The Amazing Run of Curtis Burch (part one)
Any profession or job has the ability to overtake your life. You could be a doctor, a teacher, or an electrician and the demands and challenges to be successful could be monumental, costing you family, friends and irretrievable years. Yet when we think of an artist and their life we rarely examine the reality of any sacrifice or hardship they may have endured, or the sheer volume of work they put out to make it into the limelight. We only envy the glamour, the fame and wealth of their celebrity. Having witnessed that very struggle in so many artists, I could only nod when musician Curtis Burch spoke just above a rasp and said, “The music business will run your life,” he paused and smirked and then added, “If you let it.” I could only emphatically agree as he continued, “I still make music and I love making music, but I did it my way so I kind of run the music in my life”
As one of the founding members of the New Grass Revival, Curtis Burch completely highlights the spirit and heart of this pioneering group of musicians. The ‘unique artistic form’ that the New Grass Revival created has for the most part has always been a beacon of artistic integrity for others to follow.
One of the first things I put forth in my interview with Curtis was that I couldn’t find much of a ‘bio’ on him. Looking perplexed he mentioned his own website www.curtisburch.com and a few others, but I just shook my head. “Curtis there just isn’t much out there. I want to know the rest of your story.” He arched his eyebrows and then gave a little turn to his head as if to size me up and he was about to speak when I just started the conversion myself. “Now according to what I could find you where born in Alabama, right?” “Yeah?” he answered a little leery. “And you started playing music with your family around age 10 or so.” He nodded. “Your father taught you how to play the guitar. So how did you go from the guitar to the Dobro?”
“Well there were always string instruments in our home.” Curtis started into his story, “I started with the guitar, went to the banjo, then the mandolin, the fiddle, the bass and then the Dobro. It was just different than anything else. I heard this sound on the radio. I asked my dad what that instrument was making that sound. I could tell they were using a slide. Dad didn’t know, but he said he’d find out. He found out it was a Dobro. It had been Josh Graves with Flatt and Scruggs I had heard. I bought every record I could find of his. I learned all that he played. I did the same with Scott Jackson and Pete Kirby. I went from there to my own ideas.”
From a mutual friend, musician and writer Mitchell Plumlee, I learned that Curtis at first could not find a Dobro to play and finally discovered that the Dopyera Brothers (part of the family responsible for the invention and manufacturing of the Dobro) were making Dobros in California. Soon after this discovery, Curtis’ dad bought him his first Dobro from the Dopyera Brothers. With that Curtis began a correspondence with the brothers and learned that another Dobro playing musician by the name of Robert ‘Tut’ Taylor lived near to him. The Burch family had since moved from Alabama to Georgia. Curtis and his family lived in Brunswick—on the coast—and Tut lived in Milledgeville close to Macon.
“Now during all this time,” Curtis went on, “all over the South there were all these big music festivals. We went to a good many of them and I was absorbing things, you know. I decided around 1971 to move to Nashville to be closer to the industry. I had a high school friend that had moved there already. I knew a few people there.”
Curtis held up his hand and motioned with his index finger. “I’m gonna back up a minute. During one of these music festivals I had seen Sam Bush play. Months before I had decided to move I had seen Sam play with the Bluegrass Alliance at the Boars Nest in Savannah. We had gone back to his hotel room and jammed. I realized that Sam was doing what I wanted to be doing.”
Once in Nashville, Curtis started work at GTR, (George Gruhn, Tut Taylor, and Randy Woods) a well known guitar/banjo shop. It was also during this brief period that prominent musician Norman Blake had started introducing Curtis to the studio scene in Nashville. Curtis tracked down Sam Bush and just prior to Labor Day weekend of 1971 he auditioned for the Bluegrass Alliance to replace Tony Rice who was leaving to work with JD Crowe and the New South. The Bluegrass Alliance was slated to play the Camp Springs Festival that very weekend. “I got it (the audition) because I could sing tenor and harmonize and I could play anything. I would be playing the guitar and the Dobro.”
having just moved to Nashville, but I didn’t have much so I thought no big deal.”
This new line-up of the Bluegrass Alliance didn’t last long though, personal reasons and legalities soon brought Sam Bush, Curtis Burch, Courtney Johnson and Ebo Walker to the decision to leave BA and start their own band. The name New Grass ironically came from a BA album cover. The cover art showed a packet of grass seeds being poured out and on the packet was written “New Grass”. At the time Credence Clearwater Revival was still on the music charts with its’ own unique sound and the concept of a ‘revival’ was one they all appreciated. All four young men were also fans of CCR, making the new band name an easy agreement, and so the New Grass Revival was another arrival on the revolutionary music scene of the early 1970’s.
Moving back to east Nashville, it wasn’t long before they’d landed their first record deal. Starday Records, out of Beaumont, Texas, owned by Lefty Frizzell’s manager, Jack Starnes, and Houston record distributor Harold W. Daily, paid for the studio time at a small studio in Goodlettsville, TN. They provided an engineer and a producer. Neither the engineer nor the producer interfered with the band’s creative process. In an era of formula bands and ‘pop stars’ the four men of New Grass Revival had the miracle of complete artistic control.
Needless to say I was flabbergasted. I said to Curtis, “Are you serious?” He chuckled and replied, “It was because nobody knew what we were doing. We were just starting to break into the college crowds. The hippie crowd had started to get into our music. Our material was all original. It was all acoustic. Nothing was plugged in. We just played into mics. Once the record came out, the records stores didn’t know what bin to put us in. The radio stations didn’t know which rotation to put us in. That was never our intention. We just wrote and played music.”
The B side of the story was that New Grass Revival was shunned by the Bluegrass music community and somewhat by the Country and Western music community. Other genres pigeon-holed NGR as Bluegrass or Country making them excluded from those circles as well.
When bassist Ebo Walker left NGR and was replaced by banjo player Butch Robins, who took up the bass, a drummer was also introduced into their sound. Sometime later after Butch had left and the drummer dropped, it was decided to “plug up” the instruments. The audition to replace Butch would also add yet another dynamic to New Grass Revival.
It was Kentuckian, Ken Smith, aka Kenny Lee, that was asked to fill Butch Robins’ slot. On Kenny’s suggestion the band auditioned then rocker John Cowan. “You’ll find this funny.” snickered Curtis, “We were playing in Louisville and around the corner from where we playing John was playing with a rock band. His girlfriend made the suggestion that during his band’s break that he sneak over and check out this band playing around the corner—us. He did and that was his introduction to us. I remember when he came to the audition and he got out the car, his hair was down to his butt.” I laughed. “Really. Back then Bluegrass bands dressed the same. Had short hair. Wore string ties and the like. We already caught so much grief ‘cuz we had long hair and wore whatever we felt like. Here comes this kid with this long hair…”
John Cowan nailed that audition, but not so much with his bass playing abilities, but with his voice. Curtis, who had been singing tenor all this time, could now return to singing his more preferred baritone. Equipped now with the amazing voice of John Cowan, the band could ‘expand’ its’ vocal strength. “Now to tell the truth John was a fair bass player in the beginning but he pushed himself hard to be a great bass player. The best thing was that on stage he was never afraid to cut loose.” Curtis gave a little shake of his head and his gaze went somewhere past me. Coming back he smiled and then added, “John’s addition allowed us to expand in many directions.”
In modern music history this line-up of Curtis Burch, Sam Bush, Courtney Johnson and John Cowan is referred to as the First Classic New Grass Revival line-up and it would last for nearly ten years.
Originally published in my home publication http://www.bgdailynews.com/amplifier/