[12 October 2006]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Hailed the “King of Rock ‘n Soul”, Solomon Burke has as much presence in his 66-year-old voice as the London Symphony Orchestra. His majesty, the King, wears a crown that glistens with burgundy red rubies even after 45 years in the business. Burke is a living testament to a career wrought in melody and rhythm, blues and soul, joy and sorrow. Encompassing all these qualities, Burke went to Nashville for two weeks in 2006 and recorded Nashville under the tutelage of celebrated producer/songwriter/musician Buddy Miler. What emerged is yet another laudable effort exemplifying Burke’s boundless vigor in the fifth decade of his career.
Call the music on Nashville roots, Americana, country, blues or any combination thereof; the album is a transcendental listening experience irrespective of genre. The distractions of the listener’s environment fade away and the emotional tenor of Burke’s performance consistently shines through. By instinct, Miller and executive producer Shawn Amos surrounded Burke with a stellar match of musicians including Al Perkins (pedal steel guitar), David Rawlings (guitar), Sam Bush and Larry Campbell (fiddle), and Bryan Owings (drums/percussion). Burke’s voice seems to galvanize their playing, particularly on Jim Lauderdale’s “Seems Like You’re Gonna Take Me Back”. It’s a rollicking number with an extra does of soul by backing vocalists Regina McCrary, Ann McCrary, and Gale West. On poorly conceived albums, a song like Lauderdale’s would be the high point, but Burke and the musicians sustain the momentum throughout all 14 tracks.
Nashville is divided evenly between playful and reflective tunes, offering an in-depth compendium of Burke’s vocal gifts. Following the Lauderdale tune is a typically stellar Dolly Parton composition, “Tomorrow is Forever”, where Burke duets with none other than the composer herself. It’s a treasure to hear two such immense talents sing without any pretense but simply for the enjoyment of the experience. A handful of other duet partners, including Emmylou Harris and Patty Loveless, also illuminate the glimmer in King Solomon’s crown. Patty Griffin lends an angelic backing vocal on her own “Up to the Mountain”, a poignant parable about perseverance. The tenderness in Burke’s generally robust voice is revealed here amidst a sea of strings that quietly levitate underneath Burke’s aching vocal. He is porous with emotion as he sings, “Sometimes I lay down/ No more can I do/ Then I go on, on again/ Because you asked me to.”
Whether based on fact of fiction, Burke inhabits the skin of these 14 songs completely and one imagines some grain of truth in the lyrics. On “Honey Where’s the Money Gone”, Burke questions the shysty motives of a lover: “Baby you look so good/ In your brand new dress/ I wonder how you paid for that now/ You just let me guess.” It would not be unrealistic to assume that in his long career, the riches Burke boasts about on Bruce Springsteen’s “Ain’t Got You” have attracted opportunistic hangers-on. Rather than bitterness, Burke approaches “Honey Where’s the Money Go” with a wink and a smile.
The recording talent of Jake Burns brings Burke’s voice right into the listener’s inner ear on Gillian Welch’s “Valley of Tears”. Following a short instrumental break with Welch and David Rawlings on guitar and Byron House on bass, Burke dedicates the refrain, “Everybody wants to send me down to the valley of tears”, to “somebody that’s crying tonight”. His low growl becomes a deep, plaintive wail. The wail catches fire on “Does My Ring Burn Your Finger”, a tune that features Burke’s most incendiary vocal on the album. The staccato rhythm of Larry Campbell’s fiddle amplifies the bitterness in Burke’s performance (no wink and smile here). “Did my love weight you down/ Was a promise just too much/ To keep around?”, he exclaims as Phil Madeira’s Hammond B3 boils in the background.
The album’s closing track, “‘Til I Get It Right”, indicates that there is much to learn about Burke even after his five-decade career. To hear the “King of Rock ‘n Soul” confide, “I’ll just keep on falling in love/ ‘Til I get it right/ Right now I’m like a wounded bird/ Hungry for the sky” is to know a man strong enough in his masculinity to recognize his weakness (a welcome change from the 21st century Romeos and lotharios who display otherwise). The tune by Larry Henley and Red Lane hangs like the last in a series of sound portraits about Burke on Nashville.
It is my hope that Nashville reaches beyond Burke’s dedicated audience, for the music here is timeless and will no doubt resonate even more with age. Quite simply, Nashville is a necessary addition to the collection of anyone who respects the tradition of great singing and storytelling.