

Throw in a tumultuous presidential race and a steady diet of horrific headlines, and one might suspect the wry troubadour who penned I’m From New Jersey and People My Age would find it harder than ever to draw from the whimsy well. Quite the contrary. “I think it becomes more necessary,” Gorka says

John Gorka performs at The Minstrel on Friday, July 22, 2016, with opener Nancy Beaudette. Showtime is 7:45 pm. Admission: $9, plus what you think the show is really worth. Children 12 and under, free. At the Morristown Unitarian Fellowship, 21 Normandy Heights Road, Morris Township.

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