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.
"The dream--my wildest dream--has already come true," he says from his living room, as cluttered with bizarre knick-knacks as any room you could recall from college or early post-adolescence. "That's such a joyful thing that everything else is just extra." Still, he's been sending the album out, and Shaun Edwardes of Last Beat is helping him shop it around.
"There's not much that we can do with it right now," Edwardes says. "It's a good album, but Bucks doesn't play live, and that makes it hard to sell. Most A&R people want to see an act perform. Still, if there's someone out there who might be interested in it, I'll help them find him."
"It's about the best I've ever played or sung," Burnett explains. While he feels sanguine about the future, he's not basing that upon the past. "Even if I were to play live, I think I'd do other stuff, new stuff, more casual--I wouldn't try to recreate something that I've done before. Right now my desire is to keep recording. I've got several more albums, just standing by."
Blow, winds, blow
Who plays harmonica? Most would say cowboys 'round the campfire and bluesmen, but Tom Ellis says the instrument nicknamed "the Mississippi saxophone" has a far broader context. Ellis is a seller of vintage microphones, the author of a series of articles about Paul Butterfield in Blues Access magazine, and an organizer of the 1997 Dallas Harmonica Happening that takes place at Blue Cat Blues on Thursday, July 24, from 8 p.m. until midnight. Ellis says that in the 1930s and early '40s, America was full of harmonica organizations, and that kids in those days were more likely to be in a mouth organ band than a little league baseball team.
Ellis is a member of the Harmonica Organization of Texas (HOOT), which--along with Buddy magazine and the Hohner Company--is sponsoring the shindig, designed to showcase the breadth of Lone Star harmonica craft. Representing the blues will be Dempsey Crenshaw (of Shame Shame) and Joe Jonas; both will be backed by the Hash Brown Trio. The C&W torch will be held aloft by Tim Harris (who also blows a mean rock 'n' roll harp) and Gerald Welch, who plays at the Mesquite Opry. Harder to categorize is Paul Harrington, who's worked with acts as diverse as the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Dolly Parton.
"He's one of the finest harmonica players, period," Ellis says of Harrington. "If he wasn't a single dad with kids, he could be on the road with--well, with anybody he wanted, because he can play C&W, blues, and pop." The most unique acts in the Happening line-up are the Harmonichords and the Don Sanders Group, a trio and quartet respectively. Both utilize bass, chord, and chromatic harmonicas, and although the combos don't sound much alike, they both share something with the hit-making Harmonicats of the '40s in that any song, from polka to pop to swing, is fair game to them. Tentatively scheduled are Gary Primich, Mickey Raphael, and the mighty Sam Myers. It promises to be a bigger collection of blowhards than you'll find at any city council or school board meeting, and considerably more uplifting.
The Old 97's are doing well on the road, playing the second stage on Lollapalooza...at a recent show, several youths who were obviously Korn fans were spotted stage front, soaking up the sounds of Rhett Miller and Co., after which they promptly went and bought Old 97's T-shirts...Ray Wylie Hubbard will be at Uncle Calvin's Friday, July 25, backed up by Terry "Buffalo" Ware. Hubbard's guitar teacher, Sam Swank, opens and will probably join the duo onstage later...Transona Five will play their last show in a while that same night, up in Denton at the Argo's benefit for the Good/Bad Art Collective. Slobberbone and others will also play. The boys in T5 will then concentrate on recording another album, leaving us with just the split seven-inch due soon out of Italy (mentioned here earlier; their song will be called "No Door") to tide us over...
Tuesday, July 29, Voyager's Dream in Denton will host an evening of Sufi circle dancing, drumming, and chanting...Riot Squad has a new album out titled Naked Aggression and is currently touring the Midwest with REO Speedealer...Deborah Vial, formerly of Blanche Fury and Naked Barbi, has organized Petstock '97 to benefit homeless animals. The event will feature Vial and other acts on Sunday, July 27, at Sue Ellen's from 4 to 10 p.m...Broose Dickinson continues the trend of annoying, hard-to-remember band and album names that require constant re-checking with the release of TooMuch is Not Enough, the debut album by TOOMuchTV, his project with Charles Reeves. Both names are sure to make proofreaders and copy editors want to pooke...The Tomorrowpeople's Golden Energy is finally out...Jazz trumpet great Roy Hargrove joined noted guitarist Mark Whitfield and our own Marchel Ivery to work on Leaning House Jazz's production of local pianist Fred Sanders' East of Vilbig, due out soon.
Street Beat welcomes all your input, tips and assistance at Matt_Weitz@dallasobserver.com.z
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.