It's a Tuesday night at the tail end of winter, and songwriter Justin Gordon is preparing to play three sets at the only venue within a 30-minute drive from his woodland cabin. He throws his guitar in the truck and, before leaving, brings in enough firewood to keep his wife and infant son warm until he returns. He's not going far — just a mile or so down the road — to his steady gig at Green Springs Inn, 11470 Highway 66, Ashland.
The inn touts a restaurant with good food and the friendly, welcoming atmosphere that comes from being the only business in town. Eighteen miles of steep and winding (and visually stunning) mountain road separate the inn from the southern end of Ashland. It is the only public, commercial space for miles. This time of year, mounds of plowed snow still line the roadside, and not many outdoor adventurers are about.
Gordon will be playing to a modest crowd of hungry neighbors.
He sets up in the corner of the main dining area, home to about six tables and a long, diner-style counter. Folks in a smaller dining room down a short hallway also can hear Gordon as he casually launches into his first set. He plays without amplification — simply sings out into the room much the way country-blues artists — whose records he fell in love with as a teenager — must have done about 100 years ago.
Gordon split time growing up between Columbus, Ga., and Athens, Ohio. He's played professionally since the late '90s, performed all over the country and spent a significant amount of time in Europe and Central America. In 2008, he toured with the North Carolina-based Avett Brothers, playing nightly in large concert halls to sold-out crowds. More recently, he's played the main stage at Britt Festivals in Jacksonville — both with the Avetts and his own band, Wrecking Ball.
So why play for tips and beer every other Tuesday night to seasonally small crowds of die-hard Greensprings locals? He plays because he loves to, and because the inn is his neighborhood watering hole and meeting place — and because he is a new father with little interest in straying far from his young family's country homestead. He plays because he can't imagine not playing, and — humble though it may be — this is a great gig.
Since 2001, Gordon has self-released four albums of original material. Three of them are available on iTunes. The newest, "The Love and the Mystery" (2009), was recorded in Ashland with his Wrecking Ball bandmates: drummer Kyle Corroneos and bassist David Hampton (Sage Meadows and High Country, The New Autonomous Folksingers). A fifth record is in the works for release later this year.
Gordon's songwriting is his calling card. Even if he didn't write original material, his guitar-playing and singing would rate as stand-alone talents. His songs range from quiet, country-blues-influenced, solo-guitar numbers to searing, full-band, power-pop tunes capable of carrying the most crowded of dance floors.
Lyrically, he writes honest songs about his own life without sounding like he's addressing a group-therapy session. Unlike some songwriters, he's not too cool for a beautiful melody, often giving over a portion of a song to tightly harmonized "oohs" and "ahhs." Wrecking Ball bassist Hampton also has a gift for singing harmony.
This may be the quality of Gordon's work that stands out the most: He has an ear for a nice melody line, a cool guitar part and a clever turn of phrase delivered with an infectious, syllabic rhythm. He catches hold of disparate parts and pieces and turns them over and over — trying different iterations and applying a craftsman's discipline until they blossom, more often that not, into truly remarkable pop songs.
Gordon's next Green Springs Inn appearance will be from 6 to 9 p.m. Tuesday, March 26.