"I’ve been hoping there’ll be some way through, and all our loved ones will be fine," Eliza Gilkyson sings on "Promises to Keep," the first track on her new album. "No one knows what it’ll come down to, so I’m just looking for a sign."
That verse could easily enough be about the coronavirus pandemic, which would be entirely fitting for a record that’s titled, simply, "2020." Of course, when Gilkyson put this album together last year, no one was aware of what 2020 would bring. Sometimes the underlying meaning of a song doesn’t reveal itself until well after it’s written.
Due out Friday, "2020" is Gilkyson’s 10th solo album on Red House Records, a renowned folk music label that helped the Austin singer-songwriter find solid footing as an artist after decades of starts and stops. Forays into new age and electric pop sounds never really took hold for an artist whose first album arrived at the tail end of the 1960s folk boom.
Gilkyson spent the next three decades winding her way back to her roots. She cites her 2000 Red House debut "Hard Times in Babylon" as the turning point. A classic late bloomer, she waxes rhapsodically about climbing in a van at age 50 with her son Cisco Ryder Gilliland on drums and Mike Hardwick on guitar, hitting the road full-on for the first time ever.
"It was a really fun time in my life," she recalls. "I was single, and I loved at night after a gig just climbing into the back of the van, lying there while Cisco and Mike would be up front listening to the radio. I was so happy."
What followed were the two most productive decades of Gilkyson’s musical career, a stretch that included Grammy nominations for 2004’s "Land of Milk and Honey" and 2014’s "The Nocturne Diaries." Everything stemmed from that epiphany 20 years ago: "I kind of woke up at age 50 and just thought, ‘If I don't do this now, I'm going to regret that I didn't try.’"
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IT FOLLOWS, THEN, that Gilkyson set her eyes on 2020 as another milepost. She’ll turn 70 in August, but perhaps more importantly, she saw this year as a turning point in American history. The November election looms as a crucial referendum on the state of our union, and Gilkyson — like most folk singers, a dyed-in-the-wool progressive — believed the times called for music that rose to the occasion.
"2020" balances seven freshly written tunes against three time-tested anchors from icons of 20th-century folk music. Gilkyson knew early on that Bob Dylan’s fatalistic "A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall" would fit her vision for the record perfectly, and some minor tweaks to Pete Seeger’s "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" helped bring that classic into the 21st century. Most intriguing, though, is "Beach Haven," which sets passages from a letter in Woody Guthrie’s archives to Gilkyson’s musical composition.
"Beach Haven" addresses 1950s racial segregation head-on, as Guthrie champions minorities who want to live in a New York apartment building. "My enemy is my landlord who won’t board them, ’cause he chose to live his sad life separately," Guthrie writes. What connects 1950 (the year Gilkyson was born) to 2020 in the song is this key detail: The landlord Guthrie took to task was Fred Trump, father of Donald Trump.
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There’s no denying the political overtones of "2020," but Gilkyson contends that the album’s theme and goal is to unify Americans in a time of turmoil.
"I worry that the Democrats are so polarized, and I understand that the right is not going to shift," she says. "I really think right now we need to be focusing on the things we have in common that we need to unite around. So one of the things I did with this record is to keep promoting a sense of unified purpose. I'm purposely trying not to be divisive right now."
Later, she clarified her thoughts via email. "Perhaps unity would be possible if we had laws, regulations, government and leaders in place that supported and advocated the best parts of human nature and prevented/deterred the worst aspects. I think we only have one shot at that before it all goes to hell, and that’s this election. So much depends on it that I can barely stand the stress of it. That’s why I made this record."
RECORDED IN AUSTIN with her son producing (he’s done her last several records), "2020" features an ace cast of local players anchored by Hardwick, who plays a variety of guitars and has been integral to Gilkyson’s music over the past two decades. "I'd say that a lot of what I would identify as my sort of urban-folk sound really is because of Hardwick," she says. "He's not one of those rocketshiplike lead players; he's much more about texture and feel."
Others on the album include bassist Chris Maresh, keyboardist Bukka Allen, fiddler Warren Hood, mandolinist Kym Warner and more than a half-dozen women backing vocalists including Betty Soo and Jaimee Harris. "It's one of the things I love about recording here," Gilkyson says. "I don't ever have to go out of Austin to get what I need. These players are so good, and so deserving of notoriety."
Originally from Los Angeles, Gilkyson lived for many years in New Mexico, where she still holds a summertime songwriting workshop. (Songs she wrote with students Tim Goodwin and Robert McPeek ended up on "2020.") Austin first drew her here in the early 1980s when her friend Gary P. Nunn, who played often in New Mexico, suggested she come check out the Texas capital. After she and her band played memorable gigs at the Kerrville Folk Festival and Soap Creek Saloon and opened for Ray Wylie Hubbard at the Austin Opera House, she was sold.
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"I instantly plugged into the singer-songwriter scene," she recalls, mentioning Butch Hancock and David Halley as two early connections. "They were just so welcoming and so fun to hang out with. They became lifelong friends. There was something about the community thing — everybody going out in the heat of the night and wandering around from club to club. I don't think there's anything like it. It's still amazing."
Gilkyson moved home to Los Angeles in the mid-1980s and then returned to New Mexico before coming back to Austin for good in the late 1990s. It was then that she decided "to keep it to the folk basics and just find out who I am again," she says. For years, she’d followed the suggestions of associates who’d told her not to be a folk singer. "I remember I took my acoustic guitar and stuck it under the bed, and it was under there for years. And then finally I pulled it out and reclaimed my roots.
"It felt so good to finally do that. Here was this thing that I had been denying, and I was struggling to make anything happen. When I reclaimed it, it was so obvious, and the response was so immediate. People feel it when somebody is themselves."
GILKYSON WAS READY to tour extensively behind "2020" when the coronavirus pandemic put everything on hold. It’s been difficult, to say the least. "I get excited about putting out a new record usually, but I don't feel like self-promoting right now," she says. "But at the same time, I love this record. It was timed for this year, and this election, and the emotional roller coaster ride we’re all going on. So I want to get it out there."
To celebrate the record’s release, Gilkyson will perform its songs at 5:30 p.m. Friday for a livestream from her Facebook page. As with many musicians, she’s learning the ropes of livestreaming on the fly; Cisco helped her set up a garage performance space that she tested last weekend with an all-requests livestream show.
In the meantime, she’s figuring out how to balance the album’s content against a suddenly very different 2020 that has emerged.
"I think I have to perform them with the idea that this will pass," she says. "There is going to come a time in this year when we're going to have to turn around and get political. At that point, I hope I can encourage people to keep their eye on the prize. It's so essential right now. We're not going to be able to get out in the street; we're not going to be able to gather, and that's a lot of what this record was about. But we can virtually gather."
Perhaps, she considers, the deep effects of the pandemic may open some eyes. "If the virus doesn't knock some people awake, I don't know," she says, reflecting upon an apocalyptic streak in her songwriting that stretches all the way back to her 1969 debut album. "Are we going to just turn into savages? My job is to remind us that we can be decent. That's my job with myself, much less with my music."
That’s why "2020" is both a defining year and album for her. "I had to do something, just to be able to live with myself no matter how the cards fall," she says. "It’s an epic tragedy unfolding in real time, and we are writing the last act. I hope for redemption."