Charlie Burton: 12 Steps to Heaven
Don’t fight the band that needs ya!
(click to see Charlie’s web page)
Yep…CB at SxSW
Charlie Burton is the greatest rock and roll songwriter in the center section of our great land. After toiling in the wastelands of Nebraska for nearly 20 years, cracking whip on bands like the Cut-Outs and the Hiccups, he’s now residing in Austin, running not only a record store but a damned fine roots-rock unit, the 12-Steppers. Their first album, Rustic Fixer-Upper, on Bulldog/SOB Records, excellently showcases Burton’s creative wiles, and the 1999 release One Man’s Trash: The Charlie Burton Story (1977-1999) will neatly catch up anybody who doesn’t know who the fuck he is….which is too damn many of us. (See the Rev’s recent feature on Charlie by clicking here.)
Recently, Charlie took some time to answer a few questions.
Are you a folk singer?
How’d you get interested in music in the first place?
I grew up in a house where music was very important: my father was a record collector (classical and folk mostly) and he was a real literal Pioneer in FM radio: he started a commercial (meaning he had to sell advertising), classical FM station in 1957 in Lincoln. Nebraska, and sold Granco FM receivers at cost outta our garage to create a market for the station; nobody listened to FM at that time; there was no public radio or college radio. My sister was an accomplished pianist and I won an AM transistor radio when I was 12, in 1963–a good year for AM radio. You could still hear Wolfman Jack on the “Big X…XERF” playing Howlin’ Wolf while you were falling to sleep with the transistor radio at your ear. It sounded like the terrifying voice from Hell. I was both drawn to it and scared by it. Need I point out that music was extry-good in the mid-60’s when I was a teen??? And seeing Bob Dylan (on THAT tour) in March of 1966 when he played Lincoln’s Pershing Municipal Auditorium really did a number on mah haid!!!
Where’d your world-famous sense of humor come from?
Sense of humor… Yeah, I guess I’m kind of a quipster. Dunno where it came from. Some of my favorite records as a Husker Youth included Peter Sellers comedy records on the Angel label; I always liked the track “Balham: Gateway To The South.” which I seem to recall reading in a back issue of MOJO was THE favorite track of its producer, George Martin, who could have also picked many others, don’tcha think???
Were you good at book-larnin’?
I was good in English, yeah. I remember that we had to write our own obituaries in one class and I wrote “See the candle, burn out quick, no more wax, no more wick.” Then I forgot it, and wrote and handed in some total mediocre shit. Twelve years later, I remembered the line and it became a lyric in one of my most requested numbers, “Breathe For Me, Presley.”
Is there such a thing, do you think, as Midwestern rock and roll? You got the Skeletons, Freedy Johnston, Bottlerockets, and…hey, wasn’t Axl a Plains child?
Of course there is such a thing as Midwestern Rock and Roll, but I would cite such practitioners as Iggy, The MC5, Lonnie Mack, the SOMA label outta MPLS, and the aforementioned folk singer from Minnesota as being more of my Midwestern Rock and Roll Soul Brethren (at least in my dreams) than the artistes you mention. Also let’s not forget the great Nebraska rockers like Carl Cherry, Sparkle Moore, Lou and Red Berry. But then, Philbert, you have a Show-Me State bias. I was talking to my old friend Peter Jespersen, he of Twin-Tone and Replacements fame, the other day, about being Midwestern, and he ‘lowed as how it has something to do with being polite, and I would have to agree.
How’d you keep a band together for nigh-on 20 years without raking in the big bucks?
The bands stayed together with minimal/gradual personnel changes because, I think, we all believed in what we were doing. It’s really that simple.
Any highlights from the Cut-Outs’ life on the road?
Highlights? Hmmm… there was one night at the Rodeo Bar in NYC when I remember going over to Phil Shoemaker, the geetar player, and looking at him and saying, “Geeziz, we sound great tonight, and making eye contact with him and just knowing we really did sound great. And it was always a thrill and an honor to play on the same bill with the Replacements when that happened. There were lotsa fun nites at The Lifticket in Benson. I always liked the feeling of driving home after a good gig and maybe stopping at this all-nite BBQ joint in Omaha.
You’re now located in Austin, which many folks in my parts consider the Mecca of American music. Have you found relocating there to strike your fancy?
Well, as Sonny Boy Williamson the Number once said, “Don’t start me talkin’ I jes’ might tell everything I know!!!” Let’s just say that as a Mecca of American Music, Austin may be somewhat over-rated.
Tell us a little about the genesis, progress, and future of the 12-Steppers.
The Texas Twelve Steppers are what I call the people I play with here in Austin; they are a pool of some of the finest musicians in Austin and there are many fine musicians in Austin, yew betcha!!! They play subject to availability, in other words if there is a higher-paying gig with someone other than myself when I get a gig they can…and will!!!… take it. Hence the pool. Progress??? Progressive!!! Future??? Unknown!!!!
Has the resurgence of interest in roots rock and roll had any impact at all on your, uh, career?
Resurgence in roots rock and roll??? Impact on my career??? Geeziz, if this has been a resurgence then I AM screwed!!!
How hard is it to write “funny”? How do you normally go about writing your songs?
Y’know, I don’t really try to write “funny.” I just approach an idea the way I approach it and I usually don’t like songs where the songwriter tries to make a Big Statement About Life. I try to deal with what’s left.
Describe the typical Charlie Burton fan.
Men: Well hung and intelligent. Women: Beautiful and intelligent.
Based on the evidence of some of your songs, you gotta be a major record collector. Do you have any “Holy Grail” records you’ve yet to find?
I am an avid rekkid collector and have uncountable LP’s, 45’s and CDs, many of which are totally rare and which my fellow collector friends will never own. As far as any “holy grail,” for which I still search, there really is (are) none simply because I am well aware of the countless great “sides” that await discovery by us one and all and regret that there is not time enough in life to listen to them all. Sigh. I do love the Thrill of the Hunt For Music. In fact I shall now impart to you my current 25 fave listening items. They include both all-time faves which I never even bother to file away, and current acquisitions.
In no apparent order:
1) Vernon Oxford–Let Me Sing You A Song. (Westside).
A new release and a dream come true for me, reissuing on a single CD all of this great hard-core honky-tonk singer’s classic 1966 recordings for RCA. Minor (major) Quibble: They shoulda used the original LP cover.
2) I work at a CD store and gazed longingly at the Frank Sinatra “Capitol Years” UK box for about a year before I finally traded in a buncha shit, including all my US remastered Frank-on-Capitol stuff, to acquire this SHOEBOX o’ DISCS. Gulp!!! Well, it’s the BEST DECISION I HAVE EVER MADE!!! Simply astonishing sound–I mean I’m no audiophile,–BELIEVE ME–but if you “dig” Frank on Capitol …YEOW!!!
3) Los Shakers, “Por Favor!” (Big Beat) Another dream come true for me, an entire CD of the best of Los Shakers, the Uruguayan Beatles. I stumbled on Los Shakers when I got a reissue on Raven of their “Break It All” LP and wuz ah evvah HOOKED!!! Cynics will cite similarities to the Rutles, and, okay, there is something of the pastiche about ’em, but I just love these guys. You will too.
4) Iggy & The Stooges “Raw Power” The greatest Hard Rock LP of all time. The remixed-by-Iggy-version is best, but I will part with my original with the last grip o’ mah dyin’ digits.
5) Percy Mayfield “My Jug & I” Why hasn’t anyone reissued this PULVERIZING AND INFLUENTIAL LP (on Ray Charles’ Tangerine Label, with backing by RC & band)on CD???
6)Johnny Bush, Texas Legends Vol. II–(Texas Legends) These are earlier recordings than Vol. I which covers his RCA period, which I adore also, but there is something so SOULFUL AND MAJESTIC AND SPECIAL about the STOP recordings of Johnny Bush, ca. ’68 when the Country Caruso was at the absolute height of his honky-tonk power. Totally over-the-top and totally devastating music.
7) Elvis 60’s Box From Memphis to Nashville. “Elvis is Back” and “From Elvis In
Memphis” with the hugely under-rated no-sountrack studio recordings in between. My favorite period o’ the King.
8) MC5 –“Back in the USA”
9) Elvis Costello “Get Happy!!!” (Ryko) I like Elvis Costello and this is my favorite by him.
10) Bob Dylan — Royal Albert Hall CD’s (SONY)
11) “Otis!” Otis Redding Box on Rhino. He was so great.
12) Buddy Holly Complete LP’s. Hopefully someday soon all the legal shit will get hashed out so there will be a CD update with stuff currently only available on bootlegs added. It’s a National Crime that you can’t get it at this time.
13) George Jones – Live at Dancetown USA– (Ace) I love George Jones and have been looking for this for a while. It’s great.
14) Dave Godin’s Deep Soul Treasures Vols. 1 & 2 (Kent) These are great “northern soul” compilations for which I tend to be a total sucker. There’s a new Volume on the horizon for which I have high hopes.
15) French Accordion Music 1913-1941 (Vol. I) and 1925-1942 (Vol II) (Fremiueux & Associates) One of these came in “used” at work and I hadda get Vol. II!!! Like the Harry Smith Archive of American Folk, these things give yew a glimpse into another time and world alltogether, this world being French.
16) Ernie Kovacs’ Record Collection (Varese Sarabande) I have always adored the great Tee & Vee Pioneer Ernie Kovacs, and I remember Where I Was When He Died like I do Marily Monroe and JFK. This wonderful CD collects the music that was so prominently featured in his shows and ah jes’ love it.
17) Anything by Johnny Paycheck on the Little Darlin’ label
18) Clyde McPhatter–Love Ballads— (Atlantic) Wotta voice!!! Sheesh!!!
19) Willie Nelson–Complete Liberty Recordings
20) Various Artistes –Brown Eyed Soul Vols 1-3 (Rhino) & Huggy Boy’s Presents Oldies But Goodies (RCA) Love that triplet Barrio Soul style like a fiend likes his dope and a drunkard his wine. Why isn’t there a full length CD by Thee Midnighters any more???
21) Dusty Springfield/Walker Brothers/Ivor Raymonde arrangements. You don’t have to be gay to dig the over-the-top melodramatic vertigo-inducing string arrangements featured on these 60’s Polydor recordings outta the continent!!!
22) Rockpile–Seconds of Pleasure (Colombia) and Live at the Palladium (CDR offa friend). What a rock and roll band oughta sound like. The Live thang is so blisteringly HOT it’ll take the paint off yer walls!!!!
23) Arthur Alexander–the Greatest– (Ace)
24) Charlie Rich: the Smash Recordings (Mercury)
24 1/2) My 45 rekkid collection — always within an arms’ reach is my mysterious and huge and randomly organized 45 collection from which I love to stick in my thumb and pull out a plum or three. Whether it’s the medium itself, the EQ of same, or my short attention span, the 45 is my favorite form of ingestion of da shit from snotty punk to honky tonk to soul to ???
25) Replacements–Pleased To Meet Me (Sire)
What are your favorite recordings from your own oeuvre?
1) “Rock and Roll Behavior” (original Wild 45)
2) “(You’re Not Playing Fair) Elise“
3) “Is That Wishful Thinkin On My Part???“
4) “Spare Me The Details“
5) “Embarrassment of Riches”
Charlie, I’ve done my level best to convince the congregation that One Man’s Trash is an absolutely e-fucking-ssential purchase. With your last words of this interview, why do they need this hard-hittin’ compilation of your work?
Interviewer’s Note: You should buy The OMT compilation because it is essential to have if you
ever want to get laid again.