Kevin Gordon’s latest release, Tilt and Shine (Crowville Media), is a collegelevel textbook of roots-guitar interaction. It’s the kind of fluid, nonhierarchical, twin-guitar attack rarely heard outside of the Muddy Waters’ band and the Rolling Stones. Though Gordon and Joe V. McMahan, his longtime partner in crime, both solo on the record, it’s the way their instruments rhythmically interact that is so special.
“It’s about having the accents bouncing off of each other,” McMahan explains. “If Kevin’s playing straight time, I have to find a way to syncopate. If he starts to syncopate, I tighten down and play simply. At this point we don’t think about it much — it’s just a playful conversation. Often, one guy is doing the Chuck Berry rhythm while the other does the upward accents.”
The famous Berry rhythm-guitar style buttresses the groove of many Gordon songs. “I was writing songs during my early years in Nashville that were more obviously derivative of Chuck, like ‘Deuce and a Quarter’ [from 2000’s Down to the Well],” he says. “There are specific measures of his recordings that I love, but I was not the kind of guy that would sit down and scientifically figure out what was happening. It would just be, What does that feel like, and how can I get it in my hands?”
The early rock and roll style that Gordon and company perform so expertly has been described as a unique mixture of a straight-eighths groove combined with a triplet-based shuffle. For Gordon, though, it isn’t about analysis. “I was never thinking, Who’s playing straight and who’s playing a shuffle? It’s not that cut and dry,” he explains. “I tend to think of it as this living, breathing thing — the fluid measure. I’m just doing whatever feels right at the time, and Joe’s the counterfoil. You can really hear that percolating thing on ‘Oil City Girl’ [also on Down to the Well].”
According to McMahan, picking emphasis plays a role in defining the rhythm as well. He demonstrates by playing a straight-eighths rhythm while accenting different notes. “The way those dynamics push and pull has its own dance rhythm,” he says. “Kevin and I doing that off of each other is a big part of our thing. It’s almost subconscious at this point, but back in the ’90s we worked at it.”
The dark mystery of Gordon’s recorded and live sound derives in part from his and McMahan’s liberal use of flatwound strings. McMahan’s guitars include a 1970s Cortez Strat copy tuned to open D or G and strung with flatwound D’Addario .012–.052s. “It’s Japanese,” he says. “I bought it in a pawnshop outside of Eudora, Arkansas. It has a magical thing about it. The pickups are underwound and sound really good.” He also has an Airline guitar that’s set up similarly. “Even without an amp, it instantly sounds like the tone on ‘Fire at the End of the World,’ on Tilt and Shine,” McMahan says. Other Strats and Teles in his arsenal are strung with roundwound D’Addario .010–.052s.
Occasionally, Gordon wields a standard-tuned Tele strung with D’Addario .010–.052s, but more often you’ll see him strangling a flatwound-strung 1956 Gibson ES-125 tuned to open D. “I found that at a friend’s apartment,” he says. “I asked if I could borrow it for the weekend. He never saw it again.”
In the studio, both players achieved their classic American crunch through a ’60s-era Supro with an eight-inch speaker, a blackface Fender Princeton Reverb or a new tweed Deluxe-style amp—no pedals. “That’s the preferred way,” McMahan says.
Live performance requires a different approach. McMahan employs a post-CBS Fender Deluxe, occasionally abetted by pedals. “For a few years now I’ve been into the Spaceman Aphelion pedal,” he says. “It’s an overdrive that makes any amp sound tweed-like. I recently got a ProAnalog Devices Manticore. It does a similar kind of thing with a different flavor.”
Gordon uses a blackface Deluxe without reverb, sometimes adding a late-’40s Gibson BR9 and pushing them with an old Fulltone Fat Boost pedal. He also uses a Strymon Flint pedal, occasionally for the reverb but mainly for the tremolo. “I’m a bit of a tremolo freak,” he admits.
Gordon and McMahan have a running joke between themselves that they are playing songs where “smart lyrics meet dumb music.” They are nevertheless well aware that the instrumental aspect of Gordon’s songs, though simple, is anything but easy. And as anyone whose band has tried to pull off this kind of two-guitar magic will attest, it most definitely is not dumb either.