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Eliza Gilkyson explores the land of milk and honey

By Rick Teverbaugh, May 2004

There are almost as many reasons to become a performer as there are performers. For singer/songwriter Eliza Gilkyson, the reason was quite unique as well.

The late Terry Gilkyson was her father. He, too, was a songwriter. He was the author for such well-known songs as "Greenfields" and "The Bare Necessities," the latter from the Disney film "Jungle Book" earned him an Oscar nomination. He also contributed music to Disney's "Swiss Family Robinson," "Thomasina" and the "Aristocats." His songs were recorded by artists like Dean Martin, Louis Armstrong, Johnny Cash, the Kingston Trio, Harry Connick Jr. He died nearly five years ago.

"He was more of a traditional folk singer than I am," says Eliza Gilkyson, who just released the country sounding "Land of Milk and Honey" on Red House Records, in a telephone interview from her home in Austin, Texas. "He was one of the first folk singers to write his own songs."

His total of penned, published material reached nearly 400 titles.

But it was his versatility as a writer that made the biggest professional impact on his daughter. "He appreciated other kinds of music," says Gilkyson. "He wasn't a traditional folk Nazi. He had a pop sensibility that really affected me. Maybe that's why I'm more of a singer/songwriter than a folk artist."

Yet there was more she took away from her experience with him as a performer as well.

"We sang a lot together," she says. "We'd sing in private just for friends. He was a very charismatic performer. As a little girl, I'd sit in amongst family and friends and watch him. I'd find myself creeping closer and closer to him. Finally I'd be able to look back and see the people and how he had grabbed their attention. That was also why he made a really darn good living."

Terry was born in Philadelphia to left wing intellectuals so he didn't have the same rural, rough upbringing as some of the folk singers of the day and as such some of them didn't include him in their professional circles. "He loved dark minor key melodies," says Gilkyson. "He didn't know music. He felt his way around in a song. Technically, he was a great bridge writer."

He was also pragmatic. When he needed a voice for his many demo tapes, he turned to Eliza. "It was cheaper than hiring somebody else," she says. "By the time I was 13, I had a pretty mature voice."

But to follow her father's footsteps onto the stage and into all the trappings that followed, she would have to shed some of her natural inclinations. The extroverted qualities that fit her father so comfortably seemed out of place when put on her young shoulders.

"I was very shy," says Gilkyson. "I was almost an invisible child. I was very unsure of myself. I was almost like a ghost."

Instead of being content with that persona, she found that singing was a way to cast aside, even if momentarily, that private shell she had created. "I invented a safe way to come out," she says. "I became more confident. Then it became of question of who am I?"

Was she the shy introvert or the performing extrovert? So far, the performer personality is winning out.

For a time, Gilkyson was classified as a New Age artist due to the atmospheric content of her 1987 release "Pilgrims." She even worked with New Age stalwart Andreas Vollenweider in Europe. In the mid-'90s, she released a pair of discs for small labels. But in 1999 she formed her own label and released "Misfits."

"I had stopped sending stuff to labels," says Gilkyson. "I actually went through a grieving process. Then I decided I could make a living out of this without (a label)."

But that was when Red House Records president Bob Feldman stepped in. "I sent them a studio tape of one of my dad's songs for a folk scene compilation," she says. "I got a call from Bob, and he asked what he could do to get me to sign with his label. Bob and I have a similar view. His ideas are really good. He has such a good ear. Sometimes he'll hear something and have an idea. I'll really ' like it so I have to get the band back together and record something different."

Red House has been her home since 2000 when she released "Hard Times in Babylon."

She acknowledges that while she enjoys the creative freedom she enjoys on Red House, there is a downside. "There are some limitations with a small label," she says. "I don't get to plug into a big machine to get the word out. I feel like I'm getting too old to get them (fans) one by one, but I still say 'Bring them to me.'"

Her third album for Red House is the newly-released "Land of Milk and Honey." In one way, it is a typical Gilkyson release with well-crafted melodies, striking lyrics and vocals full of crystal clear conviction and soul.

But in some other ways it is a departure.

"This is a political record," she says firmly. "I did know when I started it that it would be a more topical record. I'm so emotional about what's going on in our world. I think this is a really good time to take inventory on our society." The image on the album's cover is the first hint of what's inside. It is a photo from 1991 from Newsweek photographer Charles Ommaney of a young boy diving into a industrial waste pool for a swim. The shot was taken on the northern Albania/Kosovo border.

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