Burr started thanks to a break

Brian Wahlert, September 1997

Talk about getting your big break. Gary Burr, writer of hits like Tim McGraw's "Can't Be Really Gone," Patty Loveless's "I Try to Think About Elvis," Doug Stone's "Too Busy Being in Love," Lorrie Morgan's "Watch Me," and Ty Herndon's "What Mattered Most," first got into music when he broke his leg playing high school soccer.

"That was how I learned how to play the guitar. You know, I just was flat on my back, so I had to do something. And that was a great time. That was back when the first Crosby, Stills & Nash album (came out), the Beatles's 'White Album,' 'Abbey Road,' stuff like that. It was just a great musical time. If you were gonna be flat on your back and have to sit there in a room and listen to albums, it was a good time to do it."

So like many teenagers of his day, Burr played guitar along with Beatles music. But how did he discover his knack for songwriting?

"Really it comes down to the simple fact that in all the bands that I loved, the rhythm guitar players all wrote the songs. So I just took it as my job to write the songs for the band. I was the guy with six strings, so I win."

Burr moved on from the Martin Beck Memorial Band to a stint with country rock band Pure Prairie League in the early Eighties. "We played in that band out in northern California for a while to try to get rich and famous and become rock gods, and they didn't need any more rock gods. They were filled up at the moment."

After a failed solo record deal (although he earlier had released one album in the '70's), Burr moved on to songwriting full time. While he had a few hits in the Eighties, most of his success has been in the Nineties, culminating with songwriter of the year awards from "Billboard" magazine and the Nashville Songwriters Association International in 1994 and ASCAP in 1995.

What caused the rise to songwriting superstar?

"Probably moving to Nashville. I did a lot of my beginning career from Connecticut where I lived, and then I moved to Nashville in '89, and it took me a couple years of acclimating and then just keeping my head down and working real hard. It's a very streaky business. I had a lot of things fall into place three or four years ago that made for one heck of a little tiny career in the middle of a long career."

That "tiny career" has included such hits as Diamond Rio's "In a Week or Two," Collin Raye's "Man of My Word" and John Berry's "What's In It for Me."

So which does Burr himself pick as his favorite song that he's written?

"The one I like the most is probably a song called 'Silence Is King' (recorded by Tanya Tucker). It was not a single or anything, and not many people have heard it."

When it's pointed out that this is a dark, dreary song, Burr responds with typical tongue-in-cheek humor, "Yeah, I'm a very dark, morose guy. I have a lot of inner demons. But luckily, they all like to party, so it all evens out."

On the other hand, if he had to sell his entire library of songs except for one, the one that will go on to become a classic and help pay the bills for years to come, which one would he keep?

"Probably 'That's My Job.' (a Conway Twitty hit) Basically, more for selfish reasons than for financial reasons. Not that I think it's a classic, but it's a song I wrote for my father, and it means a lot to people I still get letters from people that say that when they heard it on Father's Day, they called their dad after 10 years of estrangement or whatever, and that makes me feel really good. So I'd hang on to that one."

Just like musicians, songwriters have their heroes, and considering that Burr says, "Every time I write an uptempo, I'm just trying to rip off 'Love Me Do' (the Beatles' first single)," his biggest hero is no surprise.

"I always say I don't want to meet my idols because I like them to stay idols, but if I ever had the chance to write with Paul McCartney, that's who I'd want to write with. I also want to write with Harlan Howard. I've never done that, and I really would love to. And that's just a question of too much awe."

Burr also has ideas about who he would like to see record his songs. "Well, for years it was George Jones, and then I had the thrill of having him record one of my songs ("A Thousand Times a Day," later made a hit by Patty Loveless), so that took care of that. I don't know if I'm ever going to crack the real country guys, but I'd like to. I'd like to think that a song can be recorded by anybody and just sung differently. So there are some country traditional singers here in town that I would love to get cuts by. I've never had a song recorded by George Strait. I'd love something like that."

Many critics claim that the quality of the music coming out of Nashville these days is substantially lower than that of five years ago. Burr has his own thoughts, however.

"I think that for a while there, we were the only place to go to hear songs, so we gained a lot of a rock audience, and now rock has sort of corrected that. You've got good songwriters singing good songs again, so you can listen to an alternative radio station and not be appalled.

"You've got a really shrinking playlist in radio today. If an act has a choice between making a wonderful, deep statement that is going to be a hard sell for their promotion department to get across or a light, happy, radio, roll-down-your-window, sing-and-snap-your-fingers that radio will play in a heartbeat, there's too much money involved. They're going to go for the happy, snappy, roll-down-the-window."

"I don't think there's anything wrong with the state of country music and certainly not the state of country songwriting. There may be a problem with what radio is willing to invest their time on."

Burr has many talents that aren't as well-known as his songwriting. He produced "The Best of Country Sing the Best of Disney," an album of country artists singing Disney songs that got a CMA nomination. He just finished recording a live album "of me singing the hits that I've written," and he's also in the beginning stages of a studio album.

And in terms of songwriting, what's in Burr's future?

"I have the title cut from Billy Ray Cyrus's greatest hits album that's out now that I'm hoping will be a single. I've got a couple on Chely Wright's new album that I'm hoping will come out. I have something on Michael Bolton's next album. Things like that. It's hard to talk about it because you wear your knuckles out knocking on wood, but I've got a lot of things lined up, and if a majority of them come through, I'll have a good year."

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher • countrystandardtime@gmail.com