Wide open spaces

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

Much of the credit for the sound belongs to Burleson's songs, with the clean lines and basic construction of an old wood-frame house, bolstered by covers of numbers written by Sahm (but of course), Blaker, and Jim Lauderdale. The specter of heartbreak is never far from the barstool in Burleson's world, yet, as the album title implies, there's a certain Li'l Abner-ish idealism to everything he sings. Add to that his voice, a muscular yet supple twang, and you have a record that's as country as a tree branch, and just as natural. If this were 35, 40 years ago, Burleson would no doubt be slated to debut his release at the Grand Ole Opry rather than at the Sons of Hermann Hall this Saturday, where he'll be backed by many of the folks who played on the record, including Sahm, Blaker, and Kirchen.

Of course, Sahm's already done more than his share of backing up Burleson. In fact, Sahm has been Burleson's biggest advocate, bringing his songs to Warner/Chappell and getting the publishing company to finance further recording. Then he persuaded Bentley and Katznelson, who had worked with the Texas Tornados on their Four Aces album, to start up Tornado Records as a sister company to Katznelson's independent Birdman label. With typical Sahm aplomb, he worked everyone he knew to garner Burleson some attention.

Today, he still says the same thing about Burleson that he did when he slipped me a tape in June 1997.

Mark Graham
Ed Burleson busted his ass on the rodeo circuit, till he landed on a honky-tonk stage and never left.
Mark Graham
Ed Burleson busted his ass on the rodeo circuit, till he landed on a honky-tonk stage and never left.

"He's just the real deal," Sahm asserts. "That's all I can say. I'm just trying to protect him from the evil jaws of modern music."

Doug Sahm doesn't need to worry. When Burleson talks about himself and his music, it's with an unvarnished honesty and a winning modesty that are refreshingly free of Music City's careerist considerations. Compare that with, say, the Dixie Chicks, who long ago dreamed of selling out to Nashville if only someone were willing to write the checks. All these years later, they exist as proof that it's possible to get to Nashville on the rent-to-own program.

When it's mentioned to Reprise Records' Bentley that Burleson obviously hasn't gone through the media training that is part and parcel of the Nashville grooming process, the veteran publicist quickly adds, "And he never will!"

And why should he? Burleson is a natural at offering country-boy wisdom with the directness and smart simplicity of a true down-homer. Just as his songs announce that he's pure country down to his ropers, the way he talks about himself and his career is the sort of real thing Nashville could neither fake nor change. For instance, consider Burleson's thoughts on how his music compares with what's coming out of Nashville:

"I'm definitely not that," he says. "It's so strange how in Nashville, half the songs on the radio are Texas, Texas, Texas, Texas, but they never pay attention to what's going on here. I don't get it. I don't see why they don't listen to that."

Ah, sweet country-boy innocence. You can even find that in one tale about Burleson that emanates from the tiny Dallas clubs he has played. As the story goes, Burleson and some of his friends were sitting around one night. He was recounting his teenage visit to a peep-show arcade after a dance, as boys sometimes do. Not being a habitué of such establishments, Burleson explained how surprised he was to look over and see a penis snaking into his booth through a glory hole.

So, Ed, someone asked him, what did you do about it?

"Well, I didn't know what to do," Burleson is said to have answered, followed by a long pause. "So I kicked it."

"Lord, where'd you hear that?" says Burleson with an embarrassed laugh when asked about the incident. "Don't print that. I don't want my mama to read it. I hate to admit it, but it is true."

But Mrs. Burleson can rest easy. Boys will be boys, after all. And wild and sometimes funny tales are part of the smoke that surrounds ever-burgeoning musical legend. What's significant about this one is how it conveys a certain naiveté -- "I didn't know about the homo aspect to those places," Burleson says -- that, once again, Nashville could probably never invent nor burnish out of Burleson.

And even more significantly, Burleson's reaction to the rather personal intrusion is probably not what Ty Herndon would have done in that situation. And conversely, it seems that Burleson isn't about to answer Nashville's siren call to conform to today's charts like Herndon and so many of his ilk have done, no matter what it pays.

"Keep it country," he says, echoing the mantra heard on dance-hall bandstands and beer-joint stages across the Lone Star State. He invokes the first Texas honky-tonk commandment as he discusses his guitar skills -- and his lack thereof, beyond the basics. Then again, in the world of country music, all you really need are three major chords and a minor to set up shop as a singer and writer of country songs.

"That's about all I'm good for -- just the basics," Burleson says with a lack of guile tinged with an almost silly pride at the notion. But as he obviously knows, out there in a good part of Texas where people still dance arm-in-arm to music that's still capital-C country and Western, if you start getting fancy with your music, someone playing beside you is bound to bring up the warning to keep it country. Not that Burleson needs reminding.

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