Me And Jimmie Rodgers: A Conversation With Paul Burch, Part One

Photo by Emily Beaver, courtesy of Conqueroo.

Photo by Emily Beaver, courtesy of Conqueroo.

Over the last twenty years, Paul Burch has quietly made a name for himself. Though low-key, his discography is filled with many rare jewels; exquisite recordings–both his own and with others–steeped in the grand tradition of traditional country and American roots music. Simply put, I am a fan of his music, and know that anything with his name on it will most assuredly be of superior quality. When I heard of his latest project, Meridian Rising, I couldn’t wait to talk to him.(You can read a great deal more about the concept if you visit the Meridian Rising website.)  It’s a concept album of sorts, an imagined autobiography of the legendary Country & Western pioneer, Jimmie Rodgers, a man who died young but left an indelible shadow over the genre. Meridian Rising, which comes out this Friday, is one of the finest records of the year. As you will read below, it was a labor of love, and it shows; he had much to say, and I am grateful for the opportunity to chat with him about the concept behind this fantastic record. (Next week, we will feature Mr. Burch talking about highlights from his long and varied career.)

Your latest album, Meridian Rising, is a concept album—a fictional imagining of the life of Jimmie Rogers. What brought you to this concept?

The idea came from hearing a guitar and voice duet that Jimmie did with a guitarist named Clifford Gibson, who was based out of St. Louis. The song was unreleased in Jimmie’s lifetime, and what I loved about it was that Clifford’s style reminded me of Robert Johnson; it wasn’t inspired by him, because Johnson’s appearance came a little bit later. He played in an open tuning, and the best way to describe it is that Clifford’s style is the opposite of Jimmie’s, whose style of playing was rather straightforward, a plain driving rhythm. Clifford, like many of the most interesting blues players of the time, simply implied the rhythm in his playing, and it almost sounds like a piano player. To me, I was really fascinated by that. The more I thought about it, though, the more I began to think about it as a great example of how Jimmie lived. he was always under pressure to write songs, and so he would always reach out to people he would meet and work with them. Whether he was at a recording session, or at a club, or simply hanging out in the city, he’d look around for people to work with, to get inspiration. He spent a lot of time recording in different places, such as the RCA studios in New Jersey and in New York, but a lot of times his producer Ralph Peer would call him in to do sessions in different places, like Atlanta or Louisville. Jimmie took advantage of that, and if he heard a great artist playing on the street, he would invite them to come and play a session. He was definitely fearless about trying new things and taking risks on people he’d meet who were untested or unproven as artists, because he heard the talent.

I’m not exactly sure why or exactly when the idea came into my head, but the more I thought about the way Jimmie Rogers was, the more inspiring it became. I’ve toyed around with his idea for about a decade; it’s a great story, Jimmie’s life and his encouraging and curious nature. I wanted to sort of get into that mindset of his and how he viewed the world, and I wanted to parse that in a way that has been missed. His biographers have had a great sense of telling his story, but they aren’t musicians, and I don’t think Jimmie’s life has been really presented from a musician’s point of view.

I really loved making Meridian Rising, because it was a different way of working. It was very different from writing a traditional album; the focus is usually a lot more vague, a bit more fluid; you go in, you record your songs, and you sort of let the creative process take control and determine the album’s direction. You’re working in a small frame; a set size for artwork, two sides, twenty minutes per side.The industry has been following that conceptual model ever since Sinatra’s In The Wee Small Hours in 1955. It’s a great model, and I love it, but I wasn’t really sure how Meridian Rising would play out. Making a concept record is hard, and I was prepared for the fact that I might not be able to make a full album out of it, that only a few of the songs would actually be good or that I might not be able to carry the whole thing through, and that would have been okay, too. (Laughs) If need be, making an epic suite would have been okay—it’s been done before. So I sort of realized that the best thing to do would be to not force it, because when you do that, the music suffers; you can definitely tell when a songwriter does that, and I didn’t want that.

Did you do a lot of background research before you started writing, or did you sort of pick things up along the way, using his music itself as inspiration and not necessarily the written history of his life?

I did do a lot of background research on Jimmie, but I’d say that started long before I had come up with Meridian Rising. Being a fan, I’d always read anything that I could find about him and sort of store it in the back of my mind—like a lot of music-loving people, they’ll read something about Dylan or Bowie or The Beatles because they’re a fan. When the idea of making a record came to mind, I did sit down with Nolan Porterfield’s biography, Jimmie Rodgers: The Life And Times Of America’s Blue Yodeler, which is a great read that I highly recommend. My neighbor Barry Mazor, has written quite a bit on Rodgers and Ralph Peer, and he helped with the inspiration as well, giving me insights into how he worked as a professional musician. 

What I did, though, that was different for me, was I would contemplate the events in Jimmie’s life. I would outline them, but instead of sitting down and writing a traditional outline, I’d use potential song titles for each event in his life—which is sort of tricky to do, coming up with song titles before you actually have the music and lyrics! (Laughs) For me, though, it was the grey areas and foggy notions that interested me. We have a pretty good outline of the basic facts of his life, but there’s a lot that we don’t know about his life, questions that nobody bothered to ask him during his lifetime, things that people who love music wish that they could know.

What are those questions?

I’d love to ask him what drew him to black music. I’d love to know what kind of records he had in his record collection. (Laughs) That’s kind of a music geek thing, but it’s funny: his wife wrote a biography within a decade of his death, and in it there’s this line, this one little line that has tantalized me so, where she states that Jimmie “bought records by the ton”…but then she never revealed what any of those records were! So frustrating and such a tease! (Laughs) I mean, here’s a guy at the very beginning of the music industry, the beginning of recorded music, who was a record collector just like you and me. I’m just so curious to know what he had. Did he own Caruso? Blind Lemon Jefferson? I’m inclined to think that his tastes were rather broad, judging by the ease of which he wrote and recorded in different musical styles.

Another tantalizing clue that she left, that sort of reminded me of Robert Johnson, was that she recalled that he would listen to these records, and would tell her things like, “Well, this person, they’ve got a good voice, or they’re a good guitar player, but I don’t feel what they’re saying”  So that indicates to me that he was someone that recognized that with recorded music, you had to be truthful and sincere in order to connect to people, which is the one attribute that tends to come through when he played. Though the history of him as a live performer is vague, there are a few newspaper reviews of his shows, and they tend to be written by people who aren’t fans of music and don’t necessarily want to be at the show, but they are amazed at how this person was really connecting to people. That’s really interesting to me, and it’s not something that really gets played up in his biographies, but this is really prescient about the nature of music.

It’s so true, even today. You might have someone on stage who has a technically perfect voice, but little to no passion, and it’ll leave you cold, whereas you’ll have others who aren’t so good but they have a sincerity that really causes the audiences to connect with them. It’s an interesting phenomenon, and as a musician and as a producer I’m always interested in hearing about artists who are knocking people out, because that’s why we’re here.

In writing Meridian Rising, did you find it daunting, trying to tell this conceptualized story and retain a sincerity and passion about it, while not being too confined to the facts of his life?

At first it did, but as I started working, it sort of—well, Jimmie made it easy for me to write about him! (Laughs) There’s a lot of attitude that comes through in his songs; he would kind of make light of his problem, especially if they were serious problems. He could detach himself and perform a song like “TB Blues,” which is humorous and funny take on the disease that would contribute to his dying really young, just as his career started to take off.

He didn’t write it, but if you didn’t know that he didn’t write it, you’d easily believe it was his, simply because the way he performs it is so convincing and authentic. And yet, it was completely an autobiographical tale for him; if the audience didn’t know that he had it when they listened to a recording, they’d definitely see it when they saw him live, and his performance made his songs—even other people’s songs—become his.

For the most part, though, while writing Meridian Rising, I felt really free. Like anybody, I was under the delusion that i was “vibing” on this ineffable quality that’s a trademark of musicians. I’ve certainly known musicians like that—no one on the status of Jimmie, mind you—but I’ve known people who have this thing about them that makes an instant kind of impact. Knowing that there was nothing I could do or say that would damage his reputation was both freeing and binding. His life is public record, and he’s established as a historical figure, so the worse that I could do was fail at a good idea.

Over the years and especially before beginning the project, I’d always float the idea to various musical friends of mine about the idea behind Meridian Rising, and people were always very supportive about it, telling me it was a great idea. To be honest, I thought it was a little esoteric and presumptuous of me to say, ‘hey, I’m writing a fictionalized account of the life of Jimmie Rodgers,” but I got nothing but positive feedback, which was very encouraging. So i always sort of felt that, you know, at least I had a good idea. (Laughs) I figure that people are entitled to at least one good idea in their life, and if this is my good idea, then hey, I’ll take it—but then I’d get to think, “Well, if this is my one good idea, I better try and make it the best album that I can,” which adds a whole other dimension of stress to the process! (Laughs)  But it worked. It came out really well, and I’m quite happy that I did it. It’s an ambition realized, it’s the best thing I’ve done, and I only hope others enjoy it as well.  

Meridian Rising will be released Friday, February 26, via Plowboy Records

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