Eliza Gilkyson has continually pushed at the boundaries of what it means to be an American "folk singer/songwriter," all while continuing to honor the genre's legacy.
From the striking pre-Americana of 1979's Love from the Heart, to the expansive, atmospheric reach of Pilgrims and Legends of Rainmaker in the late '80s, to the exploratory roots recordings Revelation Road in the '90s to Hard Times in Babylon and Land of Milk and Honey in the 21st century, she has covered these musical bases with a keen eye for detail and sense impression, as well as a melodic sensibility that relies on a sophisticated subtlety that stands alone.
Gilkyson was born in Hollywood, California, the daughter of folk-pop singer/songwriter Terry Gilkyson (1916-1999). Her father wrote and recorded "The Cry of the Wild Goose," which Frankie Laine covered for a number one hit in 1950, as well as the 1953 Top Ten hit "Tell Me a Story," recorded by LaineJimmy Boyd. As a performer, he was co-credited with the Weavers on the 1951 Top Ten hit "On Top of Old Smoky." With Richard Dehr and Frank Miller, he was a member of the Easy Riders. The three wrote the 1953 Top Ten hit "Mister Tap Toe" recorded by Doris Day, and they wrote and provided backing vocals on the 1957 number one hit "Memories Are Made of This" recorded by Dean Martin. The same year, as Terry Gilkyson & the Easy Riders, they scored their own Top Ten hit with the self-written "Marianne" and wrote Laine's Top Ten hit "Love Is a Golden Ring." They also wrote the 1960 Top Ten hit "Greenfields," recorded by the Brothers Four. Terry was later employed by Walt Disney to write songs for and sing in its films and television programs, and his composition "The Bare Necessities" from the 1967 movie The Jungle Book earned him an Academy Award nomination.
Growing up in Hollywood, Eliza sometimes sang on her father's demos and soundtracks, along with her brother Tony Gilkyson, who later became a member of the rock bands Lone Justice and X, as well as performing on her records. Though uncredited, she can be heard singing with her father in the Disney TV movies The Secret of Romney Marsh (1964) and The Legend of Young Dick Turpin (1965). (She also has a sister, Nancy Gilkyson, who became an executive at Warner Bros. and sang on Eliza's records.) In her late teens, she moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she raised a family and released her first album, Eliza '69, on Mont Clare Records. Her son Cisco Gilliland (aka Cisco Ryder and Cisco Gilkyson) later became the percussionist in her backup band, and she also has a daughter, Cordelia Castillo (aka Delia Gilkyson), who later sang on her records). Her second foray into recording was her 1979 LP Love from the Heart, released under the name Lisa Gilkyson by Helios Records. Over the next several years, she moved to Austin, Texas, then back to Los Angeles, then to Taos, New Mexico. Again as Eliza Gilkyson, she signed to Gold Castle Records and released Pilgrims in 1987. The label marketed the album as a new age recording, a tag Gilkyson later rejected. She followed Pilgrims with Legends of Rainmaker (1989), which featured her cover of "Greenfields" and a duet with Bonnie Raitt on her own composition "Rosie Strike Back," a rock & roll song decrying spousal abuse, which had already been recorded by Rosanne Cash on her 1987 album King's Record Shop. Unfortunately, Gold Castle went bankrupt, and Gilkyson was without a record label for several years. In 1993, she was signed to Private Music, which issued Through the Looking Glass that summer. She next co-wrote eight of 14 songs and sang and played on harpist Andreas Vollenweider's album Eolian Minstrel, released in November, then toured with him. She moved to Europe and got divorced from her husband of 14 years, leaving her American career behind. In 1994, she released an album called Undressed overseas on Revelizatons. She returned to the U.S., settling again in Austin, and reintroduced herself to her homeland with Redemption Road, released in September 1997 on Silver Ware. "Prayer 2000," a song from the album that she co-wrote with Mark Andes (formerly of Spirit, Jo Jo Gunne, Firefall, and Heart), was later covered by Priscilla Herdman. In 1999, Gilkyson formed her own Realiza label and issued Misfits, a collection of previously unreleased archival recordings. She then signed to the independent folk label Red House Records for a new album, Hard Times in Babylon, released in October 2000. The opening song, "The Beauty Way," co-written with Andes, was later covered by Ray Wylie Hubbard, and the tour in support included an appearance on the acclaimed PBS series Austin City Limits; Gilkyson's ACL performance was released in 2007 on the album Live from Austin TX. Lost and Found followed in April 2002. Three months later, she teamed up with Ian Matthews and Ad Vanderveen for the trio album More Than a Song, released by Perfect Pitch. Her next Red House solo album was the politically oriented Land of Milk and Honey, released in March 2004. It featured the previously unrecorded Woody Guthrie song "Peace Call," with backup vocals by Mary Chapin Carpenter, Patty Griffin, and Iris DeMent, which earned a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Folk Album. In July 2005, she self-released RetroSpecto, a collection of rare and out of print material. Paradise Hotel, her fourth Red House release, appeared the following month. Your Town Tonight, Gilkyson's first live disc, was released two years later, followed by Beautiful World in May 2008. In 2011, Gilkyson joined labelmates John Gorka and Lucy Kaplansky under the banner Red Horse and released an eponymous album. The prolific Gilkyson released another album the same year, the eclectic Roses at the End of Time, which was produced by her son Cisco Ryder in their home studio; they teamed up again for 2014's The Nocturne Diaries. Gilkyson re-teamed with her producer son for Secularia, a collection of songs born from a lifetime searching for meaningful spirituality sans constraints of traditional religious belief systems. The album's inner sleeve contains an epigraph from Woody Guthrie that reads: "My religion is so big, no matter who you are, you're in it, and no matter what you do, you can't get out of it." She revisited some earlier songs that fit her theme, wrote new material, and unearthed two poems written by her grandmother, Phoebe -- who co-wrote with Gilkyson's father Terry in the '50s. The music ranged from bluegrass and orchestral neoclassical to indie folk. After beginning work on Secularia, Gilkyson undertook a Kickstarter pre-order campaign in March of 2018; the finished album was released in mid-July on Red House. ~ William Ruhlmann, Rovi