Paul Burch: Meridian Rising

PaulBurch_MeridianRisingInspired fictionalized autobiography of Jimmie Rodgers

Paul Burch’s semi-fictional autobiography of Jimmie Rodgers isn’t nostalgic, it’s of a piece with the era it essays. His song cycle captures Rodgers’ times in a long form album that is, in today’s per-track streaming world, its own throwback. Burch knits together the sites, sounds, people and places that greeted Rodgers as he rode the rails and traversed the highways that led to tent shows, recording studios and international fame. The story follows Rodgers from his boyhood home of Meridian, Mississippi to his untimely death in New York City, creating an autobiography that Burch characterizes as “honest, but not necessarily true.”

The songs weave a loose narrative arc, but the album is best experienced as an immersive kaleidoscope of sounds and images. The stories take the listener traveling with Rodgers as he gains experience and channels it into creating folk, country, ragtime, blues and early jazz. The album’s guitar, bass, fiddle and drums, are augmented by clarinet, saxophone, trombone, tuba, bouzouki and Hawaiian steel guitar, fleshing out the wide world of music with which Rodgers’ communed. The arrangements swell and narrow in instrumentation, further echoing the range of combos with which Rodgers himself recording.

The nostalgic memories of Meridian that open the album quickly disappear in the rearview mirror as Rodgers hits the road in his V16 Cadillac. Burch maps Rodgers’ path through travelling shows, backstage surprises, depression-era social politics, gambling misfortune and a child’s untimely death. “To Paris (With Regrets)” imagines Rodgers longing to visit the City of Light, while the latter third of the album finds Rodgers’ health and commercial fortunes spiraling to their end. The instrumental transition “Sign of Distress” signals the beginning of the end, but there’s one more day of life as Rodgers visits Coney Island in “Fast Fuse Mama,” and life after death in the apologetic letter home, “Sorry I Can’t Stay.”

The story concludes with “Back to the Honky Tonks,” echoing Rodgers farewell in his last recording for Victor, and the album closes with the recessional “Oh, Didn’t He Ramble.” It’s a bittersweet end to Rodgers’ short, blazing trail of success and Burch’s deftly imagined autobiography. In telling this story, Burch has surrounded himself with top-notch instrumentalists, including Jen Gunderman, Fats Kaplin, Tim O’Brien and Garry Tallent, and guest vocalists Billy Bragg and Jon Langford. This is a terrific, original project whose nuanced execution lives up to its grandly inspired conception. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

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