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."