Musicians with a personal sound and a will to elude genre classification are not exactly a rarity, but it’s hard to find one with a method as thought through as the young Paul Burch. “When I got to Nashville, I was so not into modern music,” he says. “I didn’t really listen to anything other than what Lambchop made in the basement and records made before 1950.” Lambchop is the long-running, roots rock art collective led by Kurt Wagner that took Burch in as a fellow traveler in the 1990s. The rest of it was a kind of mind-clearing asceticism.
“Musicians want to connect. And I wasn’t connecting,” Burch explains in Episode 127 of The String. “Everybody was listening to Neil Young and Bob Dylan. And I wanted to go to a world where that didn’t exist. And I love Neil Young’s music, and I love Bob Dylan’s music, but I just didn’t want to talk about it...I didn’t want to reference anybody’s records. I wanted to go somewhere where that world was not going to interfere with being creative.”
To be sure, Burch was always identified with the alternative country movement, covered in the early issues of No Depression magazine for a sound that feels like vintage honky tonk and old-time rock and roll. But from the early days through his eleventh album Light Sensitive, he leaves a sensation that he took a different set of roads and maps to these destinations than most of the alt-country, retro-billy set.
It’s a refined approach and one that invests copious amounts of trust in his musical collaborators and bandmates. It draws on literature and history and a fondness for piquant sounds from the harmonium to the accordion to the clarinet. And over time, this built and accreted into what roots music authority Peter Guralnick deemed “a body of work of such cleverness and coherence, careful craftsmanship and white-hot heat, with all the zeal of the most dedicated student and all the passion of a true original.”
Burch grew up near Washington, DC in a family deeply connected to visual arts and music. He saw icons of country and folk early on and took those interests to the drums, guitar and piano. After college in Indiana, he moved to Music City at the urging of his friend Jay McDowell. They briefly formed a rockabilly band, with Burch on drums. Before long, they were reviving Nashville’s downtown music scene from different bars, McDowell and BR549 at Robert’s Western World and Burch with his WPA Ballclub at Tootsie’s a couple of doors down on Lower Broadway.
The first Burch with WPA album came along in 1996, ushering in a remarkable run of songwriting, touring and collaboration. He’s recorded or performed with Ralph Stanley, Candi Staton, Mark Knopfler, Charlie Louvin, Ray Price and Laura Cantrell among others. He performed at Barack Obama’s White House and made an acclaimed anthology of Buddy Holly songs. Whatever he’s done, it’s always had a grounding in soulful swing, surprising musical allusions and letting his band speak a contemporary language.
All this is true of Light Sensitive, a collection of impressionist glimpses of southern locales and characters, of romantic allure, of jet age travel, exotic cocktails and fortune telling cryptograms. It opens with “Love Came Back,” featuring washy tremolo electric guitar, a fringe-shaking twist and a quandary: is a new love the real thing or the “devil in disguise”? Several songs investigate historically grounded minglings of life and art in Mobile, AL through the story of renaissance man Eugene Walter. Those were born from a commission from the Southern Foodways Alliance and spread out to infuse the whole album. I love “The Tell,” a kind of mellow jangle pop number, “Glider,” a parlor instrumental featuring longtime WPA member Fats Kaplin and “23rd Artillery Punch,” one of the most imaginative odes to a cocktail you’ve ever heard.
Special guests here speak to Burch’s history and web of relationships, including Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi All-Stars, roots rocker Amy Rigby, English folk mystic Robyn Hitchcock and East Nashville original Aaron Lee Tasjan. Burch co-produced with his 25-year bandmate and star bass player Dennis Crouch. Burch says in our talk that he set the sessions up in a circle with a remote record button at his side. They’d learn each song fast and he’d punch the button before things got too thought out. The results feel great, like intuitive and natural sound-making by a trusted circle of skilled artisans. It feels like what Burch had in mind all along.