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Conversation: Aaron Burdett’s Hard-Working Songs Of Appalachia

Aaron Burdett
Sandlin Gaither

Asheville and Nashville literally rhyme, and that’s nice, but the two music cities do genuinely resonate with one another. As two of the most important hubs of Americana, just five hours apart by car, artists are in constant interchange down Interstate 40, and what’s good for one scene tends to be good for the other. Which brings me to songwriter Aaron Burdett and the perplexing but solvable problem that he’s far better known and admired in his western North Carolina home base than in Music City, even though his work would sit confidently on any shelf or stage where one might find the lineage of Cowboy Jack Clement, Tim O’Brien and John Prine.

Burdett was in Nashville recently for his first-ever show at The Station Inn, a landmark for acoustic music where he’d never even attended a show. We met the next morning for the audio interview featured here.

Craig Havighurst interviews Aaron Burdett

Let’s take it from Martin Anderson, music director for influential Blue Ridge radio station WNCW, who was asked by a magazine a few years ago to flag ten albums that told the story of the scene. He cited classics by Doc Watson, the Steep Canyon Rangers, the Honeycutters and Acoustic Syndicate. There were only two contemporary singer-songwriters on his list, veteran folk star Chuck Brodsky and Aaron Burdett.

The album cited there was 2014’s The Fruits Of My Labor, an invigorating acoustic/electric hybrid featuring its working-man tribute title cut as well as “Going Home To Carolina,” which won a magazine state song contest. The latter is but one of many songwriting jousts where Burdett has won or been a finalist, including this Fall’s upcoming Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at Merlefest, where he’s performed as an artist as well. Blue ribbons aside, over more than 15 years and eight albums, Burdett has honed a body of work and a clear, persuasive voice that tell the story, at least his story, of contemporary Appalachia. And he’s just released his fourth album on Organic Records, the essential record label of that scene, further validation of the Burdett mojo.

On Dream Rich, Dirt Poor, we continue to learn more about a 46-year-old who mines his personal experience and his home terrain for songs. The title cut is a semi-fictional reflection on having made it through hard times as a family and community. “Rockefeller” is a light-hearted comment on class aspiration that’s done well on bluegrass and Americana radio. “Arlo” captures the factory life of a songwriting friend, largely in words purloined from long conversations. “No Stop Light Town” alludes to the place Burdett grew up and circled back to live today, tiny Saluda, NC, where the population of less than 1,000 hangs in through change, from economic abandonment through a regional renaissance sparked by outdoor recreation, craft beer and music.

Burdett is no bohemian outlier in this stalwart community. About 15 years ago, he launched his own construction company, one that specializes in energy efficient homes.

“I think I probably need both,” Burdett says of music and construction work. “I don't want to be gone for my family all the time. Even now being gone for three or four days, it's kind of frustrating for everybody.” Labor - its fruits and frustrations - is also at the heart of his songs. “Apparently there is a working class sensibility that just comes out naturally. And I don't believe I would have that if I wasn't doing it. A lot of it comes from working, and things going well and things going poorly and you know, learning how to move through the world in that sphere.”

The launch pad for his life-long pursuit of the well-written, well-delivered song was his parents’ record collection. He wrote about his epiphanies in the song “Needle To The Vinyl” from his 2005 self-released debut The Weight Of Words, in which hs discovers Cat Stevens, The Grateful Dead and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

“I'd pick something out and put it on and it could be just anything,” he says. “And I think there was something in the transcendence. I don't remember being a particularly happy child. And I think that music was an escape. It was an indicator that there was something much larger than the experience I was having right there on the ground that day. And that's what we're still chasing.”

Then there was the inevitable encounter and reckoning with local icon Doc Watson. Burdett found himself in an old farmhouse in a living room performance that paired the folk guitar hero and a seven-piece Irish band. For one thing, Doc’s response to the Celtic music, to songs he clearly knew, helped amplify one important thread in Appalachian culture in Burdett's mind. But then Doc played a few songs for the gathering. “And I was just flabbergasted there was there was more music and energy in the room when he played by himself at the front of that room than that entire, loud Irish band. And it was it was tangible, palpable in the room there and everybody felt it.”

That helped inspire Burdett’s guitar playing, which is formidable on both electric and acoustic, while helping form the template for that western North Carolina thing he embraces and exemplifies. It’s a special regional twist on roots that reveres bluegrass and old-time, songwriting, jam band freedom and even touches of world music that have found purchase in Asheville. Wider recognition would be welcome, but it’s not the incentive behind his steady, prolific output. “I can't seem to stop,” he says of the songs and the writing. “I would feel like I was failing myself if I just stopped. I'm a more rounded person for doing it, and it helps me be healthier and happier. Unless something changes that I can't foresee right now, I'm just gonna have to keep doing it.”

Aaron Burdett

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's music news producer and host of The String, a show featuring conversations on culture, media and American music. New episodes of The String air on WMOT 89.5 in Middle Tennessee on Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. Twitter and Instagram: @chavighurst.
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