It is an every lasting learning curve for Paul Burch who was first introduced in the UK via Scots drummer, Francis MacDonald (Teenage fan Club) and label boss of Shoeshine records.
Burch, who lives in Nashville and spent a couple of years playing with Americana visionaries Lambchop, has won himself a host of admirers through his work. He has worked with Mark Knopfler, Dr. Ralph Stanley and loads of other of his East Nashville contemporaries – in other words, he is simply one of the coolest alt.country musicians around.
Interview by Maurice Hope
I see you now have a new record label?
It is from North Carolina and called Ramseur Records and run by Dolph Ramseur. He has been managing the Avett Brothers for a good many years. I ran into him a time or two and he is a huge fan of the music, so at a time when a lot of people have to put out their own records I was most pleased he decided to put out Still Your Man. I was thrilled anyone wanted to put it out! Dolph has worked really hard in a business that is changing fast.
I see you have the usual members in the band play on the record?
I do, some of the members like, Dennis Crouch on bass and George Bradfute who isn't on the record but still very much part of the group (The WPA Ballclub) go back to 1995. This was when I was playing Tootsies (a famed watering hole next to Nashville's Grand Ole Opry) and the rest of the group has been there for five or six years. Once someone joins the band they short of never leave it; it is almost like an actor's group.
So they are always on call when and if they are needed?
Yeah, the way I see it is if we all show up it might be a bit of a mess, but it will probably be a beautiful sound. The way I think of it this, they all have their particular strengths and depending on what songs or sounds I am after I will have a couple or a trio or a quartet at any one time. Still Your Man was done as sketches with Dennis and myself or Dennis and Jen Gunderman who is a piano, accordion player or it may be Fats Kaplin and myself. A fiddle player and wonderful multi-instrumentalist. So between us we are able to lay out an emotional real estate for each song, and see what sounds good and what will work.
Fats Kaplin has been around for a long time and was instrumental in helping lay the foundation for Tom Russell during his earlier days?
Yeah, that's right. Fats and me have also been doing some work on what will be my next record. It is unlikely to be out till the turn of the year and he has also been working with Elvis Costello. He is such an incredible guy to have around.
You are also lucky to have such a guy as Dennis Crouch work with you?
Yes, I am. He is so incredibly gifted. Very melodic in what he does and learned in the old way and knows how you pull the strings. He learned from bluegrass and western swing where you have to drive the band. He is really a singer's bass player. I have learned a vast amount from him and he is a very busy guy and I know he enjoys the group and he always puts time aside to do so. Whether it is with T-Bone Burnett or any other producer they know he really ignites a record and I am glad to know him.
You also have Tim O‘Brien play on the record?
Tim and I are good acquaintances. I don't know that well but we communicate really well musically, and otherwise. Again like some of my friends in the group he can play and see the relationship between all kinds of music. I just love his sense of time, like Dennis he really makes ever situation he's in very unique.
Talking of timing, you also well steeped in bluegrass music and have a great affinity to the music?
Thank you. It is a kind of music I feel lives in me. Bluegrass music has changed a lot. The emotional impact I get from the older bluegrass grass records I don't get from the newer records but I don't compare them too much. The older bluegrass records were made by guys struggling to make a living and the urgency of it shows on the record. I am someone who loves to play bluegrass but I am not a bluegrass player although the feel of that music comes very easy to me. A lot of the sense of dynamics in me I feel come from that old string-band music.
On utilising fiddle and upright bass as you do on the album you underline the fact?
One of the things Fats and I share is a love of string-band music of the 1930s and 1920s folk music. My sort cuckoo sense of timing comes from listening to the black and white players from the Appalachians that played without restraint but with a lot of dynamics.
I feel with these guys struggling and living a hand to mouth existence their feel of having to earn everything they got produced players with their own unique style of playing?
Yeah, I certainly carry that into my guitar playing. Something I am getting better at all of the time. There are a lot of great guitar players out there are a lot of bad players. What is true is a bad one you never remember but a good one you never forget.
Talking of good guitar players Mark Knopfler played on the previous album to Still Your Man, East To West.
He did. He is very kind and is very supporting of musicians here and he played on ‘Before The Bells' that we recorded at the British Grove Studio (owned by Knopfler) in London and it has since gained many awards. I think we were one of the first groups to record there. I have not seen him in a long, long time but, again like meeting Ralph Stanley anytime you meet someone who is doing great work and been in the business for a long time for me it is always both humbling and just great. I find it inspiring and the thing that I get out of it is they are just like a musician who (pauses) the one thing that links one who is of a super-star status but who is really a musician at heart most of all. As are Mark and Ralph, Dr. Ralph they just want to hear good music. That is why they always have an ear out for someone who can push them a little farther. I am not speaking for them but the way I feel about them.
Mark Knopfler is diverse and always keen to strip things down and produce a sharp clean sound?
He is a wonderful person too. He was very nice to me and I like the way he purports himself.
As for Ralph Stanley he has been especially amazing during the latter years of his career?
I think so. He is no chicken and his voice is just amazing. He is a treasure.
Watching you on stage I was impressed with your keen edged guitar playing. Is there anything special about the guitar you played?
No, it is an inexpensive guitar. The only thing about it is it stays in tune (laughs) and the reason I started to play electric when by myself was just to be different and also it is easier to be dynamic. Use an amplifier and sometimes when I hit a note a magical feel is produced.
There was a bit of a backbeat to your playing?
Yeah! Vic Chesnutt used to play by himself on acoustic guitar and sometimes electric guitar and I found that inspiring how he could kind of bend time to his songs. How he would stop and let his melody fly out. I think about that often.
Where did you reside before coming to Nashville?
I am from the mid-west, in the state of Indiana, south of Chicago. I lived there through my teenage age years and before I moved to Nashville I lived in the New York area, in Boston. Which was great but a lot of the musicians I like, like Tim that I liked were in Nashville and I just wanted to around people who like the music I like. I just wanted to make records.
Listening to the songs on the album I wondered were they written for the project or taken from a period of time?
They were from a period of time. I don't know really. I can't really articulate where they come from. I am not dodging your question but the album is about different kinds of devotions. About love and loving what you do. Loving somebody else and as a father I wanted to show my son how someone can love what they do and feel that is the least I could do for him.
What was the reason behind Dennis and Jen helping with the production duties?
Well, I never wanted to do it all by myself. They are inspiring. I might come up with the music and a rough arrangement but just like playing with them. They are both very kind people but also inventive musicians and as a singer I might come up with a chord structure that might be clever on one hand as I am also trying to keep up a rhythm. Where they might play different intervals and substitutions for my chords that are more melodic ideas for me to sing with. I said to them I am not someone who brings in a producer to make all the decisions but what a producer should do is help or enhance an environment. Where you can be really creative. Take a lot of chances and still feel like there is a particular goal. Maybe it is to feature an instrument or all the songs are thematically joined and I just thought that if I could get the two of them together or separately to talk to me about what they feel about the songs it would be productive to me. It wasn't done as in the sense of them working as producers but more like George Martin was with the Beatles, I guess. Where it was a case they could have produced themselves, probably, but it was good to have someone point out things.
It would free you up to be more creative?
Most certainly! I don't know if they will have time but they will both figure in some form on the next record.
Paul Burch's Still Your Man is out now on Ramseur Records. For more, go to Paulburch.com