The songs of Paul Burch are subtle takes on older country music, mostly in its swing- and rockabilly-flavored varieties. They strip traditional country down to its bones, turn it inside out, and build on it anew, asking in the process what it’s all about. As examples of song craft they’re extraordinary, and they’re matched by their instrumental settings in lovely ways. On top of all this they’re mostly sweet, insouciant love songs, and they ought to sneak into your heart and bring a smile when Burch headlines the Kerrytown District Association’s 5th annual NashBash country music festival on Thursday, August 18.
Consider the title track of Burch’s latest, Still Your Man. It has a shuffle beat, and like many of his songs, it begins with a formula:
Boys and girls all around the world
Wonder what life has in store.
Sailor, soldier, judge, police,
Doctor, lawyer, Indian chief.
But then it adds an unexpected twist to this familiar material:
Now Lincoln was a man of destiny.
Maybe you could say the same for me.
Some climb a mountain because they can.
Well, I made my move, and I’m still your man.
Many of Burch’s songs offer a simple lyrical model and then destabilize it with an element that points back toward our preoccupation with love. Or sometimes the image at the center of the lyric may be unusual (“Montreal, we had it all in our hands, and we rolled around like dice”). What he’s trying to do, in the gentlest way, is get us to hear the cliches of country love songs in a new way and to ask what they tell us about love and the part it plays in our lives.
Burch’s band, the WPA Ballclub, provides a perfect instrumental analog for these forms. It’s a small group, with the mannerisms of traditional country–the exaggerated steel guitar notes, the twanging guitars–pared down to a sparse, mostly rhythmic unit. Then quiet but highly original and detailed electric guitar, or another instrument, is added in. The instrumentalists, like the lyrics, find fresh inspiration in their source material.
Burch’s background combines folk, country, rock, and a stint in the hard-to-classify Nashville experimental band, Lambchop. He’s an absolute original who has attracted a core of underground admirers in Music City over the almost fifteen years he’s been at it. With an appearance a couple of years ago at the Ypsilanti Songwriting Festival and now at Nashbash, he’s poised to find a critical mass of people who get his unique creations here as well.