Two guys jamming in a house
Ken Mickey’s chardonnay glass rests on the piano cover, the instrument itself balanced on a four-wheeled dolly in the living room of Jack Gorham’s house on the outskirts of High Point’s tony Emerywood section. Used paint trays and rollers stack on the porch, and strips of blue tape line the inside window frames. The house is being renovated in preparation for Gorham’s bride, and so long as the job remains unfinished the living room serves as a rehearsal space.
Gorham, who manages the Collectors Antique Mall in Asheboro, isn’t messing with the piano tonight. He plays an un-programmed Korg C-4000 with sheet music spread across its top (“I’ve been in bands where they say, ‘You need to get a MIDI,’” he says. “I will not get a MIDI; I do not even want to know what a MIDI is.”) while Mickey shoulders a Fender two-tone guitar behind a music stand. The smell of brownies perfumes the house, evidence of Gorham’s preparation for packing his school-age children’s lunches the following day.
The two men have been meeting like this once a week more or less since March, teaching each other their songs, practicing cover tunes and negotiating musical arrangements. They’ve played a concert with a full band at the subterranean Cave in Chapel Hill, but scheduling difficulties have so far precluded any repeat performances. They periodically do the open mic at the Claddagh Bar in High Point, and they’ve scheduled a showcase at the Garage in Winston-Salem for late December. Lest someone get the wrong impression that these young men creeping up on middle age lack ambition, consider instead that they take their woodshedding seriously.
“What you got here is two guys,” Gorham says. “We’re both thirty-nine. Music has been part of our lives. You’ve got two guys who refuse to quit, who refuse to hang it up.”
They met through Gorham’s former neighbor, artist Ainslie Phillips, who held periodic art shows at her house. Gorham was playing at one of those parties around the time his album of ambient piano instrumentals, Noodles, came out, when Mickey happened by. They struck up a friendship and vowed to collaborate someday. They’ve tentatively adopted the moniker Rhyme and Reason.
“This is cool,” Mickey says. “I went to the Ken Mickey page on CDBaby.com, and clicked on ‘sounds like’ and it went to John Denver’s Rhyme and Reason. John Denver’s on our set list.”
Mickey has a new self-released CD out called Stand, whose cover is a painting by Phillips of a chair. The songwriter has demonstrated a priority of art before commerce, or perhaps deferred to life’s dictates by developing a collaborate live-music repertoire based equally on Gorham’s contributions instead of putting together a back-up band to promote the CD.
Mickey possesses a reedy, un-pretty voice as a singer, and a cinematic eye for detail as a songwriter. His songs feature straight-forward chord changes, twangy leads and judicious use of sevenths. His persona in song is that of a wounded romantic, a sardonic observer and ultimately a survivor. In short, his music is rusty Americana. Whether accompanying Mickey on keyboard or accordion, or driving his own artistic vehicle, Gorham sings a humble-man’s soul, fleshes out color and melody in Renoir-like sound impressions and rollicking, poetic strokes on his instruments. Both men play with restraint, eschewing artifice.
It’s getting late for a school night, about 10 p.m., and they run through a handful of cool, semi-obscure covers: “Storm Windows” by John Prine, “Fourth of July” by Dave Alvin, “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen and “Into the Mystic” by Van Morrison.
Mickey hesitates for a moment.
“I can break out a new one on you,” he says.
“Break out a new one on me,” Gorham replies.
“I don’t know if I can swing it.”
Mickey reconsiders, and then he charges into a song from his days as a student in Nebraska. It’s a nasty piece of garage rock circa 1966 that is redolent of thwarted affection and teenage frustration. It’s the first run-through, and Gorham surprises Mickey with his instrumentation.
“You got me with those,” the guitarist says. “I like it… That’s the problem with writing a song and then bringing it out.”
They play the song again, and then Mickey stops.
“See?” he says.
“All right,” Gorham says. “You’re going to punch those, too.”
They play a burst of staccato chords in unison in a dynamic coda to the verse.
“I’ve been digging through the happy pile,” Mickey says. “I feel like we can make this fun. It started out as an angry song, but I think it’s more fun now. Can we make it fun?”
To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at firstname.lastname@example.org.