Since releasing his debut nearly 20 years ago, Nashville-based singer-songwriter Paul Burch has quietly amassed a collection of recordings that rival those of the mid-‘70s folk and country performers on which he was weaned. A wry songwriter in the John Prine tradition but with a greater affinity for country music, Burch has time and again shown himself to be one of the best, unheralded songwriters working today. And while such hyperbolic praise often seems heaped on nearly every singer-songwriter that comes along, Burch has the material to back it up. So effortless and natural is both his songwriting and delivery that it’s as though he were merely engaged in informal, convivial conversation rather than crafting any sort of studied performance.
Meridian Rising, his 10th album proper and second for Nashville-based Plowboy Records, finds Burch in familiar territory, his winsome, unaffected delivery carrying these sparsely adorned performances. Given the nods to country legend Jimmie Rodgers on 2013’s Fevers, it should come as little surprise that Meridian Rising finds Burch fully embracing the iconic performer’s aesthetic, creating a song cycle based around the singer’s short life and career.
Given his history of straightforward, throwback song craft, Rodgers proves a perfect idealized foil, allowing Burch to explore the various elements of traditional country and pop circa 1930. Having previously duetted with the likes of Ralph Stanley, Burch is no stranger to country royalty and here enlists the help of his WPA Ballclub group, along with Tim O’Brien, Jon Langford and Billy Bragg, among others. And like nearly all of his releases, Meridian Rising carries with it a collaborative feel, one built on a shared love of the same music, seen to fruition by a group of like-minded, amiable performers.
There’s something about Burch’s presence both on record and on stage that seems beyond comforting, bordering on the familiar, helping to put not only the audience, but also his fellow performers completely at ease. This sense of carefree, uninhibited performance permeates the record and, given its live feel, adds an additional spark that further studio polish would ultimately extinguish. It’s this raw, live feel that helps Burch settle into the character of Rodgers.
Few figures in the history of country music loom quite as large as Jimmie Rodgers. Nearly eighty years after his death, his influence continues to be found in contemporary roots performers of all shapes and sizes. So universally appealing was his style and approach to the music that, despite having been produced at the height of the Depression, it still resonates with contemporary audiences both musically and thematically. Here Burch takes on the task of approximating much of the same feel and appeal with this set of originals.
Meridian Rising finds Burch joining the likes of Loudon Wainwright and his Charlie Poole exploration. Rather than attempting to cop Rodgers’ inimitable trademark yodel (save for a brief appearance on “Baby Blue Yodel”), Burch employs the guise of Rodgers, creating an only slightly fictionalized take on the singer’s travels during his all-too-brief career. Having worked closely with Rodgers’ biographers Nolan Porterfield (Jimmie Rodgers: The Life and Times of America’s Blue Yodeler) and Barry Mazor (Meeting Jimmie Rodgers: How America’s Original Roots Music Hero Changed the Pop Sounds of a Century), Burch worked to fully immerse himself in the world Rodgers inhabited in order to better understand his subject and take on the persona.
And throughout Meridian Rising he largely succeeds. “Poor Don’t Vote” plays as relevant today as it would have in Rodgers’ day, becoming all the more so in this, an election year in which the lower classes and enraged masses could ultimately have the final word in who takes over for Obama. “If I Could Only Catch My Breath” is note-perfect darkness-and-light duet with the Mekons and Waco Brothers’ Jon Langford, whose Anglo-rasp well compliments Burch’s softer, Southern drawl tenor. With its boozy brass backing and clarinet-led arrangement, the song carries with it an ominous feel, personified by Langford’s presence.
At a sprawling 20 tracks, Meridian Rising plays more as an extended narrative than a collection of loosely related songs. Each is thematically and stylistically of a piece without reeking of the “concept album” trappings. Instead it finds the world and music of Jimmie Rodgers filtered through a 21st century roots music lens, one that finds a great deal of common ground between the two despite the intervening decades, drawing a direct correlation between then and now to show the impact Rodgers had on modern music. Breezy and winsome, Meridian Rising is yet another welcome gem from one of the finest contemporary roots performers – not to mention one of the best damn songwriters – operating today.