Ter­rell’s Tune Up

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Steve Ter­rell on Paul Burch’s Merid­ian Ris­ing

You know from the first words Paul Burch sings on his new al­bum, Merid­ian

Ris­ing, that this is go­ing to have a lot more at­ti­tude than most records hon­or­ing any coun­try-mu­sic im­mor­tals. “Let me tell you all about the place I’m from/ Where the po­lice tip their hats while they’re swing­ing their clubs. … You best mind where you go and watch what you say/ I’ll visit your ma, but I’m not go­ing to stay.” Yes, the sweet sunny South of ro­man­tic myth jux­ta­posed against the op­pres­sive re­al­ity. I knew right then I was go­ing to love this al­bum.

That song “Merid­ian” i s about Merid­ian, Mis­sis­sippi, and the al­bum is about that town’s most fa­mous son, Jimmie Rodgers — Amer­ica’s beloved “Singing Brake­man,” of­ten called the “father of coun­try mu­sic.” But Burch, a honky-tonkin’ alt-coun­try hero for more than 20 years, swings down the club on any no­tion that this is any­thing like any Rodgers trib­ute you’ve heard be­fore. (And there have been some fine ones, such as Merle Hag­gard’s Same Train, A Dif­fer­ent Time, Steve For­bert’s Any Old Time, and the Bob Dy­lan-in­sti­gated var­i­ous-artist spec­tac­u­lar, The Songs of

Jimmie Rodgers.) For one thing, there are no ac­tual Jimmie songs here, though most the tunes are played in the Rodgers style that blends hill­billy, blues, and jazz.

In­stead of merely cov­er­ing his songs, Burch tells the story of Rodgers’ life — not as a lit­eral bi­og­ra­phy, but with songs from Rodgers’ point of view in var­i­ous sit­u­a­tions. You find Rodgers on tour like a De­pres­sion-era rock star on “US Rte 49” — trav­el­ing, pick­ing, drink­ing, wom­an­iz­ing. “They put me up in a house af­ter the show/The mayor’s wife and daugh­ter came in the back door. … Girls did al­right by me but I had to leave ’ em on Rte 49.”

But the sto­ries Burch tells aren’t all fun and games. “Poor Don’t Vote” shows Rodgers’ work­ing- class sym­pa­thy with those hit hard­est by the De­pres­sion — and his anger at politi­cians who ex­ploited and looked down on them. “You think you’re safe ’cause the poor don’t vote. … You’d bet­ter be kind to this rab­ble/ ’Cause if you got my vote or not may be the least of your trou­bles.”

Rodgers’ death from tu­ber­cu­lo­sis at the age of thirty-five is fore­shad­owed in sev­eral tunes — even in the good-time “US Rte. 49,” there’s a quick road stop in a hos­pi­tal. On “Fast Fuse Blues,” the singer notes “Later’s com­ing ear­lier ev­ery day,” and makes a last re­quest: “Take me to Coney Is­land, so the last thing in my eye/ Is you way up on the Won­der Wheel wav­ing me good­bye.” In­deed, Rodgers vis­ited Coney Is­land the day be­fore he died.

The beauty of th­ese songs — the sto­ries they tell and the emo­tions be­hind them — is that they stand on their own even if a lis­tener knows noth­ing about Rodgers. In the end, Merid­ian Ris­ing makes me bet­ter ap­pre­ci­ate both Rodgers and Paul Burch.

Also rec­om­mended

▼ Got My­self To­gether (Ten Years Later) by Danny Barnes. Banjo ma­niac Barnes first got fa­mous — well, maybe not ac­tu­ally fa­mous, but he achieved a cer­tain level of un­der­ground ac­claim — with the pi­o­neer­ing Texas alt/punk/weirdoblue­grass out­fit called Bad Liv­ers in the 1990s. The Liv­ers broke up around t he t urn of t he cen­tury af­ter t heir com­mer­cially dis­as­trous fi­nal al­bum,

Blood and Mood, ba­si­cally scared and/or an­gered much of the Amer­i­cana crowd. In my re­view back then I wrote, “Had Beck been raised in May­berry as the abused step­son of Gomer Pyle …” In other words, I loved it.

Af­ter t hat, Barnes left Austin for Wash­ing­ton State and be­gan a solo ca­reer, some­times col­lab­o­rat­ing with jazz gui­tarist Bill Frisell and even Dave Matthews — yes, that Dave Matthews — and oth­ers.

In 2005, Barnes re­leased a record called Get My­self To­gether. “It was kinda my last acous­tic type ef­fort hereto­fore (I l aunched pretty heav­ily i nto my elec­tronic pe­riod),” Barnes wrote on his web­site. I’m not ex­actly sure why he de­cided to re­lease a new ver­sion of that al­bum, but some­how I missed the orig­i­nal when it came out, so I’m glad he did. (Un­for­tu­nately, he left off his blue­grass ver­sion of “Sym­pa­thy for the Devil,” which was on the 2005 al­bum, though he does have a new ver­sion of Bad Liv­ers’ “I’m Con­victed” as a bonus track on the new one.)

Barnes does most of th­ese tunes solo, mainly just voice and banjo. His wry lyrics and his vo­cal phras­ing make him sound like a mod­ern John Hart­ford. You can hear that in the song “Wasted Mind,” a dis­dain­ful look at some kid go­ing nowhere fast. “He ain’t the first boy stand­ing round a beat-up Chevy/ Want to sing like Eminem,” Barnes sings while his fin­gers f ly around his banjo. “On a first name ba­sis at the po­lice sta­tion/ Where you spend a lot of lonely nights/Standin’ in the line-up lights.”

In­car­cer­a­tion for stu­pid­ity is the theme of an­other high­light here, “Get Me Out of Jail.” It be­gins “Well, I got drunk this morn­ing/And I went off to work/ By nine or ten I cashed it in/And threw up on my shirt/ Then I lost your house keys/So I broke in with a rock/ I keep my OxyCon­tin baby/ Way down in my sock.” And things get worse from there. If you’re in­ter­ested in Danny Barnes, check out this 2009 Bad Liv­ers’ re­union show at www.tinyurl.com/ badliv­ers2009.

Paul Burch, a honky-tonkin’ alt-coun­try hero for more than 20 years, swings down the club

on any no­tion that this is any­thing like any Jimmie Rodgers trib­ute you’ve heard be­fore.

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