Wide open spaces

With his debut record, Ed Burleson may be too country for Nashville, but not for Texas

He's not the studly CMT-style young country buck, but rather an almost cuddly cub who still looks as much like a Wranglers-and-ropers-clad fan as he does the Great White Hope for Dallas country music.

Long before Burleson was tall enough to reach the mike, real country music had been a staple of his existence. His father, Richard, had been a full-time musician -- playing drums, trumpet, and piano mainly in jazz bands -- before taking a job as a traveling linen salesman. He played a bit of everything, but as Burleson remembers about his father, "Country's his heart." So young Ed grew up listening to Buck Owens on the stereo and accompanying his pop to gigs, helping him set up his drum kit.

Veteran bandleader and George Strait songwriter Clay Blaker lent his support to Burleson early on.
Veteran bandleader and George Strait songwriter Clay Blaker lent his support to Burleson early on.
"Thank God for Doug," Burleson says of Doug Sahm, best known as the erstwhile leader of the Sir Douglas Quintet.
John Halpern
"Thank God for Doug," Burleson says of Doug Sahm, best known as the erstwhile leader of the Sir Douglas Quintet.

"There used to be music in my house all the time," he explains. "Everybody in my family plays somethin'. I probably play the least of everybody, and I'm the one who's out here tryin' to do this." He laughs. "I spent a lot of time around music. I just didn't play it."

Instead, Ed was captivated by rodeo, starting out on ponies in the Little Britches series as a child and graduating to the big steeds at age 12. He continued through high school, eventually winning a rodeo scholarship to Hill County Junior College in Hillsboro. After riding in college during the late 1980s, he hit the professional circuit for two and a half years. "And then I started playing music, and here I am now," he says. "It was pretty much my whole life until music."

Long before that fateful open-mike night at Three Teardrops, Burleson had picked up his college roommate's guitar and tried his hand at picking -- or perhaps just strumming -- and writing his own songs. "Freshman year of college, I started, really," he says. "I had that spare time that you don't want to tell anybody you have while you're there. Ooh, you're just busy, studying all the time. But I was really sitting there playing guitar and learning to write songs correctly," he confesses. His is a tale not too different from those of Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen during their days at Texas A&M University.

Clay Blaker, a veteran honky-tonker and George Strait songwriter -- he penned such tunes as "She Lays It All on the Line," "Need I Say More," and "We Must Be Lovin' Right" (which Barbra Streisand covers on her new album) -- first met Burleson at the Three Teardrops during Burleson's early college years. Burleson was a fan of Blaker's and would show up wherever he was performing. Even now, Blaker remembers him on the dance floor; Burleson always stuck around to ask questions about how you, ya know, write a song.

"I can't remember if I encouraged him or not," Blaker says, "but I usually try to do that with young guys comin' up." The way Burleson recalls it, Blaker handed him his guitar and told the kid, "Show me what you got."

It was the sort of encouragement that helped the young rodeo cowboy realize that the distance from the dance floor to the bandstand might not be so far after all.

Later, KNON-FM disc jockey Roy Ashley, host of the Friday-night "Super Roper Redneck Revue," was trying to assist Burleson in getting a genuine career going beyond the few Dallas-area bars he was playing. Ashley persuaded Blaker to help Burleson make a record in the winter of '96. Former Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen guitarist Bill Kirchen happened to be in town, and Blaker convinced Kirchen and his band to come to steel guitarist Tommy Detamore's Cherry Ridge Studios and cut some tracks. He also corralled his own band, and they set to recording what was essentially a glorified demo.

The tape was shopped for a deal in Nashville, and Burleson even pressed up some CD copies for a limited release to sell to fans. The copies went quickly, but nothing came of it. Burleson still felt the recording was more demo than album.

Burleson, the accidental musician, was suddenly frustrated by his inability to make anything of his first recording. But he was broke, stuck in neutral; suddenly, the music thing wasn't looking too promising. Then, during a gig in 1996 at Austin's Broken Spoke by Alvin Crow (who appears on My Perfect World), Crow introduced Burleson to the, ah, eccentric Doug Sahm, who was backing Crow that night in his steel-guitar-playing "Wayne Douglas" disguise. The kid gave Sahm -- the erstwhile leader of the beloved Sir Douglas Quintet and the on-again-off-again Texas Tornados -- a tape of the album. Sahm liked the demo so much that he helped Burleson finish it. You know, "make it right," Burleson says.

"I couldn't do nothing with it, 'cause I didn't have any more money to do anything," he recalls. "So Doug helped me get some people behind it. God bless Doug, I guess. He's helped me a whole lot."

With Sahm's help, Burleson attracted a veritable Texas country brain trust (which is not a contradiction in terms) of supporters to the production of My Perfect World. The album was recorded in Floresville, just outside of San Antonio, and it's a 16-ounce tall-boy of a country recording, fizzling with the bubbles of sparkling pedal steel guitar and topped with a heady froth of twin fiddles, played by the likes of Crow, Asleep at the Wheel's Jason Roberts, and Ray Price fiddler Bobby Flores. Bill Kirchen also contributes big-rig guitar from the original sessions to a 10-song set that plays as if it could have been cut in 1965, yet still works just fine in 1999. It's clean, sharp, and modern in its execution, yet the album's soul is as traditional as an August day is long.

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