by Kathy Sands-Boehmer
I knew it could be dangerous to interview Vance Gilbert. He’s an outspoken person on and off the stage. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram got it right: “… the voice of an angel, the wit of a devil, and the guitar playing of a god.” That sums up Vance Gilbert all right. I attempted to ask some questions about race relations below and I admit… I come off looking like a naive and stupid white woman who has been living in a cave. Forgive me but heed what Vance has to say. If you’re not familiar with his catalog, do yourself a favor and check it out.
Noise: Do you have any favorite songs that you’ve written? If so, what is it about those songs that makes you feel so attached to them?
Vance: I’ve never sung, played, or written better than I am doing right now. It’s odd to think that such improvement can happen in the span of five years or so, and for a post-50 individual, but I guess I’m simply a better student of songwriting performing than I’ve ever been. So, this last few years the last song is always the one I’m closest to and, I guess, the best—for that moment anyway. The songs—well, I have been writing in such a way that I constantly dare myself to place one of my songs up against one of most anyone else’s work that I admire—Richard Thompson’s, Joni Mitchell’s, Tom Waits’, Smokey Robinson’s to extract from a monstrously long list—and I arrogantly expect to at least not look foolish. That’s where my songwriting currently has to live to come off of the notebook pages. And I think I’m wicked close. I rewrote Patty Griffins “Let Him Fly” with a second lyric from the guy’s point of view, and many have asked for the recording. I wrote an extra verse to Richard Thompson’s “Dimming of the Day”—and absolutely no one—has noticed.
Why shoot low? To close that gap between humility and “gosh, I’ll never quite be there” is worth my potentially being seen as arrogant. So be it. If you throw no line you get no pickerel.
That said, “Unfamiliar Moon” seems to be sort of omnipresent on my and many other Vance fan lists.
Noise: You wrote a song called “26 Reasons” in response to the Newtown tragedy. It’s a very poignant story-song about a parent wanting to hold their child close because of the dangers outside their home. Have you gotten much reaction to this song since you released it on YouTube?
Vance: I’ve gotten some reaction. “Much” reaction? I’m not sure how relevant that question is. Did I get a lot of hits? Well, no, not like some other similarly posted yet far more amateur songs and tributes, some of which garnered 10 times the “views” that mine did. I remind us all that that sort of tribute is not a contest… Did those that viewed “26 Reasons” and commented on it find it as poignant as you did and hopefully healing?
Yes, many, and still never ever enough.
Noise: I’m interested in the back story of “Old White Men.” Is it a true story about your friendships with some old white men when you were a kid?
Vance: Of course it is, and, of course, it isn’t. I made the song up. It’s poetry to express an idea in my brain. It would be pretty plebeian to answer whether it was real or not—simplistic really. It’s a movie put to a big poem. To honor our mentors is something we should all do at some point. To wonder whether there was an alpha situation that inspired the song is irrelevant reductionism. Look, I don’t mean to be any more acerbic about this than I am, but do we ask if “Millworker” actually happened to James Taylor?
Noise: What’s your favorite road story about touring with comedian George Carlin?
Vance: It was an education watching George work an audience. Particularly from behind him—from the stage curtain. You can see what he sees, and it was a true schooling. He was a tireless writer, a vociferous exploiter of the First Amendment, a genius adjudicator and distiller of human experience, and he was utterly unafraid of failure. Road stories? None. There was no time. What with looking at timing, the vocal diphthong, when to growl, rhythm, collapsing time (a technique where the artist does the exact same material but manages to tweak timing in such a way that a 60-minute show ends up 48 minutes and you don’t notice), school was always in session.
Noise: Vance, you were highlighted in many news stories in 2011 because your experience with racial profiling. It was an eye-opening experience. How did your experience on that flight affect your mindset about race relations in this country? [Writer’s Note: if you don’t know about the back story here, do a search for Vance Gilbert airline incident.]
Vance: See, many would view what happened as business as usual, Black President or no. That’s pretty much me. Many people also think that because President Obama is in office means that whoo hoo racism is gone.
Driving from the airport in DC that afternoon in an impromptu rental car, where I couldn’t board that next flight because they had so delayed the connecting flight that I was “questioned” on, I saw a huge billboard, in southern Pennsulvania—someone or some group spent a lot of money—questioning Obama’s citizenship, with “Show us a birth certificate.” A whole frigging billboard. How insulting is that? And please, anyone reading this, please don’t tell me that that’s not race relevant. Okay, here comes a stretch, but Eisenhower is a pretty German name, you know, post World War II. No problem, no Sieg Heil worries as he went about offering help to the Middle East through the Eisenhower Doctrine, or worries about him instituting the Marshall Plan. But Obama? The elephant in the room is dressed all Oooga Booga with Secret Muslim Spears and loin cloths and “what will happen to our women?” And if even saying that makes us all a little uncomfortable, then good.
Look, I’m not a total cynic. Look at what I do for a living. Things are terrifically different than they were just 20 years ago. But there’s no overnight flick switch from White Hoods to a Benneton “all colors” commercial. We’re not there yet, I don’t care who’s in office. And I’m sure the other People of Color you’ve spoken to have said the same, right? Do I see a colorblind world one day? Hell, I hope not. We all bring so much different, good stuff to the table for the Big Life Meal. Problem is it’s the good stuff that gets overlooked.
Noise: Ellis Paul and You. There’s a seemingly unerring, ever sustained friendship. I have asked him about you. Now it’s your turn.
Vance: He is my litmus test. I judge what I do by what he has and hasn’t done, and divide by at least two. Then you have my career. Superior poet, a true melodicist (I made that word up for him. He is it), an unendingly exploratory guitarist.
And now you’ll see the true cynic in me—not about color, race, or any of that… point is, I should have a very, very famous friend. It’s about timing. The “folk scene” didn’t really exist when Tracy Chapman or Suzanne Vega plied their trade at their beginnings. Then here we all come in a rush after them, mid-’80s, and we create the loving little ghetto we are, many of us carving out broader careers than others, but getting by, with Ellis at the forefront. Dan Fogelberg (RIP), Jackson Browne, Stephen Bishop, none of them from the ’70s could hold a candle to the package that is Ellis Paul. His songs are better stories than anyone who has done this—erudite, wry, wrenching. Right up there with the other underground noted writers who are at best “barely rich” like Tom Waits and Loudon Wainright III. There I go with the arrogant song placement thing again. Heed me here, he should be rich. But now there’s the Monsters of Folk and their albums. Know who these kids are? Most over 35 don’t. Spare me. They don’t hold a candle to Ellis Paul.
I gleefully occupy his shadow.
And I hate him.
And as for friendship, he is the only one in the world I have ever told absolutely everything about me. Bar nothing.