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Paul Burch releases second album first

By Jon Johnson, January 1998

If James Brown is the Hardest Working Man In Show Business, then Paul Burch is one of the busiest. Consider first his solo career, which has resulted in two albums - "Pan-American Flash" and "Wire to Wire" - released on France's Dixie Frog label in a little more than a year.

Also consider his second career, as the vibes player for the Nashville-based Lambchop, who have a sizable following of their own.

The 31-year-old Burch, who is seeing his first album finally released in the States in January, has always had a love for music. "I was real lucky. I heard a lot of stuff. I used to go to the Smithsonian a lot. My dad and mom used to take me and so I heard a lot of string band music. I was crazy for records."

Burch started out as a drummer while living in Indiana and played in a post-high school group with future BR5-49 bassist Jay McDowell. Though Burch describes this group as playing a mixture of rockabilly and old blues numbers, he was also becoming more appreciative of country music as a teenager.

"Probably the first country music besides Johnny Cash I remember hearing (was) Hank Williams. And at the time I thought it was the strangest kind of music. When you think about it, you've got Hawaiian steel and this scratchy fiddle, but the rhythm is almost like old-time jazz. And at the time I was into early swing stuff, like Billie Holiday songs. When I started playing guitar, country music was sort of the easiest thing to get into. Being a drummer, the rhythm made sense, because country rhythm is very clean. When I started singing, I always found it easier to sing older stuff. My guitar style came from a much older sensibility."

At the suggestion of a relative, Burch moved to Boston in the late Eighties and remained there for about six years, hooking up with Bob Chabot and Paul Jost in the Bag Boys, a bluegrass/country band, which underwent a constant musical evolution at the time, depending on who else happened to be in the group.

Burch is still close to the group, sitting in with them whenever in town. In addition, Chabot and Jost guest on one track on "Wire to Wire," a song called "Borrowed and Broke."

By the early '90's, Jay McDowell had relocated to Nashville and Burch relocated there at the urging of both McDowell and a mutual high school friend. "One by one, all of our friends from Indiana moved down here. I initially came down here thinking that I wouldn't be that successful, but I wanted to get better as a musician."

Burch started playing at local clubs with different groupings of musicians and got to know a number of established musicians in the local bluegrass scene, including Ronnie McCoury and the late Bill Monroe.

Burch also played drums in the original line-up of McDowell's immediate pre-BR5-49 rockabilly band, Hellbilly.

"That was kind of my first gig in town and I quit that band to play on Lower Broadway at Tootsie's," Burch says.

At Tootsie's, Burch came to the attention of a local musician named Greg Garing. "Greg liked the way I played, so we started splitting the nights at the back of Tootsie's. A steel player who plays with Bob Dylan named Bucky Baxter saw us one night and really liked us and started bringing all these people to see us. He brought Lucinda Williams. And then John Prine came. Marianne Faithfull was in town for a book signing, and she came, so I sang a bunch of songs with her, old John Lennon songs, Arthur Alexander songs."

Burch hooked up with steel guitarist Paul Niehaus during the Tootsie's shows and started recording what would become "Pan-American Flash" (being released in the U.S. on Jan. 20 on the new Checkered Past label), released on Dixie Frog last year.

"They came in for Fan Fair. They were actually about to go home and a friend of mine said, 'You've got to come down and see my friend.' They were drunk and tired and thought we were the greatest thing they'd ever heard and said, 'Sacre bleu! We really like you!'," at which point Burch began leasing his recordings to the label for distribution.

The new album, "Wire to Wire," continues much in the same vein as the first album and features an appearance on two songs by Riders In the Sky guitarist/vocalist Ranger Doug Greene.

"The band was sufficiently more greased. The first record was several different stories that take place all around the country. The second record was a very deliberate cycle. It starts off in the 'Winner's Circle' (the album's opening track) and finishes up with the horse running much slower ("Long Tall Glass of Water")."

"People (down here) have been very supportive. I get tired of people putting down Nashville, because there's a lot of really good stuff here. The thing that discourages people is the very thing that they want. They want to be accepted and have a hit. But the same engineer who works on an Alan Jackson record might work on our record. The Nashville establishment and the other, less-known, Nashville run on parallel tracks."