Though his career lasted about two years and ended tragically more than 50 years ago, Buddy Holly continues to impact and influence the music world. Part of it is his mystique: unlike many of his contemporaries, Holly never grew old, never had a scandal derail his career and never found himself wasting away on some oldies circuit. He’s the eternally young, energetic, slightly geeky-looking rock & roller with the hiccup in his voice and a Fender Stratocaster in his hands.
Mystique only goes so far, though. Holly left behind a strong collection of songs that have aged extremely well – mainly because they’re constantly being reinvented. His songs have been covered by hundreds of singers, across every music genre imaginable. Just this year alone, in commemoration of his 75th birthday, Buddy Holly tribute albums have featured both of the surviving Beatles, Lyle Lovett, Florence + The Machine, My Morning Jacket, Cee Lo Green and Justin Townes Earle.
Add to that mix Words of Love: Songs of Buddy Holly by Nashville’s Paul Burch. Much like the way Holly’s music has a timeless quality, Burch’s combination of classic country, blues and rock & roll has its roots in the 1950s and ’60s but never sounds dated. Beginning with 1998’s Pan-American Flash through 2009’s Still Your Man, Burch has released a series of critically acclaimed albums and recorded with luminaries such as Ralph Stanley and Mark Knopfler.
Burch’s admiration of Holly comes from both the love of his music and an appreciation for what he managed to accomplish in the short time he recorded.
“Holly was the arranger, the producer, the writer, the rhythm guitar player, the singer and the lead guitar player,” Burch says. “He balanced all that at the age of 22 and has at least 20 songs that everybody knows, being in the business for about two years before he was killed. Like him or not, you just don’t come across an artist like that very much.”
Burch says that he first heard Buddy Holly’s music on the “American Graffiti” soundtrack, and as he got more involved with rock & roll, the appreciation for Holly grew.
“My voice is pitched near his, so it’s easy for me to sing,” he says. “But I find that of all the rock & rollers that I adored growing up, Holly’s music is something that I can sing now that I’m older. The words are good, the chords are good, the songs are good, but they’re just very slightly underdeveloped.”
He attributes that to Holly’s producer, Norman Petty, who was a pop producer and didn’t have the same rock and R&B sensibilities that Holly had. As a result, the songs are developed enough for Holly to become successful, but they also allow for many interpretations. Burch, for instance, adds fiddle and accordion to the Holly classic “Rave On!” to give it a Cajun feel.
“You can do anything with them because they’re great songs,” Burch says.
Words of Love wasn’t intended to be a full-fledged album; Burch and members of his band, The WPA Ballclub, went into the studio just to record a Holly song, possibly as a single. In that regard, it didn’t vary from the type of recording that Burch and the band normally do.
“Recording for us is fun, and we just do it on a semi-regular basis,” he explains. “Often, I’ll bring in various incarnations of the band together just to get us on tape, to make sure we had a record of what we sound like.
“For me, that’s a healthy way to approach recording,” he adds. “There’s something about [recording] where I allow it to be a bit sprawling, so I don’t truncate the process.”
Burch initially went into the studio with his usual touring band, drummer Marty Lynds and bassist Jim Gray, and in the span of a couple of hours, they had recorded four Holly songs, all on the first or second take. He then brought in some of the band members who contribute to Burch’s records but don’t usually tour with him, and the same thing happened.
“Every time we went into the studio, we’d record four or five songs,” he says.
Burch says that Words of Love was not meant to be a Holly “best-of” album. Along with familiar Holly hits like “Peggy Sue” and “Think It Over,” there are lesser-known gems like “Blue Days, Black Nights” and “Midnight Shift.” With the WPA Ballclub at the top of its game (the band in its various incarnations also includes Jen Gunderman on accordion, Fats Kaplin on fiddle, Dennis Crouch on upright bass and Tommy Perkinson on drums) and a bunch of great songs, it’s a cohesive album that pays tribute to a talented artist but still fits nicely into Burch’s catalog.
As it was such an impromptu album – Burch didn’t even use lyric sheets on any of the songs – there was little advance planning done. When he and the band did listen to Holly recordings, they shied away from the familiar finished takes and turned to rarer live recordings or rehearsals. Those performances showed more grit than Holly was able to generate in the studio.
“Holly was far ahead of his time in thinking of a studio as a place to make a unique-sounding recording, different from how you would perform it on stage,” Burch says. “On stage, The Crickets were a tough, lean rock & roll band, but in the studio they could be a little more delicate, using boxes for drums or a celesta piano, which you can’t hear very well on stage.
“That was the one thing I wanted to do,” he adds. “Turn the bass and drums up whenever it was possible. It’s not always easy to do, because there’s so much wonderful delicacy to Holly’s music. But when it was possible to bring in some dirt, I tried to do that.”
In recording the songs, Burch was more concerned about capturing the feel of the songs than staying true to the technical aspects of Holly’s music. He played a Stratocaster on some tracks, like Holly did, but he didn’t feel obliged to using it on every song, He didn’t stick to Holly’s arrangements, either. Burch’s version of “Not Fade Away,” for instance, has no chord changes. He came up with that idea after listening to a rehearsal take of Holly and his drummer, Jerry Allison, playing Bo Diddley’s “Mona.”
“It was just so cool to hear a loud acoustic guitar and a loud drum,” Burch says. “There were no vocals; they were just getting into a groove. I thought about writing something off of it, but then I thought “Not Fade Away” doesn’t need those chord changes.”
Words of Love represents not only a tribute to one of Burch’s heroes, it also represents a turning point in his career, though even he isn’t entirely sure what is coming next.
“It feels like the band and myself are turning a very positive corner,” he explains. “I’m quite satisfied with the last couple records, and I think we’re starting to achieve some things live which are quite interesting. So I thought that before we go off in another direction that’s quite different from our other records, it would be nice to put a cap on that and do an album of standards. It’s an end of the beginning and the beginning of the next part.
“It may not be that much of a change, but it feels like it has the potential to go into some interesting areas for us. We’ll just have to see.”
For more information about Paul Burch, go to www.paulburch.com.