An album sure to be on many "best of" lists at year end, Paul Burch's recently released tenth, Meridian Rising, is a creative and unique musical journey, an imagined autobiography based on the life of legenadry singer-songwriter Jimmie Rodgers, whose music, (like Burch's) blended numerous genres. In advance of his show at Sid Gold's Request Room in NYC on March 3rd, Burch graciously took the time to speak in depth about the album, Rodgers, and more.
You had thought about doing a record like this fifteen years, so why was now finally the right time?
Well, I think I got to a point, where probably everybody in every profession gets to, where I had done everything that I wanted to do when I started….but I didn’t want to stop. I made a lot of different kinds of records, I had made honky-tonk records, quiet records, dark records, light records and ones that were a little more rock and I started to feel that the whole concept of making a record was getting a little bit predictable.
Nashville is a great environment. We have a great studio and there’s a lot of very good, accomplished musicians here who are really willing to give you the benefit of the doubt and do the best they can for you. I don’t sell a lot of records and I’m not in the studio as much as some people, but after twenty years we’re all pretty good, pretty competent, at making records. I got to the point where I thought I wanted to shake things up a bit and make a record that wasn’t going to fit into the same kind of frame that most records do.
It’s a record that is definitely done in an incredibly creative and unique manner. Many times when people pay tribute to another artist they simply cover their songs; you approached it from a totally different direction.
When the idea came into my head, I thought ‘Well, that’s an unusual idea’, but it also seemed very meaty, something with a lot of heft to it, more so than the typical record. I think the writer in me is always looking for a challenge, for a different way of writing songs. I still love Rock and Roll and will always want to write Rock and Roll songs, but that’s a real narrow framework.
The idea for this album came into my head a long time ago when I became enchanted with Jimmie’s recordings, one in particular that he did with a blues guitar player named Clifford Gibson, who is not very well known but is a very accomplished player. They just seemed to hit it off in a way that was very joyful and it got me thinking about Jimmie. I had read his biography and loved his music, but I enjoyed thinking about him and his story. It was a great time period not only for music but for art and architecture as well; it was like the beginning of the modern world….and Jimmie was a modern guy.
One of the things that made it fun for me was that I was okay if I couldn’t get it done. Originally, we recorded two songs and they came out really well and we were all very happy with them, but even then I thought that if this ends up being a single, or something I do over a long period of time that’s okay because the idea was strong enough…and everyone’s allowed a good idea. I knew that if I couldn’t finish it it wasn’t because it wasn’t a good idea, it was because the inspiration hadn’t hit me. But as you see, I kept going (laughing). I’m actually pleased that it's done and I don’t have to keep doing it (laughing).
In the same vein, the record is sung from the first person, as if Jimmie is telling his life stories. What is the significance behind that?
It was just my inclination to write from his point of view, which gave me a lot of leeway. Nothing is completely untrue, but some of the scenes are invented or a collection of three or four similar happenings. Some of his songs are like that too. Some of his more famous songs he didn’t write, they were lyrics that were around for a long time, and he collected them in a very original way. My inclination was that Jimmie wasn’t the kind of songwriter like Hank Williams or Bob Dylan - someone who was writing all the time - but I think he was a good thinker and arranger of songs and I think he had a very good sense of what sounded like him. He had a good sense of humor in life and in his songs and that gave me a lot of leeway because I could fudge the truth a little bit and have it still be accurate. And then I could also have him talk about serious things; I mean, it’s my voice, but it allowed me to negotiate some things that otherwise would be really hard to write about. For example, there’s a song about him writing what he thinks might be his last letters home ["Sorry I Can’t Stay"] or a couple songs where other people have to remind him that he’s dying and he can’t make to England to do a show or follow a woman to Paris ["To Paris (with regrets)"]. It’s almost like writing a play, but I’m not a playwright…. not yet anyway. I had never written anything quite like this before. It was really challenging in the best way and very inspiring.
When you listen to the record from start to finish it does remind me of a movie playing out, one that you’re listening to, yet can clearly picture.
Well, thank you. I had the sensation when writing it where I went to the very edge of my ability of how to describe something. I had moments, when I was writing about Jimmie’s frustration or imaging a nightmare, where it was like the end of The Truman Show when he sees the edge of the pool and he realizes the word has it limits - it was kind of like that for me where musically I think I went as far as I could. That was really interesting to me because typically in Rock and Roll or honky-tonk you can “be bop a lula” your way out of something. If I run out of ideas for a lyric I just go ‘Ohhh' (laughing) but this time, I had to use words because I didn’t want it to be boring.
The challenge, for me, was in telling the story so that it sounded cool and was light on its feet. I visualized these songs really well, at least in my head, but there were limits as to what I could actually describe because some things are better seen than heard which is why I think the story could be continued, but in another form like a play or a film.
Already knowing a great deal about Rodgers, how did you approach choosing what stories to write? Did you have certain events you knew you wanted to focus on?
I did. I thought about Jimmie for a long time and read a biography, Jimmie Rodgers: The Life and Times of America's Blue Yodeler by Nolan Porterfield. I wrote a list of imaginary song titles covering what I thought should be covered. I knew I wanted to talk about Meridian and living with TB his whole professional life. Jimmie had a phrase called “Cadillacin’”, which I thought would be a great title for a song and then there were a lot of interesting incidents in his life. For instance, he recorded with Louis Armstrong, and visited Hollywood and had lunch with Laurel and Hardy. Like many of us who have favorite places - places we can’t describe why we like being there, we just do - Jimmie had Coney Island. He also had some interesting run-ins, had girlfriends, and then was also an incredibly devoted husband, even as his marriage was under incredible strain due to his illness and being away from home. He would send money to his family and keep in touch with his wife. All of those things are very human and I could kind of relate to that stuff…. well, the good stuff anyway (laughing).
I don’t tour a whole lot, but I know that when you’re gone from home it just feels very strange. On the one hand being on the road can be exciting because you travel and see what a vast, interesting nation we have. But the longer you stay away, the less real your life is, so I would riff on those things and places he went. For example, Jimmie had a room at the Gunter Hotel in Texas where Robert Johnson had his first session, which I knew I wanted to write about. I was reading a book by Alvin Lustig on architecture and design and there was a line talking about his [Lustig’s] life and how he would do this magic trick with his sister where he’d saw her in half. I read that and said ‘Oh that’s a great title for a song for me to talk about Jimmie and the show!’ So it was like hide and seek where I would have an idea, and I really wouldn’t know how to put it in song, and then some chance incident would happen and I would think of a song title that would take care of that thing I needed to write about.
Inspiration truly strikes in all sorts of ways.
In addition to the story songs, there are quite a few instrumentals sprinkled throughout. Are they paired with certain songs or do they have another purpose?
I did longer versions of two of the instrumentals with my friend William Tyler and I only shortened them because they seemed a little more interesting and worked a little better as kind of a scene changer. The first one, “June”, which is the name of Jimmie’s daughter who died, I put very close to “Ain’t That Water Lucky” which is about her death and Jimmie being diagnosed with TB, which for a play would go together, so they are paired up. The rest are paired in a loose way, but I left it a little bit loosey goosey as to whether they were connected or not.
One of the instrumentals is the gorgeous title track, "Meridian Rising." Meridian is where Jimmie is from, but why did you choose that as the title?
I don’t know if there was any deep thought into, it just came into my head as a nice title that was catchy enough, but also inclusive enough that it could be thought of as the literal rising of Jimmie and the last moments of his life, which even after I had written the album, I was unsure if it was written as if time was unfolding as it happened or he was looking back. I think I settled on publicly saying it was the last moments with him looking back on his life and the audience is in the car with him as he is recalling it. It’s a great question and I think the reason why I can’t answer it exactly is that it’s left open for someone to interpret it and is also a case of me thinking how this whole endeavor could be like a relay race – it could be handed over to someone who wants to interpret it a particular way, like a film or play where it could go in a lot of different ways.
You have mentioned a play or film a few times now. Is that something that is in the works or that you would like to see happen?
Well, I hope so, but I don’t know. It would be quite fun and I would really enjoy it. I thought about the album for a while and it was written and recorded quickly, but one of the things I’m still enjoying about it is that it still feels new to me, which is nice because by the time a record comes out it’s much older to the person who made it than to the people who listen to it. There’s a lot of material here too which helps, because if it was a regular Rock and Roll record it would have ten three minute songs with a few favorites, but I’m still discovering how to sing these songs even though I wrote them…....and that’s good because if it did go in the direction of a play or some other form I’d still have things to discover about it.
Speaking of playing the songs, you will be headed to New York City on March 3rd for a show at Sid Gold’s Request Room. Will you be playing solely songs from this record or will the show include your other material as well?
I’m coming to New York to play with my friend Laura Cantrell. She thought this would be a great place to play and really, any place that can stay open in Manhattan long enough for me to get there, I’ll play. It’s not a super long show, so I’ll probably do mostly this record, but I’ll have rehearsed some of the older stuff too. So if I meet anybody who actually bought those records, I’m open to anything.
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