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On His Third Album ‘Traffic Fiction,’ Tré Burt Swerves

Mary Ellen Matthews

John Prine founded Oh Boy Records in 1981 as one of Nashville’s earliest artist-owned record companies and as a vehicle mostly for Prine’s own work. The boutique label was extremely selective, to put it mildly, when Prine was alive about signing or releasing new artists. That changed in 2019 when Oh Boy signed Kentucky country songwriter Kelsey Waldon, and by that point, with Prine’s fame and admiration at peak levels in Americana music and beyond, getting signed to the company was a sure-fire way to earn a lot of instant attention and curiosity. Enter Tré Burt.

Prine’s son Jody Whelan had taken on a leadership role at Oh Boy and he found Burt’s independently released solo album Caught It From The Rye when Burt had about 100 Spotify followers. He was a Sacramento-based folk troubadour who’d been scuffling in obscurity, and the label said this when it re-issued the opus and announced Burt’s signing to the company: “The album showcases Burt's literary songwriting and lo-fi, rootsy aesthetic, which he honed busking on the streets of San Francisco and traveling the world in search of inspiration.”

For we journalism types and I expect a lot of roots music fans, the reaction was more like, wow he sounds like Bob Dylan. Burt knows it and made a pre-emptive remark about it in our interview for Episode 268 of The String. The reedy voice, piquant fingerstyle guitar and the confessional-meets-mystical lyrics definitely evoked the bard of Minnesota.

In the opening track “What Good,” he sings of regret for letting friends and connections fade with time: “No, we don't talk like we used to do in the meadows of our youth/But you're a part of the last good truth 'fore this yellow took my tooth.” And those of us who tuned in for the one and only reason that John Prine himself had signed off on bringing a new African American folk singer on board his label quickly understood there was a powerful voice here, a seasoned and worldly traveler who’d paid his dues.

In our conversation, Burt remembers the first time John Prine made an impression on him, hanging out with other musicians at a creative space in San Francisco. Somebody played a record of Prine singing “Fish And Whistle,” with its uncanny mix of the sardonic and the serious.

“It felt kind of violating at first, because it was as if somebody reached out and poked me listening to the song coming out the speaker,” Burt says. “Because it sounded almost unlike a song and more just like somebody talking about whatever's going on in their head to a melody. And that feeling stuck with me. So to be signed to (Prine’s) record label now means more than words, because it did shape how I approach a song in that moment. It tilted my brain and made me think about songwriting in a different way.”

We cover a lot of ground in this conversation - the timely and exceptional influence of his older brother on Tré’s origins with the guitar, the impact that years of busking had on his performing style and guitar technique, the inspiration of a couple of forebears on his grounding in the blues, how odd jobs and living in his car kept him afloat for years as he honed his music, and how the pandemic had some unexpected benefits for an artist who suddenly became the object of much scrutiny.

But we start with the most obvious question springing from Burt’s third Oh Boy album Traffic Fiction. Where did this new sound come from, this fusion of soul, dub, folk, and what he calls “existential pop”?

“I'd say that sound was always there,” he tells me, adding that this apparent shift of gears was by design. “With the first two records, I wanted to see if people could accept me at the most minimalist version of the songs. And then if I have you, then I could take you to this deeper world than that is Traffic Fiction. I finally got to a place where I felt like I could present the sound that I've always been kind of working for in the back of my head throughout the years.”

And that’s perhaps the dominant impression I was left with upon meeting Burt for the first time - that from the time he began writing and expressing himself through music, he’s embraced growth, change, and sacrifice.

“I'm pretty competitive. I grew up playing sports. So once I started, you know, having some songs to play at open mics and seeing songwriters who were better than me, I wanted to be like them,” he says. “I wanted to be at their level. So I would try and write material that was up to their caliber. And play that at an open mic and another open mic. And it just kept leading me down this path of I think I actually want to be really good at this. Not necessarily like I want to be professional. I just love a craft that's endless - that keeps you working forever. And there's no perfecting it. Just an endless meditation.”

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of <i>The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org</i>