John Gorka keeps coffeehouses
filled to the brim

November 30, 2007
By MICHAEL GRANBERRY / The Dallas Morning News

Photo: Josh MishellPhoto: Ann Marsden
John Gorka thinks a craving for 'real music' has sparked
interest in his acoustical sound

For John Gorka, it's an all-too-familiar routine: Fly from his home in Minnesota to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. Rent a car and drive to Waco. Play a show in Austin. Take a break and head to Fort Worth, where he will headline Saturday night at the Jefferson Freedom Cafe.

For Mr. Gorka, 49, it's a way of life and one he loves. He does 80 to 90 shows a year and says he craves those long stretches of highway, which get punctuated by sold-out shows in such venues as the Jefferson, where a loyal constituency will show up to hear such classics as "I Saw a Stranger With Your Hair" and "Love Is Our Cross to Bear."

The bearded Mr. Gorka is a traveling troubadour not at all surprised by the acoustic-music boom going on not just in Texas but all over the country. It fills a need, he contends, a void.

And he's at the forefront.

"I think it's real ... real music," he says, thinking out loud. "So much of our music these days - not just music but art and culture in general - is so removed from reality. We're given so many images, but it's hard to know where the people are in that. Where are the humans?"

So, to see a solitary figure onstage strumming a guitar and singing a heartfelt ballad offers "a kind of grounding," he says. "There's a human there you can touch and hear, and it's not packaged for mass consumption. It's one artist, with one audience, making a connection in that one time only. People are yearning for something true, something real ... something that's not virtual."

It's hard to believe, but the youthful Mr. Gorka, married and the father of two children ages 10 and "almost 8," has been doing this for 20 years. He grew up in a blue-collar family in Colonia in the Woodbridge Township of New Jersey, where his father (who died when he was 13) "worked at a factory that printed labels and tags.

"His dad's death forced his mom to return to work.

"She did drafting," says Mr. Gorka, the youngest of three kids. "Before it was computerized."

With a wry laugh, he says of his Italian family, "I don't think we ever hit middle-class. And maybe that's what attracted me to folk music, because it was music that was not handed down from the music industry."

It made him want to "root for the underdog" - "Overdogs tend to have lawyers," he says - and play like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, all the way down to learning banjo before guitar. Hearing Flat & Scruggs on The Beverly Hillbillies and "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" on the 1967 soundtrack from Bonnie and Clyde only deepened the addiction.

He attended Monrovian College in Bethlehem, Pa., majoring in history and philosophy. And there he fell in love with Godfrey Daniels Coffee House, where he earned his performing stripes. Its surrounding neighborhoods inspired his earliest songs, such as "The Sentinel."

As a kid, he grooved on Elvis Presley, the Beatles and the Beach Boys and was later drawn to James Taylor, Steve Goodman, John Prine, Tim Hardin and Eric Andersen.

Fans still clamor for his early work, most notably "I Saw a Stranger With Your Hair" and "Love Is Our Cross to Bear," which for him underscores the realization that listeners experience them so much differently than he did while writing them.

"I Saw a Stranger With Your Hair" is, of course, an ode to an estranged lover, but a woman came up to him recently and told him, quite emotionally, that it reminds her of "her son who had passed away. So, I feel like when I sing those songs that they're not just my songs. They've become more of a shared experience and not just my little songs from my little life."

For Mr. Gorka's fans, hearing his husky baritone for the first time in intimate venues such as the Jefferson or Uncle Calvin's Coffeehouse, where he often performs, can carry a surprising twist. His ballads offer a glimpse into the soul of a truly serious man, but standing before a live audience, he can also be laugh-out-loud funny, not unlike Jackson Browne, whose witty asides almost never come through in his recordings.

"I like having a more serious reputation," Mr. Gorka says with a laugh, "because it gives me something to play against." And then he's back on the road, off to his next destination, admitting that it's sometimes difficult to tell the difference between Abilene and Amarillo. But at least he gets to be alone, thinking up lines for his next "serious" song.