Country-rock guitarist Tony Gilkyson is a player of rare, evocative skill. He's a tried and true veteran whose wildly variegated resume includes jobs with everyone from Bob Dylan to Alice Cooper. The guitarist, who appears Thursday at Burbank's Viva Cantina, has a dazzling style that mixes deliberate, sturdy craftsmanship and highly colorful, expressive musical phrasing.
It's a unique instrumental voice first employed in the far-flung beer joints of New Mexico and developed on the feverish 1980s Hollywood rock club circuit, where Gilkyson performed with country rockers Lone Justice and graduated to replacing punk legend Billy Zoom in the acclaimed band X for a 10-year stretch. Along the way he became an in-demand session player, racking up innumerable performance and production credits.
Born in Los Angeles, his father was the prolific folk musician and Disney soundtrack contributor Terry Gilkyson. "There was a real music culture in my family. My dad had moved here in '48. We grew up here but then we left for New Mexico in '68," Gilkyson said. "Originally, I was a drummer when I started playing music. But at 13 or 14 I realized that the [drum equipment] load-in and load-out and always being the last one to leave was not that much fun."
"I crossed over to guitar at 17 or 18. I'd always played guitar, studied guitar, but then I really got into it. And living up in northern New Mexico, I was hanging out with all these musicians from Oklahoma and Texas, and I got very influenced by their music, the way they played. These were very opinionated, roots-oriented guys, great musicians."
"I dropped out of high school and started playing the clubs. I was underage so I got a driver's license that wasn't entirely accurate. It was an interesting intersection of cowboys and hippies and locals — some of them were country gigs, some were R&B, and rock 'n' roll. No Top-40 gigs. Those were down in Albuquerque and no one wanted to go there, so thankfully I was spared that."
Gilkyson launched an intense romance with country music, but he always kept his perspective, and options, wide open. "I like rock 'n' roll, yes, but that's the quandary, I like a lot of music. I studied world music for two years in college — I loved Indonesian music, studied African music, made a lot of interesting friends," Gilkyson said. "But my love of country music — when I was at Cal Arts, I was so enamored of country music that a lot of people wondered why I was there at all. And I did play in a punk rock band for 10 years, but it felt very comfortable. I liked doing that."
Apart from his role as a session player and studio producer, Gilkyson has released two well received solo albums ("Sparko" and "Goodbye Guitar"), which characteristically alternate between tastefully acrobatic instrumentals and hard-bitten folk-rock meditations. His particular style is a complex, communicative brand of hot California country, redolent with traces of influence from such string-bending forebears as James Burton and Roy Nichols, both of whom made great impact working with Merle Haggard.
"I've been recording a lot of instrumentals, country instrumentals. We started doing them a year ago, did the tracks with [X drummer] DJ Bonebrake," Gilkyson said. "I've got four of them done, a few more set to go. Some of them are like the Burton 'Corn Pickin'' type of thing. I've got one called 'Tulare Hayride' that I really like. I want to get these out."
Whatever he chooses to perform, Gilkyson's music is invariably engaging and exciting, a combination of the mellow and the maverick that's his alone. He wouldn't have it any other way.
"At this point I am not so particularly interested in doing something groundbreaking, as I am in assimilating what I already know," Gilkyson said. "I still love to play guitar and I am very interested in putting my own particular bent on a song. A lot of the things in music no longer interest me, but that motivates me."
"If it inspires you, if it gives you goose bumps, then screw what everybody else thinks, and do it."
Who: Tony Gilkyson & Gregory Boaz, with Rick Shea & the Losin' End
Where: Viva Cantina, 900 W. Riverside Dr., Burbank
When: Thursday, Nov. 12, 7:30 p.m.
More info: (818) 845-2425, vivacantina.com
JONNY WHITESIDE is a veteran music journalist based in Burbank and author of "Ramblin' Rose: the Life & Career of Rose Maddox" and "Cry: the Johnnie Ray Story."