Interview with Paul Burch


Paul Burch was born in Washington D.C.and began as playing in Nashville’s at famed Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge in the early 90s. He and his band the WPA Ballclub helped to make the Lower Broadway honky tonk scene a place to be again  The debut album Pan American Flash was hailed by Rolling Stone and Billboard critic Chet Flippo as “extraordinary, establishing Burch as a leader in marrying country’s roots tradition with a modern sensibility” and placed #5 in the Top 10 Country Records of the 90’s by the editors of when it was released in 1996. Since then he has released 10 albums. The latest is Fevers and it is one of his best.

He has also collaborated with artists as diverse as Ralph Stanley, Mark Knopfler, Vic Chesnutt, Beverly Knight, Ray Price and on the GRAMMY nominated comeback by Charlie Louvin. He acted as music consultant to the PBS film The Appalachians. 

Paul has featured in Lonesome Highway in the past and we were happy to catch up with his musing on Fevers  and his Pan-American music. 

First off let me say that I think Fevers is a great album.

Thanks a lot.

I wondered with ten albums under your belt including one with the Waco Brothers how you approach to writing and recording has changed through the years?

Each album seems different to me and feels different to me - probably because I tend to think about music impressionistically. I think in terms of moods and colors. Maybe it’s because I didn’t have glasses when I first needed them (laughs) but I like the blur and the detail in equal measure.  Today, I know I’m happier, more at ease and more curious about sound and what happens to our emotions when you hear a certain instrument. I’m more confident that as long as I’m enjoying myself it will all work out. If you were to look at my notebooks - what the scribbles look like - or looked at the back of the tape boxes, one wouldn’t find big differences. I still don’t record a lot of takes. I’d rather come back at a later time if a song doesn’t fall together. Some songs come quick.  Others have to simmer. I still record live - I still leave spaces in my songs for us to fill things in as we feel it at the session.  I use a lot of the same people but in different combinations each time.

I think the main difference is that though I’m aware of what’s going on I don’t feel like things will fall apart if I don’t pay close attention to every detail.  I like the surprise of listening back and not being quite sure of who is playing what. I welcome small disasters.  If the bass player can’t make it, then I make a record with just guitar and drums - which is a gas.  If drums can’t make it, we find a way to feel as if that instrument is there anyway.  I feel freer to take chances as I get older because I don’t feel like I can do any harm. A collection of songs written within a period of time and recorded within that same time period will have a ‘sound.’  And even though I work in the same studio and with a lot of the same musicians, even we notice how songs we recorded - say, the year before - will sound different than what we’re doing right now.  

I’m currently coming to my sessions a little less prepared than I used to.  I know the melody, the rhythm, and the feel, but I don’t make as many sketches ahead of time like I used to.  I allow a lot of room to make up mind on the spot, depending on how well I’m performing the songs for the band and what kind of mood they’re in.  Patience is a lot more satisfying than it used to be. When I first moved to town, I’d often hear more experienced musicians say that the difficult thing to learn was how to add more intensity without just reaching for the volume knob. So now that I’m a little older I think I know what they mean.  

My first years in Nashville were a bit hard. I was getting so much advice left and right that it was hard to loosen up.  I had to have blinders on to make sure I stayed focused on what I was after.  However a lot of people who gave me a hard time aren’t in the business anymore (laughs) and the people who did support me have thrived.  So, I stuck with the people who said “yeah - that’s good. Keep going.” And now my vision is much wider. 

How important is getting that balance between contemporary sensibilities and traditional roots play a part when you conceptualize the music?

I’m not aware if I strike a balance between the two partly because I’m not sure I can define what is traditional and what is modern.  It’s a good question but I don’t phrase it that way in my head.  I don’t feel that the Mississippi Sheiks are not contemporary. For instance, they have songs like “Bed Spring Poker” and “Blood In My Eyes.”  And I think there are plenty of people who can relate to the sentiments expressed in those songs.    

Are they traditional per say because their music is old?

The Sheiks were very contemporary in their time. And they were young—they were not old men talking about what used to be.  If one compares them to say, the Black Keys - who are quite good - I’d say the Black Keys are much more traditional than Jimmie Rodgers or the Mississippi Sheiks.  The Black Keys for instance mostly sound like things I’ve heard before - in fact very specific things I’ve heard before. Their songs are quotes upon quotes. I can’t tell who they are personally.   But no one sounds like Jimmie or the Sheiks - who were by the way good friends.  So yes, if you want the roots of the blues as we know it, listen to the Sheiks.  But there’s no reason you can’t arrange their songs for beat music or rock and not make yourself understood.  

In that light how much have your influences and inspirations changed during that time?

I think I’m in a normal cycle of immersion and substitution. Music from India or Central America, Eastern Europe, Africa - new, old - is more immediately interesting. I say that because the music of my childhood has been sold and resold so many times and in so many ways that when I hear it now, it’s a bit flat.  I can’t meditate to it - so to speak. I will come back to it and appreciate it but I need to give it a break.  From the 60s onward, music got very produced in that the artists were aware that rock and roll was not just a type of music but a social posture.  There’s little room for improvisation in - say - a song by The Beatles even though they were beautiful, creative people.  Dylan’s music suffers from the same sense of inflation.  I don’t want to hear “Tangled Up in Blue” as theme music to sell minty bathroom cleaner. I overheard Tom Petty say his generation would never have chosen their iconic musicians from a tv show. I guess he was referring to talent shows. Well then what were the Monkees? What was Jimi Hendrix on the Dick Cavett show?. Harry Nilsson’s the Point? Does that mean that Tom Petty has a grudge? Has he just not been asked to be on American Idol and he thinks he should?  Well, his generation produced those modern talent tv shows.  No one can thrust the knife deeper than the one that loves you. I get where he’s coming from, but once the rot sets in, you just have to open your heart and your ears and you’ll always find something out there that’s creative on its own terms.  Tom should shut up and play guitar. That’s what he’s good at. And he’s very good. 

Living and working in Nashville has the city changed a lot. There seems to be a much broader mass-market/pop ethos at work especially on Music Row. How has that affected you? 

I’m sure it has but I don’t have much traffic with what’s happening on what’s left of Music Row.  There are wonderful technical creative people there - world class talents for ensuring your music sounds good and is ready to be heard however you made it. Music Row - as far as the country music field -  used to be a place that embraced creative people who also happened to be pot smoking, pill popping, road educated wild dogs that might sleep until 4pm but also might write two or three songs a day.  They believed in the ethos of the poet as a siren and a broadcaster.  

Maybe that exists today but one has to be cautious and smuggle your way through.  Long hair, short hair - it’s all a disguise now.  The best artists are smuggling their way through life.  When you find someone who freely admits they want to make some money because they’re tired of worrying about making their rent, you’ve probably found a real artist.  

There’s a lot of people who will call themselves artists without having produced anything the same ones who claim they’re not in for the money. And that’s complete bullshit.  John Lennon and Paul McCartney used to say they’d sit down and say: “let’s write a swimming pool.”  Elvis wanted to buy his Mom a house. Robert Johnson wanted to buy a woman.  I wouldn’t trust anybody who says they’re not in it for the glory of art and also a little cash, too. 

Fevers has a broad palate in relation to the music yet has a cohesive whole. How wide do you think that the music can be before in begins to loose a central cohesion?

It may have already snapped for all I know.  But sometimes you have to do that to make break new ground. But that’s a good question.  I freely admit to not knowing the answer to except that sometimes it feels right to not worry about it.  A studio is after all a room—like an artist studio or a film studio.  The right performance for any medium is the one that feels right for that moment. The shot or the take or the stroke that achieves balance and harmony usually feels right to everyone involved.  There have been very few edits in my music.  Only one that I can think of and usually if there’s a mistake but the take is obviously very good, we just pick up right where we ran off the road.  So every take on the record - good or bad - is a performance, a picture. A planned picture but still the performance itself is all action. 

If you look at a Kenji Mizoguchi film, each shot has perspective and balance and harmony.  And so the story from a distance has harmony and even a resolution that’s not sweet or satisfying has harmony, too. If I’m committed and I feel that the musicians are enjoying themselves, it will probably turn out all right.  True, I’m not sure Fevers is cohesive.  But it felt like it went together and I’m ok if takes some time for me to figure out just how it worked or if, in fact, only half of it worked!  

An album is the format that’s called for these days but in the future, I might try to be more selective of what becomes an album and what’s a series of - say - singles.  But that’s not reflective of Fevers per se.  I embraced the fact that it was all over the place. It felt right at the time. In the future if another album seemed to be going that way, I might ponder another course, just so I don’t repeat myself. 

Since your early days on Lower Broadway it has changed to a thriving tourist area with a lot of music in a lot of bars. Do you think that is a good or bad thing?

Good or bad it was probably inevitable but I think it was a lost opportunity.  I would have loved for it to become a place where those of us in Nashville who love to perform could pop in and do a little show.  My feeling is the tourists would welcome a chance to hear songs in their early stages by well known artists.  But most artists are too insecure to hit the stage with no set list, no back drop, no handlers.  As for me, I’m ready to go. If someone calls me and says: “come play rhythm guitar right now” for a session, day or night, I’m ready.  There’s a lot of improv spirit in me. If there’s a community in Nashville that welcomes that spirit, I’d like to be a member.  

Through your career you have worked with a number of independent labels. How important a factor are these labels to an albums release?

It always feels good if someone likes your work and I think it’s good to be on a label. The sense of community is important. And if they wish to spend their money and their time to make you part of their group of artists, that’s a great accomplishment - even if it doesn’t work out. In the independent world, I take the risk to make it and they take the risk to see if they can sell it in the marketplace.  

It’s always been hard for me to be a salesman.  I love to perform but I don’t feel comfortable in standing up on a rooftop and declaring someone should set aside their entire evening - go to dinner, get a babysitter, pay for parking, pay for drinks, and pay for a ticket to come see me.  This attitude has confounded labels in the past.  “Why are you doing this if you don’t want to be famous?” - they ask me. But I wanted to be part of an artistic community. I thought if you’re on a label, then you should promote work among the artists on your label rather than have 12 or 15 different artists running in all different directions that don’t talk to each other or don’t know each other.  

You asked how I keep going after 10 albums. Because album number “11” is going to be really good - I hope! But I’ve always been given creative freedom and benefit of the doubt.  So there’s nothing to complain about.  Not everyone does business well together.   

I do appreciate Plowboy, my current label. Plowboy and I are in the same city - Nashville - so they’ve seen me solo, as a duo, trio, septet, electric, acoustic, rock and roll, country, even on Moog.  So when they have a suggestion or a critique, I know it comes from observation. When you can talk face to face - everything, even the misunderstandings—always point forward. The old labels made their money back but their involvement was very small—both socially and financially. They released the music and then never spoke to me again for the most part (laughs) so I have no idea - to this day - what their expectations were business wise. 

When you started out was it your aim to sigh with a major. Has that ambition changed?

I think when I started, I was very wary of major labels but I didn’t understand their system either - which is mostly gone. I felt at the time that my ability to be any good was a bit fragile. I just didn’t know any major labels that would have found me marketable.  Occasionally they come around still but sadly, it’s quite rare to find someone in the music business who is truly fearless.  Shannon Pollard of Plowboy is probably the only person I’ve met who just doesn’t blink. If he likes it, he likes it and nothing else about fads or the business is going to faze him.   

Last Of My Kind was inspired by Jim Earley’s book Jim The Boy which was a different process for you. Would you like to explore that way of working in the future? 

I’m currently writing a group of songs based on events in Jimmie Rodgers’ life –from his point of view.  And some of the approach is similar, including the concern that I’m not sure exactly how it will fall together. But the writing is very different and I like it so far. 

You have acted as musical director on PBS show The Appalachians. With the success of shows like True Blood and other series do you have ambitions towards working in that context again through TV or with a film? 

I really lucked into those instances. I’d love to score for film, but it would probably depend on someone with very little budget and great enthusiasm for my work for it to happen again. Not to mention great patience. I’d have a lot to learn for such an endeavor - doing an actual soundtrack.  But I think that way by nature.  A few summers ago, I stumbled upon a make-shift outdoor theater where someone was playing piano to a silent film by Buster Keaton.  I day dream about that scene all the time - the sound of the piano, the editing of the film, the lights that crisscrossed the open area where people had gathered to watch the film, a girl who sat off to the side, smoking a cigarette.  It was its own movie.  It was thrilling and I would gladly have written the soundtrack for that night on the spot.  

Having a studio do you actively seek work as a producer?

I say that I don’t but if I meet someone whose sound I like, I reflexively invite them over. But I’m not in the studio business.  I find I turn down a lot of artists—especially if I get a sense that they’re just hungry to have someone put an arm around them and tell them it’s going to be ok.  I need that more than they do!

My first impulse is to be generous, quickly followed by regret that I’ve allowed a crazy person to take over my life when all I want to do is to make some music (laughs).  But I’m sympathetic to how hard it is to have a good experience in the studio. I love being in the studio and I want to help. My time is precious too, so I have to be cautious.  Working with David Olney was great. He cut a master on the first or second take—vocal, guitar, drums—finis!  Garry Tallent of the E Street Band is making a solo album at my place.  And he cut everything in a couple takes.  You look at the reel of tape and it has 6 songs.  Now that’s what I call making a record!  I learn something new whenever someone comes in.  But a good studio experience means many things to many people.  

How difficult is it survive as a professional musician these days? 

I think it’s pretty hard. I’ve had a full time job during my time in Nashville. I think I’d have to hit a pretty big well to truly kick back and say “now I will only write.” But I keep digging.  

What’s next for Paul Burch? 

Digging for that oil, baby.  As Nick Cave sings, Dig, Lazarus, dig. 

Interview by Stephen Rapid