September 05, 2006

Interview: Paul Burch

Listening to the music of Paul Burch is like taking a small step back in time without ever having to leave the comforts of the present. For years, he's made excellent, unassuming, unpretentious Country music; his music is with the music of the past sixty years, yet his songs never sound overly indebted to the past. When he's not delivering his own beautiful music, he's working with talented folk; some of this list includes Vic Chestnutt, Bobby Bare (both senior and junior), Candi Staton, and, most notably, Lambchop. His latest release, East to West, continues this trend, and includes such notable guests as Dr. Ralph Stanley and Dire Straits' Mark Knopfler, who not only appears on the album, but also allowed Burch to record part of his album at his studio. But like his humble music, Burch is an interesting fellow, and I have to say that this is one of my favorite interviews of all time.

I implore you to visit his Myspace and check out some of his music. You'll be glad you did.

Listen To: Montreal

Compared to your previous records, when it came time to write and record East to West, was it a difficult record for you to make?

No, not at all. The writing is a little bit different every time, as are the mechanics of where I do it or how it comes out, but no, it wasn't harder to write. In a way, things get easier—I'm not sure why it gets easier; the worrying about it never ends—but there are less things I need to get out of my system. In some ways, it's getting a little bit easier, and it's a little bit more fun, because I'm less and less attached to forms that I am really interested in than when I started writing. I'm less inclined to try to write a rocker or try to write a ballad. The writing directs me more and more, and the writing tends to almost tell me or suggest instruments and rhythms. So it's always kind of exciting, and I'm not actually referencing other kinds of music.

How old are you, by the way?

I’m 40.

So by this time, you've found your sound and you've found your direction. It's just more natural for you to write songs.

Yeah…well, in away that's true and in a way that's not true. I never…that almost sounds like it's putting the older stuff in a different light…but it's all real life to me. I think the best way to put it is I hear my favorite music a lot differently than I used to. I almost hear it now the way I did when I was a little kid. Even though my hearing acuity has really improved and I can kind of tell sometimes what kind of equipment is being used, I try to avoid that and I try to listen to things on a more emotional level. Like when you're twenties, you start getting a little bit intellectual about things. You start thinking, "I don't want my life to not be like this" or "I want my music to not be like this. I want to avoid selling out." Or "I want to have a sound that's as cool or as exciting as this kind of artist I like." Hopefully you move on, and it seems to have worked for me. I know I still love Howlin' Wolf and Charley Patton and the early George Jones records, but I'm not always thinking about them. So what happens is that when I do hear them, I get a kind of a rush of excitement like I got the first time I heard them. You know, a lot of the great records I love, they were really quite strange the first time I listened to them. It's hard to get back to that point. One nice thing about playing music for a while is that if you continue, you get more sensitive and it becomes something that's much more personal.

The reason I asked that was because in reading your letter in East to West's bio, it seemed like you were dealing with personal frustrations about music and making music and about wondering if anybody was going to listen to it at all.

I think it was kind of time to get my ticket validated. It's like, every few years you have to get a new driver's license or a new library card, and you fire your hairdresser. It was kind of my time to do something. It wasn't that I didn't want to make music or write anymore, but I guess I had just reached a point I didn't know I was going to reach, where I just needed a different peer group to talk to, because a lot of the people I started out making music with, they simply weren't making music any more. They were so passionate about it once, but maybe they became more popular and it became a different kind of passion, but it was difficult for me to relate to it, relate to it on their level. There are some artists, like Laura Cantrell or Jon Langford, both good friends of mine, we have similar outlooks about how to do it, but it's funky when you're dealing with someone your age sometimes. I had this opportunity to put myself on the hot-spot with Ralph, and singing eyeball to eyeball with him and perform live, and after that went so well, it's just—validation is a big word, but it was sort of like he stamped my ticket and I could go on with the next run of Monopoly. (Laughs) It just made it a little bit easier; it was a nice pat on the back I didn't expect. Mr. Knopfler was the same way. He's interested in new music and he made a really nice gesture, but for me, it was like, "Hey, these guys are really good," and they've handled themselves really good, and in the big picture, many years from now, you can take anything from any of their records, and you're going to find something that's good, that might stop you in your tracks when you don't expect it.. So even if I never make a record that sounds like theirs or never includes them again, I know that we musically communicated once and from a professional level, that's pretty cool!

Today's music is so commodified. Musicians must be this and this and this and gets put into different pigeonholes. I've discovered in my last few interviews with people in their late 30s and early 40s—they all have a common thread, where at some point they wonder why they make music any more, since the music world is so geared to younger audiences. It seems the older you get, the room becomes smaller.

The business? I know very little of the business. It's like a shotgun; it's really scattershot, and sometimes the pellets hit me, and it enables some success in some ways. It's really, really strange. It is like a hall of mirrors, because things that seem big really aren't that big, and things that seem small are huge. Tom Waits just came through here on a little tour of the south, and his concert sold out in six minutes, (Amazed) for a 2500-seat venue. Probably you'd have met one in twenty people on the street who'd have heard of him, but yet…His picture in the paper was real fuzzy, whereas everyone else's photos are super professional! (Laughs) And I just thought it was great! For me, the excitement of seeing somebody like that—I didn't know what his stage was going to look like. I was interested in everything his show was going to give me, because his records are really interesting. It might as well have been like going to see Charley Patton or Howlin' Wolf or Robert Johnson in concert. There was such denseness to it that it was really like going to a show. If I went to see something that was a little more doctored, I could have probably guessed the setlist ahead of time and would have known what I was getting into and it wouldn't have been as fun. That's the long way of saying that it's always a tender time when you're in your forties. You either take another step, to make your profession really interesting to you, or, you know, a lot of people just burn out, or they split up from their wives or they do something that kind of falls apart. Luckily, I got through with a real passion to mix up my music a little bit more. But it does get a little bit lonely. It can be, sometimes, because the only other people who are in the position of making records are usually out on the road, so it's really nice when they dip out of the clouds and play some music for a little bit. You just can't meet people every day on the street who make a record, unfortunately. Not even in Nashville! (Laughs) Which is okay, too…

Nashville could use fewer musicians?

Nashville can really put people in a bind. I was really lucky because I just wanted to make records and in my age I grew up in the era where records were a great thing! It was like writing a book; it was something that was really exciting. If you have the passion to do one, then you'll have the passion to do two or three, if you could keep it going. But there are a lot of people who come here and they're just at wit's end. They have nothing else. For them, the idea of success is playing on a record, or touring, or something like that. It's almost like a drug. They're constantly chasing something that's just out of sight, that's just on over the hill. My ignorance was a large part of my success, because I had just one thing that I really wanted to do, and for me, that kind of lighted my way. I've done a lot of those things that people want to come to Nashville for, so, in that sense, I'm a "success," I guess. For a lot of people, it's like a little Hollywood. You can come here, and the first people you meet here are kind of the bottom-feeders. The first clubs you can get into are, too, and it's really tough, so if you don't have an idea, if it doesn't seem simple to you, it seems complicated, then your life becomes complicated as you move things around in your life to accommodate this wish, this desire you have to make it. You can see that in country music now. There are a lot of acts who definitely have talent and they can sing, but they're desperately trying to keep up with something that was never really there in the first place.

I was watching the news this morning, and they were announcing the CMA nominations, and they were playing some of the nominated music, and most of it didn't even register as "country" to me.

Yeah, that's a total, total mystery. And it's selling, you know. I'm really confused by it! (Laughs) But I never really considered myself…almost to be a country musician today, you're doing something that's kind of a commodity, and in a way, country music has set itself up to do that all the time. It's been trying to sell itself out since the 1940s. They brought Roy Acuff and Hank Williams to New York, trying to get them to play at Carnegie Hall, and to play at the top of the Four Seasons hotel, and it just never quite worked. There's always been somebody who's brought the music back down to its folk roots and its Southern roots, and I guess there will have to be somebody to do that again. It has just got to play out. Enough people around the world find a lot of inspiration in classic country music precisely because it was fumbling around and didn't know what was going to work. Hank Williams was considered a throwback and he was about to give it all up, too, when he had a hit with a vaudeville song ("Lovesick Blues") and if it hadn't been for that, he might have just died in Alabama, instead of in the back of a limousine.

I live close to Shreveport, and I grew up listening to KWKH AM 1130. It's living history, and even though I'm not a country person in terms of the music I listen to, I recently rediscovered the station. They play "classic country" now and it's just really amazing to hear the music from the 60s and 70s, and it still sounds just as fresh and exciting and interesting.

Yeah! Waylon and Willie probably had a lot to do with that, and people like Don Williams and Charlie Rich, there were some good people then. I guess it's kind of tied up in the South. In the 70s it seemed like country music had gotten to the point of being clich├ęd, but there was a lot of great music being made at the time. I enjoy some of that stuff much more now than I did then.

Yeah, me too, definitely. I was with my father recently and we were listening to the radio, and we turned it to KWKH, and we were just naming songs and talking about remember seeing them when I was a little boy being sung on Hee-Haw.

That was such a great show.

It really was. Sure, it seemed hokey at the time, but when you look back at it, it's hard not to think, "Dang, I wish there was something like that NOW!"

I wish there was, too! It comes across as being very sweet. It seems like everyone respected each other for being musicians—you don't get that same sense of camaraderie today. I think it's like publicist eat publicist eat publicist dog right now. (Laughs) It's pretty tough, and some of that cordiality, I'm not sure it's there right now. It might be, but it's not something that's touched me so much.

Do you think that sense of camaraderie from working with Ralph Stanley and Mark Knopfler helped improve East to West and your outlook on making music?

It invigorated my outlook on making music, yes. The songs would have been written; the songs were written almost in a fever dream. The writing didn't change because of them, but having them along—on previous records, I've always asked someone I admire to be on the record, because that kind of mixes up the sounds—but these guys were just so supportive. What was most inspiring to me was how they conducted themselves with me, with the musicians, and just how they dealt with their lives, you know. Just how they surrounded themselves with music and how they had handled their good fortune that came from a lot of hard work and a lot of time on the road. They were healthy, they were sharp, they were funny, and they were patient. They were not above giving me some advice, and they were not above giving me the benefit of the doubt. I'd say, "Let's try this," and they'd say, "Yeah! Sure!" (Laughing) Even if they had been jerks I'd have still appreciated where they were coming from, but the fact that they were so, so pleasant and had interesting things to say and were genuinely interested in what I was doing. Sure, it was invigorating! It's like, "Hey, my luck! Wow, I just did a session with Ralph Stanley!" Other people could have taken a session with Ralph, and he could have thrown a pen and said, "Well, it's not going to work today." Which, if that had been the case, it would have been all right, but it didn't! (Laughs) Yeah, you know, it's great! Like I said, my passport got stamped by some people who have been in Customs for a long time.

And it certainly must be exciting for someone who loves music so.

Absolutely! Those little moments are great. I mean, for them, they probably have those little moments all day long when they run into people, but you never forget someone who treats you nicely and you get something out of the meeting that you didn't expect, which is usually coming from yourself. Their music is going to last for a long, long time. And now I realize I hear Sultans of Swing everywhere! And I think to myself, "Well, Mark, he just made another dollar!" (Laughing) But that's pretty cool! If you take apart his songs even if you've heard them a thousand times, when you pick it apart you'll definitely find things about it that you hadn't noticed. Then, when you see these guys live, you'll realize they really handle themselves great on stage, and they're among two of the best people I've ever seen perform.

Do you plan on working with them in the future?

I don't not plan it, but you never know. I certainly try, but we'll have to see what happens. There's nothing official on the table right now.

Did you have any input on the new Lambchop record?

I was not, no. I love those guys, and I enjoy playing with them, but after Nixon they kind of just became a different band, personnel-wise, and they went from not touring to touring all the time. Although I think I've been on the last two, I haven't really played with them in years and years and years. That's just the fortunes of war, you know. They've had to be so busy, and I wouldn't have been able to play my music. I kind of was never a full member. I'd record and perform with them on occasion, but it was kind of a time when we were not that busy and it was a lot easier to just go over to the house and play some music. It's like a family. Since then, Kurt and I both have become more serious and impassioned about making records. But, unfortunately, you can't serve two masters.

Plus, it seems like Lambchop has always centered around Kurt.

I think everybody in the band has added quite a bit. The record I had a lot on and I remember most is Nixon, because Paul Niehaus, the pedal steel player, and I were playing a lot of R&B. WE had a little band where we'd play Booker T & the MG's and things like that. That's an example of how the musicians around you are doing something that influences what you do. Nixon's a great record, and I have fond memories of it, because I know it probably wouldn’t have sounded the same had we not been playing R&B on the side.

So what are you working on now?

What's next? I don't know. I've been talking about making a record…well, Jon Langford and I have been working on a new record for the Waco Brothers, and it's almost done, which we hope to be one of the twenty best rock records ever made. We thought that gives us enough room. (Laughs) And I'd like to help him make a record. I think he's a very busy writer and has a lot to offer, but I'd like to slow him down a bit and help him make one. He's done a lot of spoken word things and he's got a lot of stuff that doesn't quite fit with Rock & Roll, so I've got some new ideas for some new sounds on how to deconstruct what we both do, so I might use him as my guinea pig in my quest to make some Industrial-Country music! (Laughs)

Well, um…that sounds…interesting! (Laughs)

Yeah, we'll see! We'll see if you call back then! (Laughs)

Are you going to do any touring?

Yeah, you know, whenever anybody calls and tells me to go somewhere. I've done a little bit, and I wish I could do more. The records been really well-received so far, and I'm just hoping it'll be the little engine that could, that'll creep along for a while.

Considering how East to West came together, you might just be surprised.

I hope so! Maybe Oprah will call. That'd be fun! (Laughing)

One last question: in your liner notes, you tell people to listen to the Grand Old Opry. Have you ever played the Ryman Auditorium?

I have played the Ryman. I actually sang with Ralph at one of his concerts, but it went by so fast that I sometimes forget I played there. I've never been on the Opry, but the Ryman's a great theater. It's where I saw Wings, and I've seen a lot of great shows there.

So when you stepped on the stage, were you overwhelmed by the magic and the history of the place?

Honestly, I was so worried about remembering all the lines, and I think Ralph was, too. In fact we both skipped to the same verse and went to the same wrong verse at the same time, so we were both quite pleased with that. (Laughs) He doesn't sing "Little Glass of Wine" all the time, and we had decided, like, maybe a half-hour before that I was going to sing it with him. But it looks really good from that stage. I'd like another crack at it.

Maybe you'll get it thanks to East to West.

I hope so!

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