Home on the fringe

The places of our childhood linger in our memories, like wistfully distant, teasing Edens. Charlie Gearhart, songwriting headman for the Goose Creek Symphony, remembers his Kentucky boyhood in his multilayered creations.

Guitars Pickin’/Fiddles Playin’ (1991) paints an impressionistic portrait of Goose Creek Hollow, as rich as Dylan Thomas’ poetic memoir of Fern Hill, with rollicking cuts replete with swaying fiddles capturing such images as moonlit trees, clomping feet and laughter of a Saturday-night square dance.

“[It was] not really a town, it was a holler,” remembers Gearhart. “We lived largely on a barter system, going to town to trade milk and eggs for flour and sugar. Of course, it isn’t like that anymore; now, there’s highways and shopping and, well, you know.”

Though he has spent most of his subsequent life on the West Coast — Phoenix, San Francisco, Washington state — the band’s name still honors that southern-Kentucky hollow. And America’s fall from simplicity is the thematic spine defining the first few Goose Creek records.

At its best, art is what it aspires to say — and, for this band, that means the musical choices speak much louder than the lyrics. Traditions merge with new forms; fiddles are swallowed by electric guitar.

As a conceptual unit, the band — now more than 30 years old — has always been ahead of its time. “Goose Creek was alternative [in the early days], and we’re alternative now,” proclaims Gearheart, speaking about a band whose music slides in and out of bluegrass and rock forms, mixing in jazz principles and classical composition techniques.

Over the past three decades, these musical nomads have popped up in assorted cultural moments, always on the fringes — and comfortable there. “We’ve been able to keep to our roots, coming from the heart, trying new things,” Gearhart notes. And, happily, they’re still at it. The band’s latest work-in-progress, tentatively titled Going Home, will “represent our Appalachian influence, our bluegrass influence,” he says, mischievously adding, “I think we might find room for a trombone in there, too.” Such is the “Hey, why not?” spirit behind all the world’s great advancements, whether Kepler’s planetary models or Reese’s chocolate-and-peanut-butter epiphany.

But the present may turn out to be the most receptive time yet for Goose Creek’s experimental musings. Never having orbited in the stratosphere of platinum sales, the band still flutters and glides on the periphery of popular music, where the battles of innovation are mostly fought. But the alternative revolution of the ’90s, and the swallowing of ’80s avant-garde into the mainstream, have created an enormous space for bands like Goose Creek, who are actually doing innovative things.

The surging revival of ’70s chic won’t hurt them, either. Unlike the groups now riding that wave, such as K.C. and the Sunshine Band, Goose Creek identifies itself by its current material. Like the accent of a speaker’s first language, though, the band’s ’70s spirit shows through in their approach to the music.

Retro trends present us with a shiny, digestible veneer of history: We’re asked to believe that the 1970s were about bell bottoms and floppy collars. Forgotten in faddist revivals, however, is the character beneath the kitschy clothing. Commercial nostalgia neglects the raw artistic combustibility of those licentious years.

Goose Creek Symphony’s first, self-titled recording, in 1970, featured a raw blend of elements that would later evolve into country rock and jam rock: the layering of rhythms and harmonies; the riffing, down in the subtext; the meddling with the measure and the time; the stretching of the four-track recording to its limits.

But Goose Creek’s experimentalism has always been a sober, earnest inquiry into musical tradition. Gearheart believes that much new popular music, including new country, lacks something that he tries to incorporate into the Goose Creek sound. Modern production techniques, he thinks, might account for a loss of personality and sincerity in contemporary pop. As a Hank Williams fan, Gearheart targets the Nashville recording machine as the culprit. “A lot of times, you’ve got six different people writing a song, and I don’t know how you can get anything sincere or personal out of that,” he asserts. “They’re mostly interested in creating a hook, a catchy line. It’s a producer’s daydream — and a musician’s nightmare.

Band members unanimously cite the Beatles as a decisive musical influence. “I was living in San Francisco in 1965 — interested mostly in jazz, those days — when a buddy called me up and told me to come over and check out this new [Beatles] record,” Gearhart remembers. “And it blew my mind. I said, ‘I’m gonna get back into rock ‘n’ roll.'”

That mix of innovative rock with a firm bluegrass ancestry makes for some spry musical moments. In Goose Creek’s early-’70s work, you can almost feel the Lennon/McCartney presence in the room. The band’s homage to the traditional “Orange Blossom Special,” for example, meanders along in standard pick-and-doodle style — then suddenly cracks into a fractured melody, an amplified wail. The tune takes off with an inspired guitar solo, reminiscent of the late Duane Allman’s frenetic jams. Ever since those postmodern country-rock days, the rougher morsels of pick-and-choose influences have been melded into Goose Creek’s distinctive style.

Inevitably, the band’s lineup has shifted through the years, but the instrumentation remains about the same: fiddle, lead guitars, dobro, organ, piano, pedal slide and bass. Horns or strings might be invited in, on a whim.

Trying to pinpoint the Goose Creek sound is difficult. Moments of fanciful impressionism — when images of sweet country evenings are conjured in the mind’s eye — compete with bursts of high comedy.

Gearhart puts it this way: “We’ll do just about anything, if it fits the picture [we’re] trying to paint.”

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3 thoughts on “Home on the fringe

  1. tom woosley

    i grew up in the hills of ky myself.corbin,ky.i started listning to goosecreek in 1973 and never stopped.i say goosecreek is a state of mind as much as it is a place or even music.thank u charlie.

  2. tony coury

    Charlie, This is your old friend from mesa high. i would love to talk with you. Time is passing by so quickly and we arn’t getting younger. take care and keep in touch. Tony Jr.

  3. Bernie B.

    I first heard GCS in 1977 as a 14 year old from Chicago visiting the North Georgia hills. It blew me away. I got to see Charlie and company last week in Nashville at the Basement and it was like being in heaven. I will be at the 6/15/09 show with a lot of friends in tow!

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