Music

Song You Need to Know: Margo Cilker, 'Kevin Johnson'

Margo Cilker stakes out the geography of her native Pacific Northwest on her stunning debut, Pohorylle. On “That River,” that classic country-folk source of renewal becomes a symbol of danger; on “Broken Arm in Oregon,” Cilker weaves heavy imagery of abuse and injury into a poignant tale about feeling trapped (“Now I fight the urge to ramble,” she sings, “with every three-egg breakfast scramble.”)

She takes a different approach on “Kevin Johnson,” a rollicking barroom country highlight. Instead, like the Band and Gillian Welch before her, Cilker approaches Southern tropes as a non-Southern outsider, toying with them even as she remains reverent to their traditions. On its surface, the track feels like a roots-music genre exercise, with Cilker stretching out and experimenting with a collection of Southernisms (“Kevin Johnson sat on Pappy’s knee … Kevin Johnson, raised a godly man,” etc.).

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“Anyone can be a Kevin Johnson,” Cilker said in a recent interview, when asked who the title character is based on. “But it is inspired by someone in South Carolina.” However, as the song progresses, it becomes clear there’s a depth and a darkness concealed beneath the surface of the peppy country-rock tune. “Well, the world looked good to him/I wish I, too, walked in Eden,” Cilker sings a few verses in, raising questions about who her narrator might be.

The Oregon singer-songwriter’s measured sense of storytelling only becomes more apparent with each verse: By the time she’s arrived near the end of the song, the title protagonist has transitioned from mythic archetype to a vivid, three-dimensional character who happens to be giving questionably regressive advice to his children: “To his son he said, ‘Fight,’” Cilker sings. “To his daughter, ‘Take your lot in life.’”

With “Kevin Johnson,” Cilker shows that she is as interested in reinvigorating Southern country-folk storytelling tropes as she is in exposing their flaws.

Find a playlist of all of our recent Songs You Need to Know selections on Spotify.

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