IBMA SERIES: Aaron Burdett
Aaron Burdett’s songs have a ring of truth. That’s because he’s doesn’t throw around cheap signifiers of authenticity. When he sings about blue-collar work, he doesn’t mention trucks, he mentions belt sanders. He’s a singer-songwriter working broadly in Americana, but with his recent acoustic-trio performances, he’s found a new home in the bluegrass circuit, So much so that the IBMA has chosen him to perform at the prestigious Bluegrass Ramble during this year’s World of Bluegrass festival. I chatted with him recently about his transition from an electric bar band to an acoustic trio, the dissolution of genre and the role of research in his songwriting process.
DW: You have a lot of different groups, from small old-time combos to full Nashville-style bar bands. I'm curious if it's the same repertoire across all of those groups.
AB: Yeah, that's an interesting evolution that we've been going through. I have two configurations of the band. As of late and moving forward, with the stuff we're recording and booking we're doing an acoustic trio. A little more old-timey, bluegrassy. But we do still get hired for some of the full-band, five-piece folk-and-roll sets. There are a few songs that we would only play in the full-band setting. But other than that, none of my songs are excluded from either setting.
DW: So, shifting your focus toward the old-time arrangements: is that just you following your heart or is that a prudent business decision on some level? Do you get the sense that there's a revived interest in that style? Or is it just what you are personally interested in on an artistic level?
AB: It's a little bit of both. My formative years were up in Boone, where I was just transfixed by old-time and Doc Watson and flatpicking in general, by guys like David Grier and Norman Blake, the way they rode an acoustic instrument. So that's where my roots are. So, even though that's where I come from instrumentally, even though my songwriting is probably what you'd call Americana. Although the lines have become increasingly blurred. But when we hit upon the acoustic trio thing around 18 months ago and started playing some folk festivals, it just felt like the right palette for presenting my songs. It's been received really well. It's a little more nimble for traveling, it's a little more applicable at more venues. We've got all this IBMA stuff coming up; somehow we've ended up being considered part of bluegrass in a broader sense. It's almost a return to where I was 10 years ago in Boone. I'm just following what seems to be getting the best reaction. It's been unexpected but absolutely welcome.
DW: And it doesn't hurt that you don't have to fit a drum kit into your van anymore.
AB: It cannot be overstated how much more difficult it is to be a rock band. We have an upright bass we have to stick in the van, but that's just one thing.
DW: So how much are you thinking of arrangements while you write? Do you write for your different proects, or is it important keep your songs flexible and teachable so that you can play them with whoever's available?
AB: It's funny. It's only in the last six months or so that we've begun focusing on the more acoustic path. And it's been liberating to not write for a band. The writing comes a lot easier now because I don't think about arrangement at all. I've also been lucky enough to work with a few producers who have taken that task out of my hands. The longer I do this the more I realize that arranging is not my core competency. That's why producers exist, because they're better at it than I am.
DW: In your solo acoustic stuff, the songs are very much in a singer-songwriter tradition but your guitar technique feels very much like bluegrass rhythm guitar. It's fast strumming on open chords with lots of hammer-ons. Do you see yourself as fusing those two genres--folk and bluegrass?
AB: I don't really think about it. But if you do this long enough, people make connections and they keep saying the same things to you, and you think "maybe, you're right." Ten years ago I would not have been invited to IBMA, but that's because in those ten years, genres have broadened out so much. Of course there's still hardcore bluegrass but now there are so many bluegrass-based artists that lean toward other genres: folk, old-time, Celtic music. The industry standards have changed so much.
DW: So, there's less gatekeeping about what constitutes bluegrass and it leaves more room for people that are in-between genres.
AB: Well, it depends on who you talk to. There are hardcore bluegrass people who have no patience for anything that isn't true bluegrass. But then you have your Old Crows and your Steep Canyons, people who you can't strictly call bluegrass, but you also can't describe without using the word bluegrass. But there will always be straight bluegrass as its own pure entity, the kind of music where you just don't bring a drum to that concert.
DW: Two of your songs that seem to really strike a chord with people are Fruits of My Labor, Pennies on the Track. Political songs about labor, but with an incredible specificity and material detail. "Fruits of My Labor" is probably my favorite song to use the phrase "sanding drum." I'm curious how much of that comes from lived experience and how much comes from research? Is going to the library a part of your songwriting process?
AB: It is. I'm speaking to you from my work truck in Saluda, where I live. I'm a contractor. That's my day job. My dad's over there, planing down some cedar that we're putting on a house as some exterior trim. So that's where a lot of it comes from. But "Pennies" is an interesting song. Saluda's a railroad town and so I was always familiar with the railroad. But it always seemed cliche to write a song about a train. But the more I learned about the way it was built, by chain gangs of African-American convicts, the more important it felt to write it. There's a lot of racial history that I'm unaware of, maybe because of my ignorance.
DW: Maybe. But also partially because white people actively conceal that part of history.
AB: There's just a lot of stuff we've pushed into the background. But also, if I was going to write this song, I knew I was gonna have to get my dang details right for the train people. There's a guy that does talks about trains down here, and I started sending him lines and asking "Is this possible?" And there ended up being a few historical inaccuracies in there but he assured me "no one's gonna know that."
DW: Is there an inaccuracy that you regret?
AB: I don't regret any of it! Well, actually, I did have to go back to the recording studio after we had already finished the song. Because at the beginning of the bridge, the line used to be "200,000 tons rolling down the line," and then I started thinking about it and I thought "that math doesn't add up." So I called up the studio and said "you gotta let me change that line." And they said "Really?" But then they let me come in and punch in "200 tons." So, that song took some research. All of my songs have a little piece of me in them, but hopefully when they're finished they've expanded to be about more than just my own experience and research is a good way to do that.
You can find Aaron Burdett’s music here. He’s performing twice at the IBMA Bluegrass Ramble.
Tuesday September 24, 2019 8:45pm - 9:10pm
Raleigh Convention Center Room 304 500 S Salisbury St, Raleigh, NC 27601
Wednesday September 25, 2019 7:00pm - 7:45pm
Kings 14 W Martin St, Raleigh, NC 27601
Tickets for the Ramble are available here.