Burle – a roundabout entry into the Telluride Bluegrass Blog Contest.
In reading a collection of short stories by Ernest Hemingway the other night I came upon a quote that made me think of a somewhat obscure, though incredibly talented songwriter, Benny “Burle” Galloway. If you’ll indulge me, in 1938 Hemingway wrote:
“In going where you have to go, and doing what you have to do, and seeing what you have to see, you dull and blunt the instrument you write with. But I would rather have it bent and dull and know I had to put it on the grindstone again and hammer it into shape and put a whetstone to it, and know that I had something to write about, than to have it bright and shining and nothing to say, or smooth and well-oiled in the closet, but unused.”
I’ve had the pleasure to get to know Burle over the years. We were neighbors for a spell, though I use the term, “neighbor” loosely since a river ran between our properties and an old bridge filled with gaps looking down to the rushing waters below was the only way to travel over for a visit. But visits were made. Several years ago Burle would host “writing workshops” for the bluegrass musicians in the area. I put this term in quotes because the nights were more like the grainy footage that’s out there where Guy Clarke, Steve Earl, Townes Van Zandt and others are seen passing guitars around, sharing stories, with a table of illicit contraband between them (we were no Guy, Steve and Townes, but we had the guitars and the table). Great songwriting came out of these nights. Great friendships were forged like only close knit snowed in nights at 7500 feet in rural Colorado can do. And there was talent: Travis Book who is now singing some of the songs of these long ago evenings with the Infamous Stringdusters; Anders Beck, performing with Greensky Bluegrass at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival this summer (their “Nightgrass” show at the Sheridan Opera House on June 20th is not to be missed). And to throw in obscurity, Chris Becker, one of Oklahoma’s best, keeping the strong folk history of that river twisting, plains state alive and well.
While we were sitting around keeping warm by whatever means necessary on those winter nights, Burle has his own irons in the fire – words and melodies being sent out to bands, recorded in kitchens, at the local community radio station, sometimes if small miracles came together, in an actual studio. And the songs were wonderful. The Telluride Bluegrass Festival has been an outlet, a creative and open arena to showcase many of Burle’s songwriting escapades. From a raucous night of Yonder Mountain String Band opening up Festival Weekend at the Telluride Conference Center by stretching out, “Years with Rose,” to the downright graceful rendering of, “Poor Boy’s Delight” with the Infamous Stringdusters on the main stage. Perhaps driven by fan request there was even a rare appearance of the “Wayword Sons” at the 2007 festival – a band consisting of Burle, Anders Beck, a wonderful keyboard player named Greg Audrulis and again to throw out the obscurity: one of the finest flat pick guitar players in the nation, Robin Davis. The set was a treat. From Dirk Powell to Drew Emmitt, Del McCoury to Tim O’Brien – it’s often a pleasant surprise to see what musicians have a connection to a Burle song.
So back to the quote. I know that Burle has lived the life of his songs. He once told me, in a way that only Burle could, “Never write anything true, the audience wants to hear a story, not some sappy crap about you being in love.” Well the man hasn’t heeded his own words there. When I hear a Benny “Burle” Galloway song, I hear him going where he needs to go, doing what he has to do and seeing what he has to see as he dulls and blunts the instrument he writes with.
Songwriting in modern bluegrass, folk, acoustic minded music and alt-country is stellar. As a blogger for No Depression I’d like to explore the songwriting angle of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. The event continues to be that creative and open arena and I would like to talk to musicians about how they, “Put it on the grindstone again and hammer it into shape” through their songs and through their lives.