We’re circling back to interview subject Paul Burch not because he just sprang some audio-visual spectacle on the world without any warning. (That was Beyoncé.) There was, quite simply, more to say about Fevers, the East Nashville musician’s loose and lively latest album, his many other projects in progress and the creative philosophies that keep him and his bandmates in the WPA Ballclub from burning out.
CMT Edge: The idea of performance over perfection is something you’ve been pursuing for a while, isn’t it? I remember reading an interview in which you talked about how the recordings of yesteryear strove for magic in just a few takes.
Burch: I’ve tried a really tricky thing for me, which is to not only play with musicians I really like personally but also whose playing I love. I try to provide an environment where they feel really free to be themselves. … If they’re kinda bored, maybe I’m not presenting it right.
I noticed you devote much of the “news” section on your website to spotlighting other endeavors of your past and present bandmates, which jibes with cultivating a studio atmosphere in which they feel free and inspired to try out their musical ideas. What’s fed that spirit of camaraderie?
I think you’re very right-on — and thank you for noticing — about the effort to make our studio experience as musical as possible. That came somewhat out of necessity. Even though the same group of musicians wanted to be “in” the band — and I wanted that, as well — the reality of always having the exact same group working on the road or in the studio was not possible. Nashville is too volatile.
So I made that my advantage. By having, say, two great bassists and two great drummers, each with their own strengths, I could mix up the sound of the sessions depending on what I think the song needed. So the band became kind of like an actor’s group. Some might play a small part on one record and a larger part on another record. …
A WPA session is typically about 45 minutes of music, one or two takes, and the rest talking about baseball or great organ players. We have a good time. I hope that my sessions can be a sort of refuge from the music business, a place where they can be themselves. I love mistakes. It’s a mistake that I’m in the music business at all.
Certain older song sources are continually mined by current acts. But I can’t remember the last time I heard somebody cover Tennessee Ernie Ford, as you have here.
(laughs) Hey, Tennessee Ernie Ford made some great records. That particular song [“Ocean of Tears”] was a song I used to sing at Tootsie’s [Orchid Lounge in Nashville] when we played in the honky-tonks. … It’s a great little tune. And like a lot of tunes from that time, they were done a little too commercial. … If you can just kind of slow it down and be as expressive with it as you can, you’ll start to find your voice and you’ll start to forget about what the original sounded like, and you can go somewhere different with it.
I’m glad you brought up Tootsie’s. People seem to wax nostalgic for that period during the ‘90s when honky-tonk music saw a youthful revival on Nashville’s Lower Broadway. You and the WPA Ballclub were right in the middle of that scene. Now that you’re closing in on the band’s 20th anniversary, what’s your perspective on those days?
My perspective hasn’t changed very much. I’m really glad I’m not playing down there anymore, but I had a ball. I really felt completely lucky and excited to be playing down there because it was exactly what I wanted.
It changed me as a musician. It changed me as a writer. It was really challenging. It was really fun. It was wonderful to feel like you were part of a scene, especially when it was really just about music. That was the disarming thing about it. … It was really about music. It was not about how you dressed or how you looked.
It was very focused on this really small period of music that, for me as a writer, is really exciting still, right after WWII and before Elvis. … There was this interest in self-expression, with Hank Williams and early George Jones and then Roger Miller and Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson and Vic McAlpine and the early writers who were here. They were completely making new territory. The idea of actually singing your own song and having that be an extension of your personality and your creative process, that was really heavy, and it affected everybody.
Discovering that era of country music was like discovering a relative that you were told to stay away from and to finally meet them and find out that they were very cool and interesting and quirky. It was like the other half of the picture. … All the sudden, I heard all the country that was in rock ‘n’ roll.
What is on the horizon for you?
We’ll be appearing at South by Southwest at the Continental Club for a Plowboy Records night with Alejandro Escovedo, as well as some other Plowboy artists. We’ve also been talking about doing a tour of record stores to promote the 65th anniversary of the first 45 [RPM record] which was “Cattle Call” by Eddy Arnold.
There will be some more shows for Fevers, too, if anyone will have us. I’m working on an album of songs from the viewpoint of Jimmie Rodgers that we’ve already recorded a few tracks for that will feature a wide range of artists and styles.
My thought is that each song will have a different musical backing that reflects Jimmie’s love and affiliation with a lot of different kinds of music: jazz, Hawaiian, different blues styles, etc. … Ideally, it might be like a musical Robert Altman film — a lot of interesting people and voices — but we’ll see.