The Amazing run of Curtis Burch (part 2)
He nodded at my guitar and said: “It’s a tough life, ain’t it?” from “Beat the Devil”
“Nashville is like crawling on broken glass”, says Curtis Burch as he continued to talk about New Grass Revival and the years he spent touring in what is now called the First Classic line-up of NGR. We chatted back and forth about his professional music experience in the Nashville music scene and I, having witnessed so many other musician stories during the time I had lived in Nashville, understood exactly what he had meant by that statement. A line from a Shawn Mullins song rippled through my head as Curtis sipped his iced tea., “Seems like everybody here’s got a plan, kinda like Nashville with a tan” “You know at the time we lived there it could take you half and hour to go two miles. We came back to Kentucky and we would just commute to Nashville if there was a need.” I laughed and added, “Yeah and that was before 440? Right?” In that moment of laughter and commensuration, Curtis realized he had had his sunglasses on the whole time. I had to chuckle a little at his embarrassment, “I don’t care. It wasn’t botherin’ me.” and I put my hand to mouth to suppress yet another chuckle and wanting to say, “Well you are a Rock Star.”, and there by earning the eccentric right of sitting in an indoor public place wearing shades.
And though not a rock music star, Curtis Burch has now for over half a century been a professional musician who has stood on stage with numerous music legends—too many to mention—and more than twice that many have asked him to record with them. His ‘status’ as an artist in the music world these days is one of awe and reverence, regardless of the genre.
“We (NGR) signed to Flying Fish Records out of Chicago.” talking about right after John Cowan joined New Grass Revival, “We made five records with that label. We still had full artistic control…” he raised his eyebrows and widened his eyes to reinforce his own disbelief to me. They told us we could pick our studio. We just kept on making music like we had before.”
Perhaps I didn’t dig deep enough to find any chart listings for any of those records, but the fact that NGR recorded five albums on Flying Fish is testimony enough. Though as Curtis said, “No one knew where to put us.” So which chart tracked them? A review of Fly Through the Country by James Leary in Folklore Forum dated 1976 states simply that “it is a mixture of solid instrumentation, witty eclecticism, and raw excitement” and that seemed to be the running theme to every review written about their albums on Flying Fish Records.
“We stopped playing at Bluegrass Festivals and did more Americana venues. We started touring all over the United States. We toured the whole country two or three times. You have to play the DC area. Everybody plays DC. It’s just one of those big things to get your name out. I think the Midwest was the hardest for us. Nobody knew who we were. It was the 1973 & 1974 Telluride Festivals that helped get us known there and out West.”
Somewhere in amongst the five records and the tire-eating tour schedule is the beginning of the Leon Russell years. As Curtis tells the story, he does tell it like Leon Russell is an event in his career instead of a legendary musician. In doing basic research, I discovered that quite a bit of material about Leon Russell barely mentions New Grass Revival. One reference does describe NGR as “Leon Russell’s bluegrass band.” Contrary to that is the material on NGR that nearly always mentions touring with Leon Russell. What is undeniable is that one did influence the other.
The relationship between New Grass Revival and Leon Russell began with Butch Robins, a former NGR member. Robins was doing session work with Russell, who at the time was venturing into the Country and Western genre, when Robins planted the seed. Robins mentioned to Leon Russell, that he should look at New Grass Revival. Robins also pointed out to Russell that NGR covered one of Russell’s songs and it was a favorite with NGR fans, that song being “Prince of Peace.”
At the height of his “rock star” fame Leon Russell recorded “Hank Wilson’s Back I” under the name Hank Wilson. In 1973 Chet Flippo of Rolling Stone magazine wrote this about that record:
It’s become a stale joke in Nashville that rock singers who come around to cut with Nashville cats are either seeking first aid for an ailing career, or trying to ease over into country careers. Some suspected that Leon Russell may have been brooding on the second possibility when he transformed himself into Hank Wilson earlier this year and cut 36 songs in marathon sessions with some of Nashville’s finest. But now that Vol. I is out, it seems clear as spring water that he did it just because he loves the music.
Leon Russell, now catching the occasional swat of condemnation that New Grass Revival had always endured, continued on as well by joining forces with Willie Nelson for Nelson’s first Fourth of July concert bash and he kept doing them. Right along 1979 that seed that Butch Robins had planted started sprouting and Leon Russell called New Grass Revival and asked them to be the opening act on his next tour. Curtis clearly remembers Leon stating, “I like Willie’s boys, but they can’t play my music.” And with that New Grass Revival became two entities—themselves and Leon Russell’s band.
“It was unbelievable opportunity,” said Curtis reflecting on touring with Leon Russell, “He was huge and here we are opening for him and then playing with him.” But it didn’t take long for things to change. As New Grass Revival started growing in popularity with the fans that flocked to see Leon Russell, the members of NGR noticed their set list, the time that saw just New Grass Revival had on stage, was being shortened bit by bit. Eventually the individual presence of NewGrass Revival had all but disappeared.
Musically unhappy and discontented with the hard life of constant touring that included stops in Europe, Japan and Australia let alone a grueling schedule in the United States, something withered inside NGR. Desperately wanting to end the hardship it put on their families, both Curtis Burch and Courtney Johnson made the decision to leave New Grass Revival. Curtis returned to western Kentucky and took up the trade of an electrician.
Right away musicians, producers and even friends started calling asking him to play on projects and albums. Before he knew it he was headed back down the road of touring constantly again. He did his best to limit his time away from his family, but as the years rolled on Curtis realized he was working and playing more than he had with New Grass Revival. Yet the love Curtis had for making music was continually pushing him on to the next new project.
In 1993 old friends Tut Taylor and Jerry Douglas asked Curtis to contribute to a project they were calling The Great Dobro Sessions. The starting idea was to have a collective of world renowned Dobro players record different tracks. Each player was to bring two original tunes to the record. Regardless of how the album started, ideas shifted and the result was the 1995 Grammy Award winner for Best Bluegrass Album. I asked about a story I’d heard from Mitchell Plumlee that involved a water heater and that Grammy. Curtis rolled his eyes and coughed it up with a sigh, like a favorite uncle reluctant to recount his glory days. He went on to talk about Jerry Douglas. Curtis said, “Just being nominated is a big deal and is enough for a lot of people…me included. Jerry has won, I don’t know maybe thirty Grammys alone, not to mention all the other awards.” And he tapped the table hard to make his point, “Now that’s tall cotton.”
I have to agree, but Jerry Douglas is only one of a great many outstanding musicians that seek out Curtis Burch to record or perform live with them. Another life-long friend, Norman Blake, recruited Curtis for the soundtrack of O Brother Where Art Thou. And while those two head-lining achievements are of course the ones that are more commonly known to the general populace, it is really the multitude of his other work that heralds Curtis Burch as a master of his craft-a Dobro player. Even the creators of the instrument –the Dopyera Family—have awarded Curtis with the John Dopyera Award for Achievement and Excellence in the Art of Dobro Playing.
After reading through all the names listed on his website and all the others mentioned here and there in pages of cross referenced material, I realized that the last few years weren’t recorded anywhere and so I e-mailed Curtis to ask if he wouldn’t mind bringing me current. Once again I had to shake my head at his response. Trying to comprehend just how much the hand of Curtis Burch has shaped the ever changing landscape of American music, I thought about the colors and images in any Edward Hopper painting. There in a composition of an every day scene is the simple beauty of an artist’s love for what he does.
A few of the artists that have recently wanted the essence of Curtis Burch to be heard in their music are Larry Keel, David Via, and Larry Weiss, never mind all the others that are simple reoccurring request or his bounty of friends. Like the Robert Frost line, ‘miles to go before I sleep’, Curtis’ journey through that landscape seems to be far from over. As with any true master, Curtis started teaching and has since 1986. To pass to the next generation his gift and passion he’s taken it to a new level at the suggestion of yet another music legend, Bobby Osborne, at the Kentucky School of Bluegrass and Traditional Music in Hayden, KY.
Years ago, in a moment of spontaneity on stage that would become tradition and yet morphed again into an ironic prediction, Sam Bush asked a concert crowd if they knew ‘what time it was?’ Sam answered the crowd that night by saying it was ‘Dobro Time’. That act of guffaw between friends was truncated to ‘Dr Time’ and then transformed itself again into ‘Dr. Dobro Time’. Now and forever known as Dr. Dobro, Curtis Burch continues to share his love of music, life, family, and even Kentucky with humanity.
In my own moment of impulse as Curtis and I left that little sandwich shop on Russellville Road, I asked electrician, teacher, Doctor Dobro and artist Curtis Burch, “What one place in Kentucky inspires you the most?” He smiled big and said, “Home. Home does.” He waved and slipped his sunglasses back on and said, “Gotta run now. See ya.”
I was still shaking my head. It’s just not every day that you get to sip iced tea with a living legend.
Orginally published in my home publication http://www.bgdailynews.com/amplifier/