In Part One of our conversation with Paul Burch, we discussed his recently released tribute to Jimmie Rodgers, Meridian Rising, which is out now via Plowboy Records. It is an enjoyable and unique conceptual album telling a fictionalized version of Rodgers’ life story. In this installment, we talk about Burch’s musical career, both his solo work–one that includes his longtime backing band, The WPA Ballclub–and highlights from his work as a session musician. We’ve also included a number of songs that we think help paint a picture of Burch’s long, enjoyable career.
On The WPA Ballclub:
We got together at Tootsie’s Orchard Lounge, a kind of notorious honky-tonk in Nashville. I walked down there when I first moved to Nashville and stumbled upon a singer named Greg Garing who was playing in this abandoned back room way in the back. The upstairs was the place where the Opry stars hung out and dressed for the show, because there wasn’t a dressing room at the Ryman Auditorium, which was right across the alley. When I first moved there, there was no interest in the Ryman, there was no interest in the good ol’ Opry days or even for early country music.
So Greg and I got together, and I started to lead his backing band, putting it together and hiring musicians to play. It was just a bunch of cats who loved vintage country. We played late 40s and early 50s-era country, which was a very specific, well-defined sound and style—we loved stuff like Ernest Tubb, early Hank Williams, early Lefty Frizzell, and even though they were paid lip service, no younger artists seemed to be interested. So that’s how we got together; the band with Greg sort of faded out, but I wanted to keep going, because I really dug the guys I was working with. Paul Niehaus, who plays pedal steel, who also worked with me in Lambchop, was a part of it from the beginning. We had a conversation one day and he said, “I don’t really want to run a band, but if you were to put a band together, I would definitely want to be a part of it.” Which was cool, because if you’ve got one person, you’ve got a band! (Laughs) We also met up with a bassist named Dennis Crouch, who’s done a lot of work with T-Bone Burnett, and who’s since become a really in-demand player, not just with T-Bone but with Diana Krall, Steve Earle, and Elvis Costello, as well as the soundtrack to Crazy Heart.
My original idea for the band was simple. I wanted to play and pay homage to the early country music that I loved, but I didn’t necessarily want the group to be a concrete thing. I wanted to highlight players who loved this music as much as I loved it. Plus, I wanted it to be something that was very easy-going—I don’t want to say not ‘serious,’ but something more spontaneous. Whoever was around and willing to play would play; we would rehearse a bunch of songs and play ‘em as we felt like, instead of having a setlist. We’ve played out a lot, so we know each other pretty well; we rehearse a lot and have built up a pretty deep catalog of songs, both originals and covers. It’s very free spirited, and the music I like to write and play, I prefer things that are open and have a lot of room to breathe and that are easily workable with different arrangements. There’s a lot of spontaneity in the group, and I like that. When I find a musician who has a personality that I like, I just really love what they play, and I don’t really like to tell them how to play—I allow them to bring their ideas into the circle. When you’re that diplomatic, it tends to be the type of group where people stick around.
See, what I like to do is to have a clutch of players that I can call on. There’s no rule that says you can’t have two bassists in a band, right? (Laughs) The albums I record, they’re mostly live, but it’s also a shifting group, so it’s more about what the music needs. If I want to make an acoustic record, I have friends I can call up who are great playing that sort of thing. If I want to make a more upbeat rockabilly or boogie-woogie number, I have people I can call on who will be perfect for that sort of thing.
And it works the other way, too! (Laughs) I’ll record some ideas and I might be thinking initially that it’ll be an acoustic number, but the guys who make more of a racket might here something I don’t, and their input in the early stages of the song can really change the direction I thought I had. Like me, these guys are willing to do what’s best for my music and aren’t afraid to tell me so—and I trust them, so I’m more than happy to get their input. In that way, we’re like an actor’s troupe—someone who might be in the background on one record, they might be the star of the next one, simply based on how the ideas flow during the creative process.
On Working With Candi Staton:
Working with her was wonderful. I was kind of in awe of her. It was a session that went by pretty fast, and that’s really a tribute to her being on top of what it is she wanted to do; when she came in the studio, she was prepared, knew what she wanted on her record and the arrangement, and that makes things so much easier. Because when we’re working on sessions, it’s usually people I’ve worked with before, and so things tend to go a bit faster. We have a musical shorthand, and that’s what the artists we’re working with want—people who know each other, know their capabilities, and can get the best sound possible. In the case of working with Candi, and with Beverley Knight, and Vic Chestnut too, I just thought they were extremely brilliant; I was in awe of their talent, so I just kind of kept my mouth shut and listened. (Laughs) Besides, if I am working with an artist I’ve not worked with, I don’t want to be too chatty or presumptuous—that can be distracting, and can break their concentration and focus.
Working in the studio, getting called into sessions for different artists, I really enjoy that. I never get tired of playing music and recording, and it’s never tiring because I don’t do it every day for a living. So when someone calls me up and needs me to play guitar or drums, I’m happy to do it. When it’s someone like Candi or Beverly or Bobby Bare, it’s always great to work with them, because they have a sense of comfort in who they are, and that certainty makes life a lot easier in the studio, because they know what it is they want.
On Working With Beverly Knight:
Is that you on the drums?
(Laughs) Oh, no way. I’m playing rhythm guitar on that one, but that was a helluva workout for all of us. We were all just sweating, because everything was recorded live. As amazing as it seems, her record didn’t have a single overdub; other than a word that she changed, everything you hear on her album is a complete take, and she was just relentlessly fantastic. I don’t remember how many takes we did, but as you can hear, it was a real workout. It was like running a soul marathon, because it was all just so full on, relentless. That whole album, 2007’s Music City Soul, is an excellent, thrilling record, and was a lot of fun, even though the sessions could be intensely powerful and electric.
On Working With Ralph Stanley:
On your album East To West, you recorded a version of “Little Glass Of Wine” with Ralph Stanley.
Ralph is a very bright, funny person, who would put you at ease. I had done a tour with my friend Laura Cantrell, supporting Ralph through the British Isles, which was great. I was playing solo, and I would notice that when I’d play, Ralph would always be there, listening in, paying attention to what I was doing. Laura and I loved just sitting around with him, talking about his career—recording with King Records, the earliest years of Columbia Records, and working here in Tennessee. So we were talking and i brought up the idea of doing a song together, and he liked that. I suggested that we do “Little Glass of Wine,” which he hadn’t performed very much; it was one of the earliest songs he did with his brother Carter. In fact—I wasn’t around when he said this—but he told my wife that he really thought I sounded like his brother, which was really a very sweet thing for him to say, an honor, to say the least. We did it rather quickly, and we didn’t do that many takes, but even though he hadn’t done the song in years, it came to him quickly, and he performed it with the same gusto as if he’d been playing it every night for the last thirty years.
On Working With Vic Chesnutt:
Like Ralph, Vic was a wonderful, funny person. Lambchop had known him well before I did, and were good friends when I started working with them. It was a lot of intermingled friends, because Paul Niehaus, who played steel guitar with me, also played with him. When we got together, it was at a time when things weren’t really busy for either of us. They would rehearse about once a week, and I’d go over and hang out at Kurt Wagner’s house, so whenever i had a chance, I’d sit in and play with them, and they’d ask me to record with them, and I would. I was fortunate enough to be around when Vic asked them to collaborate. Vic had gotten a deal with Capitol Records for an, and they had given him some funds for recording, and he said, “i wanna do an album with my friends in Lambchop.”
When we got into the studio, Vic was a total professional when it came to his music, and he treated the people who were working on his songs with great love and respect. Working with him was invigorating, and it inspired in me that I should make every song I record—be it my own or a production—should be made as rich and as lush as possible. That’s the thing that made Vic such a wonderful, unique talent, and what made The Salesman and Bernadette such a beautiful record—his songs would instantly be lush and beautiful, even if you didn’t have a clue about what he was talking about. He was so oblique and abstract, you might not have understood his lyrics, but it didn’t matter, because the music he surrounded them with was just so damn beautiful.
He struggled in his personal life in ways that I don’t know and would not be able to understand, but his music, it was drenched in human sweetness that was oddly accessible. He was a person who could be frustrating to deal with, but his music transcended that; if anything, to me it’s the sound of a man trying to reach out and connect with the world around him, and I’m really empathetic to that. No matter what his troubles were—and he had plenty—he never stopped trying to make the effort to express himself. He made the effort to overcome those problems through his music; he’d make records, he’d tour.
But he was also a really funny guy. For a guy who put himself into a lot of really tight corners in life, he had a rather wicked sense of humor. He dealt with the attention that people gave him in a very kind, gentlemanly way. Everybody wanted to be his buddy, and everybody wanted to hear from him that whatever they were doing artistically was good, because he was someone who was greatly respected and loved.
What he loved most, though, was making music. He was consumed by it, and when he heard music he liked, it made him happy. It was easy to make a good record for him, because the chords were wonderful, the arrangements were rich, and he was a funky guy with a tremendous amount of heart. I think it’s easily one of the best albums that Lambchop ever made, and I think it’s one of the best records he made, too.
In the end, Capitol Records made it difficult for them; they made them mix it several times, and the post-production gave them a lot of headaches. It’s a major label, and I’m pretty sure that there was someone there at the label whose job was to give them a hard time, whether they needed it or not. But to me, hearing the record being played back right after it was completed, it was simply perfect.
On The Past Twenty Years:
I’ve never had the kind of success that demands that I be on the road all the time, but we do have a sort of luxury that other bands don’t often get to have. We do like to play a lot and we like to go out on the road, but there’s never been any pressure on me about what I do. I’ve never been told I have to make this or that kind of record, nor have I been told I have to go out and perform X amount of dates per year by my record label—a luxury that some of my friends—even ones who really haven’t been very commercially successful, even though they’re on big labels—simply don’t get to have. When you’re in that situation, you have to play by certain rules; you have to have a definite setlist; you have to play certain songs, either because they’re hits or because someone backing you is pressuring you to play a song because it’s going to be the next radio single or something. WPA Ballclub has thus become something that is a playing field, if you will, that allows me to follow my creative desires and allows me to explore the music I want to make—as well as to simply have a good time and enjoy making music, which, really, is a key thing that so many artists simply either forget to do or have lost touch with. I’ve been really lucky that way.
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