Paul Burch's unique vision of American roots music has attracted characters and collaborators from punk to honky tonk and beyond. His debut album Pan American Flash (1996) was ranked No. 5 on Amazon’s Best Country Albums of the Decade and all of Burch’s subsequent LPs have been acclaimed up to and including the release of his most recent album, his 12th, Meridian Rising (2016). Lonesome Highway has been fortunate to have seen play in Ireland on a number of occasions and to have interviewed him during this visits. We thought it was high time to catch up with him and ask him a few questions about his musical memories and observations about the Americana music scene in general.
You’ve had a varied musical career that has seen you as an instigator of the scene that revitalised Lower Broadway along side Greg Garing, BR5-49 and others. It’s now a totally different area a regular tourist trap. How do you consider your involvement with the re-genesis of the area now or do you have fond memories of that time?
I do have fond memories of playing on Lower Broadway. At that time I was discovering the first generation of songwriters who had come to Nashville after WWII and started writing from personal experience. I already loved Hank Williams very much and had since I was a lad. But I also started listening to Floyd Tillman who was from Texas and was an influence on Willie Nelson. It’s challenging to write a song as beautiful as Afraid by Fred Rose or as direct as Floyd Tillman’s “Slipping Around” or as funky as Vic McAlpin’s Rocket In My Pocket. Many of the early writers from that era were still around Nashville. And the sound of our band at the time–just guitars and Hawaiian steel - was like a siren song. We had been playing just a few weeks before they came out of the woodwork. Many songs from that time were also admired by my favourite R&B artists like Ray Charles, Arthur Alexander, and Sam Cooke whose work crossed over into rock ‘n’ roll.
Plus at that time in the early 90s, many of the musicians who played on my favorite records - both country and R&B - were alive and very approachable both in Nashville and in Memphis and Muscle Shoals. Bobby Hebb, who wrote Sunny, came to my work and did a solo concert with just guitar that was absolutely thrilling and beautiful. Though I never met Sam Phillips he was just over in Memphis as was Charlie Rich. I did meet Carl Perkins and George Jones. Everywhere I went I was introduced as someone who was a “pretty good singer” and who cared about the artists. And I was happy to be thought of that way. Downtown there was a kind of flea market junk store that had a whole room piled high with 78s. The good stuff had been picked through but there were lots of one-off pressings of sermons and funerals, odd demos. And it seemed like only Greg, BR549, and myself were interested in that stuff. We had it all to ourselves. To give you a picture of how unplugged we were, around 1995 or so, the Country Music Foundation put out Johnny Paycheck’s early records from the Little Darlin’ era - early 60s - and we each bought out all the copies at Ernest Tubb records. Probably the day it came out. And probably the only copies they sold! But we weren’t listening to the radio at all. I couldn’t tell you what came out between 1994 and 1997 or so. I might as well have been on an island.
We were totally engaged in the music. Everyone told us we would never get anywhere, which just stiffened our resolve - at least mine. My ambition was to make records which itself was considered a bit weird. We really believed that the artists we were covering were vastly underrated. We had the fantasy - mostly wrong - that the musicians from that generation before Elvis knew a change was coming but were not encouraged to be as creative as they could be. As for its current state as a slum for drunks, it was probably inevitable. A lot of investment was happening just as we were getting some press. One might have helped the other. But it didn’t take a lot of vision to see that it could be exploited.
Your last album Meridian Rising was about an imagined musical telling of the life of Jimmie Rodgers, the Singing Brakeman. You tell the overall story on your website. Tell me what inspired you to create this set of songs that was conceived in musical style that would have been familiar to him?
By chance I heard an unreleased recording of Jimmie with Clifford Gibson, an African American bluesman who mostly worked out of St. Louis. The song was called Let Me Be Your Sidetrack. It was the surviving take of two that were made and you can tell because Clifford anticipates Jimmie’s yodel at the end. I think at the time I was either working on the songs for Last of My Kind - based loosely on the characters in Tony Earley’s Jim the Boy which takes place in the 1930s - or I was working on gathering songs for a documentary about Appalachia. Both might have been going on at the same time.
But anyway, I was struck by the recording because Clifford was a good guitar player and played in an open-tuning with phrases that reminded me a little of Robert Johnson who was a few years in the future. In other words, his sound was contemporary to blues at the time but also a little more forward. That’s how I chose to hear it anyway. Clifford was also the only bluesman that Jimmie ever recorded with. So all of this just intrigued me about what Jimmie’s life was like as a musician. I had already read the biography by Nolan Porterfield but it didn’t give me the sense of Jimmie’s personality on record as it connected to the facts of his life. His personality is easy to hear in his music. But integrating the two was what I wanted to do. I thought it would be an interesting challenge as a writer.
Gradually, after a few years of keeping the idea in my back pocket, it struck me that using the styles of Jimmie’s influences like the Mississippi Sheiks and others would be the best way to present the story. Occasionally I dipped into his forms but for the most part I had the freedom to draw on sounds and arrangement styles that Jimmie probably enjoyed but didn’t cover. For instance, If I Could Only Catch My Breath has the kind of death-march sound I know from Duke Ellington’s early records for Okeh, which were out at the same time. Most of all it was a great writing trip. And I got to spend time in that world which is pretty wonderful musically.
Are you working on a new release or what consumes you creative energies these days?
I am working on a record. It might be a series of records - I’m not sure yet. But I’m hunting and gathering as we speak for release next year.
After eleven albums does get harder to find something new that you want to express?
Thankfully not. I feel more challenged after Meridian Rising to try to take more risks and do something that is hard to qualify but easy to like. Perhaps initially I wanted to state my case that I could write and sing a song and produce an album. For better or for worse - as far as the market place is concerned -I don’t have run that race anymore. Ultimately, I’d like to create something so beautiful that it lives far beyond my name.
You toured at one time as a member of Lambchop was it refreshing to be part of a band rather than leading it or do you still like to be the man in charge?
I like both. I’m not sure anyone was in charge of Lambchop - though certainly Kurt was and is the leader. They were his songs. I’m by nature someone who likes to help. I can’t keep quiet if there is an opportunity to encourage freedom of expression. In my own group there are several members who encourage me to take chances and they’re not afraid to disagree. I think there is a Keith Richards quote somewhere about first turning on the drummer and then the band. Once you’ve done that, look out world. As far as being in charge - I know there are better guitarists, vocalists, bandleaders - you name it. But I’m uniquely qualified to tell the story I’m telling in the way I think it should be told. If I can express myself freely, they will too. We’re in it together.
Your current WPA Ballclub roster includes some 21 names. Do you ever all get together or do you have to pick and choose to suit a venue or budget?
I think you’re the first that’s put a number to it. Typically - on an occasion where everyone can make it - we work best as a quintet. I like the variety of sounds. But anything can work. Ideally it’s nice to have an array of colors that way you’re not boxed in.
In that light, do you get to tour these days?
Not as much as I’d like to but as I said last time, if someone calls and says “go here”, “go there”, I’ll probably do it. I kind of like working in obscurity except for things that come with obscurity like lack of resources and fewer opportunities.
A lot of the imagery on your website has a look that seems to be taken from the last century. Is that a time that hold s the most interest with visually and musically for you?
In most cases I used the photos that appealed to me. I was born in the last century so it doesn’t seem so far away to me. As for the photos of me, they where shot just where I happened to be. When the photographer says, “hold still” I’m not going to argue.
What memories do you have of playing in Ireland?
Good ones! I’m not there enough. My grandfather’s family was from Cork. I’d like to go back again soon.
Do you have a particular favourite in the albums you have release yourself?
I don’t - but I don’t say that in a disparaging way. They all have their sound, which I’m thankful that happened. I learned something from making all of them. In retrospect, even making one album seems remarkable. I remember thinking after Pan American Flash that it was a nice album and if I couldn’t make a better one or another one, that would be ok. I guess I suffer from being philosophical. I remember the feeling of wanting to write the records and putting them together. But the ability to actually make the songs happen, that’s as much of a mystery now as it was then.
What about in you production and guest roles?
I’d like to do more. I always keep my ears out. Producing is a lot of work - it’s an investment.
How difficult is it to keep control of your music in these times. It looks like you have the rights to your albums?
Glider Ltd. is my little label which the older records are available on. But I like labels. I wouldn’t want to own one but I don’t mind being on one at all. As Jason Ringenberg says, a team beats a single person everytime.
What ambitions have you yet to fulfill? Do you have many interests outside musical ones that take up your time?
I don't know about any specific ambitions other than to stay alive and keep working. I do still think Meridian Rising would make an interesting film or play so I hope a good young film maker or playwright might emerge from the dark who has an idea. I think perhaps I’ve gone as far as I can in its current form. I have a few more album ideas I’d like to pursue. I’m just happy to be interviewed, really. Will anyone be reading this?
Finally what has music given you?
A keen sense of purpose and desperation.
Interview by Stephen Rapid Photograph by Jim Herrington