Wide open spaces

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

"Country music has so much soul," he says. "To try to make it generic like they've done, it just isn't right. Country music is just pure soul, just like blues. You can't do that to blues. Blues is feeling, and country is the same way. It ain't like [Wham's] 'Wake Me Up Before You Go Go.' It just isn't."


In Dallas, the war between the countries might not be so apparent, given the eager crowds at Cowboys and Country 2000 for the latest musical widget off the Nashville assembly line. This is, after all, the city that took Garth Brooks to heart early on and helped make him a star.

Yet this is also where Lefty Frizzell cut "If You've Got the Money (I've Got the Time)," where Bob Wills made some of his most monumental recordings, and where Willie Nelson cut Red Headed Stranger in 1975, when Nashville kicked him out. Forty years ago, Dallas was home of radio's Big "D" Jamboree, a homegrown Texas-style Opry; every week during the late 1950s, this city played host to country's best, from Johnny Cash and Ferlin Husky to the Texas Stompers and Orville Couch. And, of course, Dallas is where the Dixie Chicks were hatched. Even if some decry their abandonment of acoustic instruments and fringed cowboy shirts as a sell-out, to their credit, the Chicks have succeeded in proving that modern country can go pop and be invigorating, entertaining, and even provocative without pandering.

But this is also still Texas, the native soil of honky-tonk and Western swing, a land where many folks still believe line-dancing is an offense against the natural order of things. And even if the alternative-country movement seems to have peaked in its arc across the national pop-music radar, it did help launch a healthy new generation of Texan-style country acts, most of the best from Austin. Out of Capital City joints such as Henry's Bar & Grill, the Black Cat, the Continental Club, and the Broken Spoke have risen a variety of notable artists: rooted progressives such as Kelly Willis, Monte Warden, Bruce and Charlie Robison, and the Derailers; hidebound traditionalists such as Don Walser and Wayne Hancock and talented newcomer Roger Wallace; and progressive traditionalists as different as Junior Brown, the Cornell Hurd Band, and Hot Club of Cowtown.

Dallas once had its own fermenting real country-club scene with the now-deceased Naomi's and Three Teardrops Inn and the still-extant Adair's; seems forever ago that the Cartwrights, Liberty Valance, the pre-pop Old 97's, and even pre-Mellencamp Mary Cutrufello could be found each weekend at the corner of Canton and Walton, "the country side of Deep Ellum," as it used to be known. But the yield here has been far less strong: the workmanlike Jack Ingram, the enchanting and offbeat Cowboys & Indians, the affable yet mundane Mark David Manders, and the just-got-country 1100 Springs. Hence, the Dallas trad-country mantle pretty much rests squarely on Burleson's shoulders.

Ed, of course, would dispute such a highfalutin notion. He doesn't see it that way -- as a contest, first guy to the top (of what? the bottom?) wins. For Burleson, getting to make My Perfect World was nothing more than "makin' your dreams come true" -- rare is the cat who can deliver such cornpone clichés and make them sound as though they still mean something. You get the idea that after this, Burleson would be happy just to start making a decent living.

But his troupe of industry supporters have high hopes for their portage -- even if their expectations at this point, with the record being initially released and promoted mainly in Texas, are quite realistic.

Warner/Chappell's Greg Sowders sees Burleson's career as a classic case of artist development, something the major labels have pretty much forsaken in favor of pumping money into new acts and hoping that they break. And if they don't, well, then it's time to move on to the next slice of fresh meat.

"What I'm always trying to do here is get involved with great songwriters and be one step ahead of everyone else," Sowders insists. He feels that Burleson, "in being so traditional, sounds so new and fresh compared to everything else that's out there."

Katznelson offers a similar assessment. "I realize that this is no groundbreaking thing," notes the A&R exec, whose Birdman label has released such eccentric stuff as Japan's The Boredoms, Delta blues oddity Othar Turner, and More Oar, a tribute to ex-Moby Grape madman Skip Spence's sole solo album. "This is coming from a very traditional place, but, boy, it sounds fresh to me."

Sowders is banking on the "timelessness" he hears in Burleson's music to eventually carry the act through. "It could be popular 30 years ago, or hopefully five years from now," he posits. "So what I'm hoping is that by the time everybody else figures that they're getting bored with the state of country music, they might be looking for what really put country music on the map to begin with, which is artists that sing about where they came from and what happens in their daily lives, with that great old country shuffle."

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