Chicago favorites the Waco Brothers and Nashville singer-songwriter Paul Burch have traveled in the same circles for years, and both have made records for Bloodshot. Though their output is quite different—the former is loud and woolly, the latter gentle and measured—they share a deep regard for old-school country. They recently joined forces for the wild collaboration Great Chicago Fire (Bloodshot), which they're bringing to the FitzGerald's stage together on Thu 4/26. For this week's Artist on Artist, Burch was interviewed by Wacos front man Jon Langford, and the result was a delightfully freewheeling conversation. —Peter Margasak
Q I've got the radio on—I'll switch it off so we can hear each other. North Korea's launching a rocket, mate.
A Oh—that's terrible. [Laughs] On who?
Q Oh, they're just testing it.
A Oh, OK. I was just reading that Apple is being sued by the government for collusion in the cost of e-books.
Q I believe it's true.
A We should tell them that you and I bought Bloodshot Records. We probably haven't told anybody that yet.
Q We bought it, yeah. It was pretty cheap, actually. We can artificially control the price of insurgent-country records until the government find out.
A We're going to trade off having the minority ownership. That way one year we get to write it off, and then the next year the other person gets to write it off.
Q It's good, it's good. I've been the owner for a while anyway. I get an alumni magazine from the University of Leeds that gets delivered to Bloodshot Records, and it says "Jon Langford, Owner" on the magazine, which I think is fantastic.
A Yeah, you've got a paper trail. That's terrific. Did you go to Leeds right out of high school? Is that what they call it? Or is it grammar school?
Q No, it's high school. Well, it was "comprehensive school" in those days. You had a neighborhood school that everybody went to. Not like Chicago with all this "selective enrollment" crap. You have to actually be bright to get into a high school.
We went to a high school that was allotted to us, and allegedly it was a comprehensive education, so there was no streaming. I thought it was great, actually. I met lots of interesting people.
A What did you major in?
Q Leeds, I did fine art. In Newport it was like—there was a big art school. When I was a kid, about 15 or 16, it was the very heart of the town. It was right on the river, this big old Victorian building with a domed roof. There was a students' union that had bands play in it. It was very cool. I wanted to go to art college, but if I had gone to regular art college, I would've had to stay for a year in Newport, and gone to that art school to do a foundation nearby. I decided I wanted to go to Leeds, which was kind of a fortunate decision.
Although—when I was there, the uni was the heart of the town. That's when Joe Strummer was living in Newport. Guys I knew, when he became famous, were telling me, like, they know everyone. Everyone claimed to have taught Joe Strummer how to play the guitar. I met him years later, and he said he didn't go to the art college—he was actually a grave digger.
But Newport Art College was so hip—he had come to live in Newport to be near his mates that were at the art college. The first time he ever heard reggae music was down at the docks at one of the West Indian social clubs, you know, the sailors' clubs. I don't know. I walked away from all of that and I went to Leeds, where I met the Mekons and the Gang of Four. How did you end up in Nashville, Paul?
A I had about five or six friends who I grew up with in Indiana. I went to a school there, which was across the street from our high school, a university called Purdue, which was more known for engineers, but I was an English major there. But I really liked it because there was a radio station in my dorm, which was one of the first actual stereo FM stations in the country. It was started by—
Q In the building, not in your room?
A Yes, in the building, right, on the very top floor. It was the dormitory where Neil Armstrong went to. He went to Purdue. And on the very top floor was this radio station that had started in the mid-40s, and they had a great record collection. So I was a DJ there, and used to call up the heads of the independent labels like Twin/Tone and Dutch East India and get them to send us records.
Q I was on Twin/Tone then. Did they send you Mekons records?
A You know, I don't know if they did. I don't remember. I feel like I got to the Mekons a little bit late, sadly, even though I knew a lot of music. We got some records by the Wygals and the Replacements when they were there, and some other things I don't remember. I remember really enjoying the Beasts of Bourbon. They did a Porter Wagoner song called "Psycho"—"You think I'm psycho, don't you mama?" [Editor's note: "Psycho" is by Leon Payne, though Wagoner did write "The Rubber Room."]
Q Oh, I remember that song, yeah.
A But I had a whole bunch of friends who graduated from there and went to Nashville, including a camera operator for the Grand Ole Opry. He called me up and he said, "You should come down here," and so I came to Nashville. And just as I came down, I started hearing about . . . well, first of all, there was no place to play in Nashville. They didn't really want bands. And I was so used to having a band together that I wanted to get a band together with my old mates in Indiana, but it was mostly just open to songwriters.
Q Were you doing country music at the time?
A I guess I had a rockabilly, rock 'n' roll kind of thing. I did Hank Williams songs, and I did Johnny Cash songs and Johnny Horton songs. But I didn't know country that deeply until after I got here. And then when I started playing in the honky-tonks downtown—
Q The ones on Lower Broadway? Tootsie's?
A Yeah, Tootsie's, that was the place. I went there and I met a singer from Pennsylvania, Greg Garing, who's a really good tenor singer and really good rhythm guitar player, and he had just finished playing fiddle for Jimmy Martin. And he had gotten this job to play on the upstairs of Tootsie's. Now Tootsie's is right next to the Ryman, and when the Opry was at the Ryman—
Q It was dry!
A Yeah, the downstairs was a bar, and the upstairs was this room for all the people who played on the Opry, because there were no dressing rooms. There was one dressing room, and that was for Roy Acuff.
Q People used to go over there so they could get a drink, didn't they?
A Exactly! And they would meet songwriters there. Like, that's where Willie Nelson pitched Faron Young "Hello Walls." And performers would watch other performers' kids while they were onstage. And it had not been used since the Opry had left Nashville in the 70s. So they had just reopened the Ryman—Emmylou Harris had had a concert there to try to raise funds to restore the Ryman, and they restored it—and the first thing they did was open it for a bluegrass concert series. And so Greg had been asked to put together a little honky-tonk band to play for the people coming out of the bluegrass shows. They wanted to try to entice them to come to the bar. And the back of the room at Tootsie's had fallen apart. And the very, very back room didn't have a roof, it was just a brick wall.
So Greg had a plywood stage, and he was playing up there with an upright bass player and an acoustic guitar player. I brought an electric guitar and I played "tic-tac," which is the chk chk chk chk sound you hear on the Hank Williams records. My other new friends in town were the guys from Lambchop, so I asked Paul Niehaus, who was just learning how to play steel for Lambchop, if he wanted to come down and play with us. And I think the first or second night we played, Lucinda Williams came down, along with Bucky Baxter, who was playing steel guitar for Bob Dylan. And they started telling all these people about us. And all of a sudden, that's kind of what I did. I was just playing down there. We played on the weekends, but I'd also play during the week for like four hours a night.