Mark Graham

Wide open spaces

Ed Burleson is one of them folks who can't help but be country -- and, more than that, Texas country. You could say it's in his blood, type TX-positive. A sixth-generation Texan, he's the direct descendant and namesake of Gen. Edward Burleson, a commander at the Battle of San Jacinto and the first vice president of the Republic of Texas. The 25-year-old country singer and songwriter from Lewisville more or less grew up on the back of a horse, as his barrel-chested workhorse physique reveals. But after a couple of years on the professional rodeo circuit, he was almost literally thrown by a horse onto the terra firma of the honky-tonk stage. It all reads like the ideal résumé for a country singer, especially one from Texas.

Add to that his boyish-man's charm, unfeigned aw-shucks modesty, a voice carved from live oak, and a saddlebag of smart and sincere songs, and Burleson would appear to be prime material for Music Row. It's not too difficult to envision him singing on Country Music Television or gracing the pages of Country Weekly with tales from his rodeo days.

But Nashville didn't want him. Of course it didn't. That town never has had much interest in Texas boys who didn't fall off the assembly line; just ask Willie Nelson or Waylon Jennings, or any other rebel with a guitar pick and a red neck. That suits Burleson fine. He's in good company -- and, deep down, the homeboy doesn't much like to stray. As Burleson sings on Clay Blaker's song "Going Home to Texas" -- the last track on Burleson's brand-new debut album, My Perfect World -- his sort of music is "the Texas kind," where "Ernest Tubb, Willie Nelson, Lefty Frizzell, and ol' Bob Wills is still the king. They can blow more soul in them put together than the whole damn state of Tennessee."

Burleson's music doesn't sound like much of what they call country these days, but like what they used to call country and still do around certain parts. So even though today's Nashville can't really cotton to what Burleson offers, that hasn't stopped him from also winning over to his cause some fairly heavy hitters in the West Coast music business.

Burleson's songs are published by Warner/Chappell Music, a division of the Time-Warner media empire, thanks to the support of the company's creative director, Greg Sowders, former drummer for '80s country-rockers The Long Ryders (and ex-husband of Lucinda Williams). The Burbank-based label releasing My Perfect World, Tornado Records, was started by Texas music icon Doug Sahm, Reprise Records publicity Vice President (and native Texan) Bill Bentley, and Reprise A&R Vice President David Katznelson.

For a man who's an unknown even in his hometown, Burleson has managed to gather a rather strong brigade of supporters in his camp. And not a one of them came to his side through any crafty music-business wrangling on Burleson's part; rather, that happened through almost sheer fortuity. Just like his musical career.

Burleson was a professional rodeoer until a knee injury forced him off the circuit eight years ago. He was working his way back into shape at the Mesquite Rodeo, riding bareback as much as he could. And every night, after competing in the first event, he'd head over to the Three Teardrops Inn to catch whoever was playing.

Before long, people were coming to see him.

"Then they had like a [open-mike] songwriter's deal, and I'd been pickin' and writin' songs for a long time," Burleson explains. "So I went over there for that one time, and John Bailey, the guy that owned the place, he said, 'Man, you put a band together, I'll give ya Thursdays. I like your stuff.' I knew a lot of Gary P. Nunn's band, and they said, 'Heck, we'll play with you on Thursdays.' So we put a little band together. I'd never played in a band in my life. So I started doin' that and just grooved. Next thing I know, I wasn't rodeoing. [I was] playin' music. Which is fine."

Burleson recounts his stumble into country singing over lunch at Austin's Texicalli Grill -- the unofficial City Hall of the Republic of South Austin and a favorite lunch spot for musicians, thanks to the hospitality of owner Danny Young, who plays rubboard in the Cornell Hurd Band. Burleson's there with manager Debora Hansen (who also works with Sahm) and his friend Richard "Stoney" Stoneceipher, a tall, dark, quiet fellow Ed's known since sixth grade who plays a devilish Paul English to Burleson's Willie Nelson -- the imposing and edgy sidekick to the easygoing good ol' boy.

Ed suggests ordering the Tex-Mex burger, which Young makes up special for him with Monterey Jack cheese, guacamole, chips and hot sauce, and refried black-bean Texas caviar. Burleson looks like a regular fellow who was weaned on burgers, beans, and beer -- a fireplug of a guy whose shy smile belies a gift for chicken-fried bons mots, such as his take on the difference between the rodeo circuit and the music world: "They're really a whole lot alike. Ya travel around, ya never know what ya gonna make. In music there's less injury, usually."

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.

"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.

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.

"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.

"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."

And Bentley figures that the cyclical nature of music just might come around to Burleson, just as it did with another act Reprise Records has worked with. Burleson reminds him of Dwight Yoakam -- a man no label wanted a piece of in the early 1980s, when he was just a struggling Kentucky boy playing punk-rock clubs in Los Angeles, hoping to get noticed. Labels ignored Yoakam for years, forcing him to release his first EP on a tiny local label before Reprise signed him in 1984.

"As country music changed a little bit, they totally embraced [Yoakam], and the rest is history," Bentley says. "I'm hoping that Ed can have that same effect. I think Dwight helped change country music back a little bit from its excesses of the late '70s and early '80s. I think country music is at a place where it could get a little simpler and more real. I think they've taken it in the other direction about as far as they can. I really believe it just takes one visionary to start a movement, if you look at the history of music. And I really believe country music is going to change. It might not be for a year or two or three, or who knows? I just feel like as more people like Ed come out, that movement's going to get bigger."

Meanwhile, Burleson is still playing the beer joints, and the folks in Nashville have yet to buy into this particular real deal. Sowders has sent tapes of Burleson to friends and business associates in Nashville. All have told him the same thing: great songs, but the kid's too...well...too country.

No matter how many times one hears the punch line, it still elicits a laugh of astonishment.

"Too country for the home of country music?" Sowders says, his voice filled with ironic sarcasm. "It's like saying of the Rolling Stones, 'Well, it's a little too rock and roll.' I think that's the point there, fellows. But that's all right. We'll get there."


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