It was an ambitious project but a brilliant one, and thankfully, Paul Burch’s imagined autobiography of the legendary Jimmie Rodgers, Meridian Rising, is an unqualified success across the board.
And while Burch could have paid tribute to Rodgers in the conventional manner with a collection of covers, putting himself in the shoes of the influential country singer took things to a whole new level and brings up a number of issues when it comes to today’s world of popular music. Will a younger generation appreciate an album like this? Will they want to research Rodgers further? How important was it for Burch to educate people with the album? And can folks just enjoy the music for what it is?
I checked in with Burch before his March 3 show at Sid Gold’s Request Room for some answers…
Thomas Gerbasi: No pressure, Paul, but who’s the next artist to get this treatment?
Paul Burch: (Laughs) I don’t if there is anyone after this. Let’s see. I don’t think I could do it the same way, but you never know.
TG: This isn’t just a great album to listen to, but an educational one as well. How important was it for you to educate as well as entertain with Meridian Rising?
PB: I’m sure it was in my mind, but it wasn’t the thing that drove me. I love more the challenge of trying to carry this through. The idea came to me very suddenly and very kind of light heartedly. I thought about it for about 15 years. I heard a recording of Jimmie with a blue guitar player named Clifford Gibson who’s not really well known, but he’s very skillful, a very cool guitar player who reminded me, from a distance, a little bit of Robert Johnson in that he was kind of playing like a piano player. He’s playing notes, rhythm and playing in a style that suggested rhythm. And it was very different from Jimmie’s style, which is very elastic but very simple. And I just kind of marveled that Jimmie’s voice fit over Clifford’s style of guitar so well, which shouldn’t have surprised me. It was very enchanting to me and I instantly thought it would be great to do something with Jimmie’s music but I didn’t think I could improve on the many, many people who have done versions of Jimmie’s music. I didn’t feel like I could add anything to that.
But this idea of writing from this point of view seemed very fun, and although I didn’t do it for a long time, I thought about it for a long time, and it just continued to seem like a good idea and I think I was more intimidated by the fact that it was a good idea, rather than how difficult it might be.
Everyone’s allowed a good idea – one or two in their life – and artists and friends of mine I talked to, whenever I told them I had this idea, they looked at me as if I were crazy. They said ‘hey, that’s a good idea.’ And I think in one’s life, you’re not used to people saying that in kind of the same way, on cue. So I didn’t think I could do any harm to Jimmie’s life. I wasn’t telling any lies about him or making too much up, and I thought that if I had as much fun making it as I hoped I would, it would probably come out all right.
In other words, the biographies are out there and there are so many quotes by the great artists in American life, whether it’s Howlin Wolf and Louis Armstrong or Ernest Tubb, saying this was a really, really interesting guy. So I didn’t feel like I had to rescue him. And that was important too, because I like the idea of writing about something that was truthful, but I didn’t feel like I had to write a history lesson because the history is already out there. I wanted to give the viewpoint of who I thought he was as a person and as a musician, which is a little bit different from a biographer who is mixing social history and real history. I wasn’t doing any original research, it was more just looking at what was out there and looking at it from the viewpoint of what I thought his life was like.
TG – So was this as fun as you thought it would be when you started out?
PB – Oh yeah, it was a lot of fun and I think what helped me is that I was prepared that I wouldn’t be able to carry it off. Because it’s a lot of stuff and when I finally decided that I was going to write something, I just sat down and wrote a list of playful song titles of things I wanted to write about. I wanted to write about his hometown of Meridian. He had a phrase called “Cadillacin’” and I thought that’s a great title for a song and a great way to talk about going from being a poor person to a wealthy person, which sort of happened to him overnight.
So it’s as if you were talking to friends and you say ‘what if we were to make a play about someone we care about?’ If you were to sit and talk about the Beatles, you would have to talk about Hamburg and John meeting Paul and Paul meeting George. And we have to imagine the first time that they realized they were a really good band or maybe he first time they realized they were horrible. You have fun thinking about all those things.
But once I made that list of all the things I wanted to cover, I thought if I can only get through two of these, it’s okay, because this is a good idea. So I was prepared that if I couldn’t carry it through, I was still testing myself like a marathon runner. Can I do this? I’m sure there’s something parallel to it out there, but I didn’t know of a record that was done like this. Which also helped too because I didn’t have to measure it against anything. I was trying to just do it as well as I could and make it fun to listen to. I didn’t want to really get bogged down with things that weren’t fun to listen to. I wanted it to be entertaining, because he was entertaining.
TG – Is this something that this generation can appreciate? Was it a subconscious thing where you hope people keep digging after this?
PB – It’s a great question, and honestly, I was kind of selfish in that I just really wanted to make a good piece of work. But as much as all of those questions are valid and I’m sure they crossed my mind, I was excited to make a different kind of album. I love making albums. It’s the one thing I’ve always wanted to do and it’s kind of the equivalent of the Great American Novel. And I’m very lucky. I haven’t sold records, but I’ve made a lot of them.
And we record live and it’s pretty spontaneous and virtually all the music I like can be performed as good, if not better, as they were in the studio. But you can get too good at them and you need something to change your ways of thinking. If you’re going the same way, mentally you have to come up with something, so I was excited that we were making a record that tapped into this era of music I really love. It was so uncommercial that it came all the way around to being commercial. (Laughs) It was its own world and had its own rules and so it was kind of beyond contemporary.
So I didn’t really have to be concerned with the typical kinds of things you might be concerned with when you’re making a record. When you typically make a record, even if you have no hope of getting on the radio, your record label is going to go ‘well, what can we give to radio?’ And this album has some catchy songs, but at the same time, I was not distracted by that at all. I would love it if people enjoyed Jimmie’s music, but I was also fully prepared that people would have no idea what I was talking about. Which is all the better, because maybe they’ll just enjoy the music and not be too distracted. I wrote a lot about it and know a lot about him, but there’s still quite a lot unknown and I was just as enchanted by the era that Jimmie is from.
TG – We’ve seen the success of a period piece in film like “The Revenant.” Can something like this, which captures the sound of a different era, have the same success?
PB – The funny thing about music is that when you make a movie, let’s say Chinatown, it’s still ultimately a really good story. There are some movies that distract you because they’re trying to be from a different time and that’s more interesting than the story. With music I think there’s always going to be someone out in the audience who has never heard a clarinet, or who has never seen an upright bass and really heard what it can do to a band. There are probably a lot of people who have never really been hit by music. They’re distracted by their phones or whatever, I get it, but if you were to take their phones away and really make them listen, they’d probably be knocked out. I don’t think the power of the music has diminished.
Paul Burch plays Sid Gold’s Request Room in NYC on Thursday, March 3. For tickets, click here