Steve Gunn likes to sing about the rhythms of life in terms of landscapes — overpasses, oceans and streets, from the perspective of characters that could step in for him but are likely based on folks he’s met along the way. It gives his songwriting a winding quality, enlivened by a dexterous-yet-mindful guitar style that has become Gunn’s own.
Rarely does the Brooklyn songwriter get personal in his lyrics, or at least directly so. But “Stonehurst Cowboy” is a tribute to Gunn’s father, who died in 2016. Gunn sets the song in Stonehurst, the Southwest Philly neighborhood where his parents grew up (“right near the last subway stop at the 69th Street terminal”). He tells NPR Music about the funny man who raised him:
Apparently, according to him, he was one of the toughest guys in his neighborhood. He would jokingly talk about how he had the fastest boxing hands back then, which became an ongoing joke in the family.
When I got a bit older, he told me some pretty wild stories of what happened to him back then. Heavily affected by the Vietnam War, he became an adult at hyperspeed after high school when he was drafted — though he didn’t end up actually fighting in Vietnam. He was too young to know what the hell was going on when the war broke, and it wasn’t until he, his brothers and friends came back that he made any sense of it. My father was a positive and hilarious force among his family and friends for the rest of his life. I miss him dearly.
For the first time in years, there’s no band — just Gunn, his guitar and a meditation underscored by a video filmed on the streets of London. “Stonehurst Cowboy” muses on a father who knew how to tell a story, and who doubled as a guide through Gunn’s life. Entangled in one of his most indelible guitar melodies, he sings, “Teach us right all those steps / Before there’s nothing left, for all those cowboys in the world.”
The Unseen in Between comes out Jan. 18 via Matador.