"A Musical Shakespearean-like Aside":
By Charles Spano

Tony Earley writes stories of the South, with a sense of historynot the broad strokes of school books, but the details of everyday life that build a time and place. A man recounts the local myths of his town as his beard grows ever longer, a boy sees beyond his childhood world or a narrator mourns that the local professional wrestlers have packed up their BMWs and left Charlotte for Atlanta. These, too, are the routes that Nashville singer/songwriter Paul Burch’s music travels. With ballads and ditties that would do Hank Williams and Johnny Cash proud, Burch conjures images of trailerparks and truckstops, love and love gone wrongthe simple ins and outs of living that sculpt the nuances of existence. It seems fitting, then, that the two friends should collaborate, and maybe that’s the best way to describe Paul Burch’s album Last of My Kind. Earley provided the narrative with his Twain-esque, depression era novel Jim the Boy, and Burch composed the first soundtrack to a book (that I know of, anyway), not just to capture the characters and the mood in music, but to give the book a set of songs that could have come from the world contained between its covers.

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Paul Burch has the same glasses as my girlfriend. They’re small and rectangularon a girl they look sexy, but on a guy they’re endearing and a little bit impish. They make Burch look quite a lot like Sean Lennon as he stands alone on stage, opening for alt-country wunderkind Ryan Adams, at the Theater of the Living Arts in Philadelphia. Burch asks the crowd if he should leave the new glasses on or off. Philadelphia says "leave them on." Boston told him to take them off, he informs us. "My beautiful wife picked them out for me," Burch later tells me about the glasses. "And, although I find them quite stylish and suave-looking, to see an audience through them makes it appear that I’m watching a letterbox movie on a small screen."

If Paul Burch’s view is cinematic, though, it is definitely a big screen affair. Think Altman’s Nashville, or character movies with lots of close-ups. His songs require the space for subtlety, like emotions playing across a film actor’s face. Burch’s set at the TLA is sublime, calmly moving from one tune to the next, wrapping the audience in the storytelling. Even the faster numbers feel hushed, and a small crowd, enough in-the-know to catch a brilliant opening act, stands transfixed. I can’t help feeling that its for performances and connections like these that Paul Burch became a musician. In the liner notes to Last of My Kind, he explains, "When I was Jim Glass’s age, I found a picture of Roy Acuff and his Smokey Mountain Boys performing in the late 1930’s. Since the photo was taken from behind the band, you could see the audience paying rapt attention as Acufffiddle in hand, singing into the sole microphoneled the Boys, probably in a version of 'Precious Jewel': '…way back in the hills as a boy I wandered.' One day, I thought, I wanted to play in a band like that." At the TLA, Burch is there, his boyhood dream in full effect. He tells the audience, only half joking, "I’m trying to save country music from itself."

Ryan Adams’ performance is something entirely differenta full scale rock and roll event, where you could hear Black Flag and Elton John covers side by side. And when Adams’ calls Burch out to join the band, we get a complete idea of the country troubadour’s diversity. Though Adams claims that Burch is having a bad day, you’d never know it to see him. He sits in for almost all of Adams’ show, rocking along on his acoustic guitar with such energy, enthusiasm and, seemingly, bountiful happiness. Burch speaks fondly and humorously of his experience on tour with Adams when I ask him about it. "Well," he responds, "so far I’ve sung with Elton John, beat Ryan twice at pool, played to 10,000 more people than I had the week before, made my house payment and learned how to pee on a moving bus while it drives in rush hour traffic. It’s been a good tour, thanks for asking."

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Paul Burch is barely more serious when discussing his album, Last of My Kind. His friendship with Tony Earley, and the collaboration that grew out of it, began when the two worked connected day jobs. Burch’s explanation is characteristically self-deprecating. "Tony and I worked at Vanderbilt—he as a teacher, and I as a shoe polisher." He continues, a little more earnestly, "I used to be the secretary to send his manuscripts to his editor in New York City. After reading the near-finished proof [of Jim the Boy], I called him to tell him how much I liked his book and offered to write some songs on what I thought so we could do a reading and musical performance for Nashville’s Southern Festival of Books. Tony kindly said, ‘go for it,’ and, to my surprise, an album was written in about two months." The album that Burch speaks of has the sound of the Carter Family, the feeling of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music and is as compelling as the popular and critically acclaimed soundtrack to the Coen Brothers' film O Brother, Where Art Thou. Burch explains in the record’s liner notes, "My intention was to compose a kind of musical Shakespearean-like aside so the characters could speak to us as they would to their souls." The effect is stunning. The songs are as intimate and personal as someone’s inner dialogues, whether Burch is singing about the game of life "up on the mountain where the honeysuckle grows…the world below laid out plain for me to see like a board of Monopoly," ("Up On the Mountain") or recounting the story of a murderous farmer in the spooky "Harvey Hartsell’s Farm." "For awhile I had wanted to make a record that was pretty straight, what we now call old time country," Burch tells me. "And I had wanted to approach songwriting from some other direction other than personal/journal type writing or craftsmanship writing. Writing Last of My Kind was, for me, an opportunity to do just that. An attempt to do some kind of ‘pure writing,’ a combination of personal and craftsmanship writing. It was like a kind of writing puzzle. In the end, the record did become personal but within the context of these near flesh and blood characters." It sounds like Burch is a novelist, and the result of his "writing puzzle" is consistent with this notion: a period album that sounds from the past but with a contemporary relevance and resonance that make it just as poignant as a current historical novelBurch just might be rescuing country music from itself.

Tony Earley gives Paul Burch the greatest praise for Last of My Kind. "I found the songs so dead-on in voice and feeling," Earley says in the liner notes, "that hearing them was actually eerie. I had the distinct and unexpected pleasure of hearing characters that I had created saying things that I hadn’t written. These people that I have come over the years to think of as real never seemed to me more alive than they did as I listened to Paul’s songs."

The breadth of Burch’s aspirations stretch wide. He ponders, sincerely I think, "I would like to hear these songs on a musical or Broadway stage. That would be hip." When I ask Burch if he would ever consider doing a soundtrack for a film, his response is extremely positive, and when I question what kind of movie it would have to be, he is jokingly glib: "one that pays," he says. As for doing more songs to books? Burch gets serious. "I’m sure I would try to write songs around a book again, but it won’t ever be quite the same. This was a really extraordinary event for me. It came at a good time when so many other things in my life were new."