For Nashville's Paul Burch, the Sweetest Notes Are in the Story
The pivotal moment in his story came the night a local country music star walked into a Nashville Lower Broadway bar and offered $20 for every Hank Williams song BR549 could play. You see, after Purdue and a stint in Boston with the country/bluegrass band Bag Boys, Burch moved to Nashville, his current residence, in 1994. Inside of a year he was performing with Greg Garing at Tootsie's, the watering hole across the alley from the Ryman Auditorium that served as the unofficial green room for the Grand Ole Opry during its heyday. Down the block at a combination bar and boot store called Robert's Western Wear, BR549, including Burch's high-school classmate, bassist Jay McDowell, had taken up residence. And according to legend, after a little more than an hour, the country music star left with a much lighter wallet.
Burch, BR549, and Greg Garing all eventually obtained record deals. But according to Burch, this story, now a cornerstone of BR549 folklore, actually happened at Tootsie's on a round-robin night when he was backing up BR549 lead singer Chuck Mead.
"I was playing drums and Chuck happened to be singing," Burch says over the phone. "And John Michael Montgomery came in in his limousine with some people. He said, ‘I'll give you $20 for every Hank Williams song you can sing.' So although that's now memorialized as a BR549 moment, it was actually just me and Chuck and a bass player. I think Greg had left by that time. And we just sort of shouted Hank Williams songs at each other until John Michael Montgomery was, you know, out about $700. That was kind of the beginning of the Lower Broadway scene because then it got at the paper that John Michael Montgomery had been ousted of $700 by these young punks--we weren't that young; we were 27 years old--punk kids who were playing Hank Williams songs."
Burch's storytelling makes up a good portion of his songwriting arsenal. His fourth record, 2001's Last of My Kind (Merge), was written as a companion piece to fellow Nashville resident Tony Earley's parabolic, Depression-era novel Jim the Boy. Though Lou Reed was influenced by his former teacher, poet Delmore Schwartz, and Patti Smith's fascination with Rimbaud is well-documented, a modern, nonclassical musical work directly derived from literature is a rarity; narrow the focus to country music and it's practically an aberration.
Still, Burch is unsure as to why anyone would want to write about an album that's three years old. "As much as I did love making that record, that is a bit like ancient history," he says. But time is relative when it comes to Burch's timeless music; Last of My Kind is, simply put, a masterpiece of execution and the best set of songs he has released. It also served as a turning point in Burch's recording career. It was the first album that he produced by himself, and the first on which he played every instrument.
"Originally, I thought the record was going to be a draft and that I'd record it with a band," Burch says. "And I played it for one of the band members, and I said, ‘Well, what do you think?' And he said, ‘I think you're done. There's no reason for us to play on this.' I played it for my wife, who hears things first, and then I played it for band members. Then I played it for Tony, and they all just said, ‘It's done.' That's when I realized it was a record."
Novelist Tony Earley agrees that Last of My Kind is Burch's best offering to date, though he admits that it's hard to be objective. ("I've got a dog in that fight," he says over the phone.) "My writing is very different than Tony's," Burch says. "And part of what made it possible, I think, for me to write those songs was that Tony's characters didn't even suggest ambivalence. They were very plainly drawn. So I used that as a framework to fill in. I mean, he told the story almost like a children's story. My songs were more interior dialogues. Writing-wise that left me a lot of freedom to sort of make these characters say something or sing something."
Consciously or not, Burch describes the key to writing Last of My Kind while waxing poetic on honky-tonk music. "It's a little combination of swing, blues, with a little bit of rock 'n' roll in it, but vocally it's very of the times," he says. "It's very autobiographical. Most of it's in first person, which was a really unique thing for country music at the time. R&B didn't quite get into that era until a little bit later, until the early '60s. There weren't that many R&B writers that were really writing in first person and writing a sort of autobiographical tale until people like Ray Charles and Sam Cooke. But country music had kind of really ambivalent songs about love and life, and that era's really interesting because it was dance music, but it was [a] very private kind. It was personal."
And, as any writer will tell you, it's those personal details that make a story accomplish more than merely telling a tale. For instance, just how much of the $700 take did Burch carry home? "Chuck took all the money because it was his gig," Burch says. "Don't even go there."
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