By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Like most quests, the most recent mission of James "Big Bucks" Burnett--to make his very first album--has mystical beginnings. Known to most as the driving force behind a uniquely hands-on brand of fandom that has found fruition in "Edstock," a salute to Wilbur's talking TV horse (of course) and "Tinypalooza," a celebration of Tiny "Tiptoe" Tim, Burnett was sitting around his house late one night.
"It was the summer of '94," Burnett recalls, sounding not in the least like Bryan Adams. "I was fooling around on my guitar, and this voice came out of the blue and said, 'England.' It sounds weird, but that's what happened." Burnett waited in vain for elaboration, but the voice had apparently said its piece. The rest was up to him.
Burnett--an unregenerate Anglophile whose love of music has led him to write several articles for local publications, including the Dallas Observer's recent tribute to Ronnie Lane--contacted David Tibet, an old pal known to a select few as the leader of Britain's underground goth-folk band Current 93. He told Tibet that he had to come to England, and Tibet offered him a place to stay. Three months after his mysterious vocal visitation, Burnett was on his way to the Scepter'd Isle. "The first time I went," he says, "all I had were these crude demos of songs I'd cut with Pat Keel when he was in Austin, from about 1985."
Like many music fans, Burnett had "always been a closet songwriter," he says. "Working with Pat helped me overcome a substantial fear of going into the recording studio, but I still landed in England with no intention of really doing any recording." When he played his rough demos for Tibet, the producer-bandleader was impressed enough to offer him a slice of free studio time. Dare Mason--producer of the surreally dreamy English band the Church--was likewise taken with Burnett's work; within 36 hours of arriving in Great Britain, Burnett was embarking on the first of what would be four 15-hour days in the studio.
That visit went so well that Burnett--then the owner of the nostalgic, 8-track-intensive music and memorabilia store 14 Records--returned to England in April 1996 and stayed for two weeks, doing more work with Mason on his songs. This year, he returned again in April. "It's not much of a story, but then again, it's a unique story," Burnett says. "I had been writing songs in my bedroom for 20 years, and this was my chance to come out of the closet as a songwriter."
The result was a 10-song collection that will probably be called Dreaming in Egypt, the title of one of Burnett's 1985 demo songs. But Burnett is currently vacillating about the name. Egypt is the embodiment of the hopes and dreams of every junior-high and high school kid who ever spent time in D-hall drawing runic Led Zep symbols on his notebooks and book covers (or would steal the Tull and Who out of his older brother's GTO), full of otherworldly references to love and faithfulness, Celtic acoustics, and sledgehammer power chords.
On this year's trip, things truly came together for Burnett. He and Mason moved a bunch of equipment into an old cottage that Mason's brother rented out for the owner in the small village of Ludham, about two and a half hours north of London. Within spitting distance of the front door were a grocer's, a pub, and a 700-year-old church. The Church's Marty Wilson-Piper volunteered to play lead guitar as required, and Wilson-Piper's bandmate in All About Eve, Julianne Regan, dropped by to help with vocals.
"It was great for me," Burnett says of the sojourn. "Not only to get away from America, but to get away from who I was here, my reputation. In England, there was nobody to make fun of me except myself. It was utterly secluded--all we did was make music, drink beer, eat this fantastic English cheese, and watch naked girls on the BBC."
Burnett had a lot of help from his friends, including local musician Paul Averitt, now of the undebuted band Punch and formerly of Dallas-Fort Worth area bands such as Big Big Drama and Trio of One. Austin musician Bill Breeze--familiar (maybe) to most through his association with the band Psychic TV--was in Hamburg at the time; Burnett paid his way to England so he could help out. Ali Abdel Salan--one of the Egyptians who toured with the Jimmy Page-Robert Plant re-Zepplinization tour of 1995, where Burnett met and befriended him--lent his considerable skills to various exotic Middle Eastern hand percussion instruments like tabla, req, and douff. His contributions are most evident on "Tepee by the River," where a rolling tabla beat and slippery acoustic slide guitar propel a study in rural simplicity that reminds you of Peter Gabriel's "Salisbury Hill."
"Tepee by the River" could be the song that sells Asleep in Egypt, but in many ways Burnett couldn't care less; the making of the album--the culmination of 20 years of dreaming the kind of dreams that favorite songs bring to us all--is the important thing. That somebody else hears it would be a bonus, yes, but a nonessential one.