By Garret Leiva
TRAVERSE CITY — Folk artist John Gorka brings his rich baritone voice and unique songcraft to InsideOut Gallery this weekend.
The singer-songwriter, who hails from Minnesota, is set to perform at 7 p.m. Sunday at InsideOut Gallery, 229 Garland St. The one-night concert also features special guest Canadian singer-songwriter Lynn Miles, who earlier this year won the Canadian Folk Music Award for Songwriter of the Year.
Originally from New Jersey, Gorka got his start in a seemingly cliché spot for an aspiring folk troubadour — a neighborhood coffeehouse in eastern Pennsylvania. His travels took him to New York City, where he performed with Jack Hardy's Fast Folk gathering of up-and-coming musicians that included Suzanne Vega, Christine Lavin, Shawn Colvin, Lucy Kaplansky, Richard Shindell and David Massengill.
Gorka's musical roots were first planted when he picked up the banjo in his early teens.
"When I was 14-15 years old, I learned to play the banjo. I was drawn to the five-string banjo bluegrass sound," said Gorka, whose banjo influence at the time included the song, "Dueling Banjos," and watching Flatt and Scruggs on the TV show "Beverly Hillbillies."
Gorka said his early music influences expanded into the "acoustic songwriting world" that included the guitar.
"My brother showed me some chords, but I was basically self-taught," said Gorka, who absorbed the songbooks of Crosby, Stills and Nash, Jim Croce and The Beatles.
While drawn more to individual voices than musical genres, Gorka has long felt a kinship with folk music.
"There is an earnestness in folk or roots music that might be dismissed in the rock world," he said. "Folk has a universal longing that appeals to me. Folk is what I do. I don't mind the word or being called a folk singer."
Many well-known artists have recorded or performed Gorka's songs, including Mary Chapin Carpenter, Nanci Griffith, Mary Black and Maura O'Connell. Gorka has graced the stage of Austin City Limits and National Public Radio's Mountain Stage in West Virginia. His song, "Where No Monuments Stand," is featured in an upcoming documentary film on activist and Oregon Poet Laureate William Stafford.
In 1987, Minnesota-based Red House Records released Gorka's first album, "I Know" to popular and critical acclaim. He has since recorded 10 albums and toured throughout the U.S. and Europe.
Gorka is currently working on new material for an album he anticipates releasing in January 2014. He takes an organic approach to songwriting, often letting a song mellow a bit.
"I neglect it initially, maybe a month or longer, before I go back and work on a song to see if it has lasting ability," he said.
It is a song's power to reach audiences, even strangers, that drives Gorka after decades on the road.
"These songs are not just my own; I consider them community property," he said. "People come up to me after a show and share what a song means to them and they might interpret it in a different way. It completes the song in a way larger than I knew."
Tickets for John Gorka are $20 in advance and $25 at the door. They are available at InsideOut Gallery, Oryana Food Cooperative or online at treattickets.com.