Monday, April 30, 2012

The Taos Home Companion

Burton Jespersen has long been a part of the New Mexico musical landscape.   He first surfaced as the lead singer for  The Refrigerators, a band out of Taos, N.M. that made a big splash in the small pond of Albuquerque, N.M.

As an early follower of the Elvis Costello/Joe Jackson school of spastic nerd cool, Burton helped introduce new wave to Albuquerque.  The Refrigerators  were edgy enough to turn heads, but not so weird that people were turned off. That was important in a town where most revelers preferred cover bands to anything original or unfamiliar. 

I've always credited The Refrigerators (and The Philisteens) with kick starting the current Duke City music scene.  Local bands hellbent on playing original music were unheard of  then. So, when The Refrigerators put out an album of original material in 1981, it was almost revolutionary.

By avoiding the bar band boogie and showcasing their self penned tunes, they gave the local folks a reason to kick up some dust.  However, once the dust settled The Refrigerators' (Burton, Dennis Dillon, Rick Thompson, Billy Platt and Mox Montoya) cooled off  and broke up in 1982.

I did get to see them play one last time at some dingy club (the name escapes me) I recall getting hammered on rum & coke while yelling at the band to play Elephant Head. A good time was had by me. The band later resurfaced as The Magnetixs, while Burton moved on to The Victims.

In those days Graham Central Station was just about the only Albuquerque venue showcasing national touring acts and The Victims (Burton-vocals, Greg Martin-guitar, Karl Halpert-guitar, Tom Russell-bass & Greg Vinella-drums) opened for many of them. (including a memorable gig opening for The Ramones at the Pan Am Center in Las Cruces.) The Victims recorded some original  material at studios in El Paso and Albuquerque, before calling it quits after a year.

That was followed by a succession of other bands and a solo career that took Burton around the world. The culmination of travel and adventure resulted in Burton's first solo album "The Ride."  Which, CD Baby described as "Rockin'Rhythm and Bluezeee Americana" and here at Dirt City Chronicles we called it "the perfect accompaniment for life on the proverbial lonesome highway." 

The 2003 release features two of Burton's  strongest compositions (Tomorrow and The Ride) along with some well chosen cover songs. I love Burton's taste in music, as a musical interpreter he educates and entertains. The songs of Keb Moe, Bob Dylan, Darden Smith, John Hiatt, Johnny Horton and even Brooks & Dunn grace the grooves of "The Ride" If you knew nothing about American music, this would serve as an excellent introduction. 

Wherein "The Ride" centered around being "out there following a song."  "Any  Road" looks at life from the vantage point of a man who's dropped anchor in a place he knows and loves.  New Mexico is situated, geographically so that most any road will lead you there. If you call this place your home, then you're always near  a road that will bring you back.

Burton Jespersen has his feet firmly planted in Taos, "this old dirt road is in my blood, you can taste the wood smoke, the earth and mud. With New Mexico as a backdrop, Burton brings each song home.  His plaintive voice paints  pictures of "a big river carving out the land" His lyrical imagery  takes us to a space and place that he calls home "smell the wood smoke in the air, chamisas  blooming everywhere."

The cover songs on "Any Road" are not as predominant, but they do fit in nicely with the   concept and flow of the album.  Calman Hart's "Barrel of Rain" is set in the Kansas plains,"I'll build you a barrel to catch the rain"  it could just as easily be about Eastern or Southern New Mexico. "If you give me this Lord, I'll never ask for nothing again."
The same could be said about Drew Nelson's "Farmer's Lament"  "this is my home, this is a place where seeds, sweat, tears and love are sown" Burton's voice wavers as if he's choking back tears as he sings.  The dry sandy soil sifts through  calloused fingers, as he sings  " the family farm is a dying thing"

"Gone Again", written by Kenny Edwards (Stone Poneys, Linda Ronstadt) "I went  to the store to get some apple pie, told my little darling, I'd be back by five", "Gravity" by Robert Lee Castleman, "I left home when I was seventeen, just grew tired of falling down." and Earl Thomas Conley's "You must not be drinkin' enough", could have been written about Burton Jespersen, which is probably why he chose them.

Like on his previous album, Burton has surrounded himself with skilled, musicians.  The line-up reads like a who's who of Taos music, Jimmy Stadler- electric guitar, piano Mike Hearn- acoustic lead guitar, Don Richmond- electric guitar, pedal steel and an assortment of stringed instruments.  The band adds subtle shades and tones to each track, throughout the album they remind me of The Band's work backing Bob Dylan. That's high praise, but it's well earned.

The song cycle is autobiographical. Burton's originals cover a wide range of topics and are are joyous statements of fact.  The music tells the story of a land, it's people and of one person in particular, Burton.  "Made my home by the Rio Grande, my mom and dad didn't understand"  They revolve around a common theme... the need to feel comfortable in one's own skin. 

The message is loud and clear, find your place in the sun and you find yourself. "Any Road" is the perfect home companion, the polar opposite of "The Ride" Burton has an uncanny knack for empathy  and storytelling.  He can draw a tear from your eyes, or  make you smile with an easy turn of phrase. 

I don't want to give the impression that these are sad songs for sad times.   "Any Road" is a celebration of music and the little things... be they good or bad.  When it comes to Burton's music, inevitably ... the pleasure is all ours.

Five Easy Questions w/ Burton Jespersen

DCC:  "The Ride" introduced me to the music of Keb Moe and Darden Smith. "Any Road" does the same with Calman Hart and Drew Nelson. Are the songs you cover a reflection of your own personal taste in music?

Burton:  Yes, I look for songs that I can play and that sit  well with me, like favorite cloths that suit your style and you know you wanna wear for years.    I have been doing shows and retreats with lots of other songwriters for quite a few years. I love finding people like Drew Nelson and Calman Hart.  Those are really great songs . The troubadour tradition is not about who wrote the song. It is about telling the story. We relate to these stories because we understand the imagery. It is part of our culture and part of us.

DCC:  As the son of a farmer, your rendition of Drew Nelson's "Farmers Lament" really tugged at my heartstrings, brings back a flood of memories and emotions

Burton:  There are tons of great songs out there that are not famous, and more being written all the time.  Just like there are tons of great, devoted songwriters out there too. For me, it is a great thrill to be around other writers and see what gems they come up with. Farmers Lament,  a great song. Not the only really good stuff that Drew Nelson has done and is doing.

DCC:  You have a knack for finding songs that fit you like a glove, (for instance Calman Hart's "Barrel of Rain") Have you considered an album of nothing but cover songs?

Burton:  If  I am lucky enough to do another recording project I don't know what it will be at this point. It will probably not be all covers. Maybe someday. I would love to just keep recording. That is not the case right now for me. I need a studio and a lot of help. I do not record anything myself at home.

DCC:  The overall theme of "Any Road"  (to me) appears to be that no matter how far you roam, it's always good to have a place you call home.

Burton:  You are right about the theme of any road.  It is about just that.  I love my house in Taos. I have my workshop here and I do all my living here, except when I am gone.

DCC:  What is next on the horizon for Burton Jespersen?

Burton:   I still like and kinda need to travel with the music.  I am going to California in July and flying to Denmark in Aug.  I'm playing at the Copenhagen Songwriter Festival Aug 17th 18th, 19th.  I hope to play around a few places in Europe and come back the middle of Sept. I am just starting to work on a schedule for this summer now

At the rate of an album every ten years, we may yet get another album or two out of Burton Jespersen before it's all said and done.  That's not a problem, here in New Mexico we understand long gaps, seemingly endless stretches of nothing and prolonged absences.  "The land of mañana" will always refer to old Mexico, but New Mexico still remains the land of "maybe mañana."

Burton Jespersen approached me to write album notes for "Any Road" which was the genesis of this feature. They didn't use them, but I promised if he didn't, I'd post them on Dirt City Chronicles. Fortunately, almost everything I write finds a home at Dirt City Chronicles. The need of which (home) is the overlying theme of Burton's new album.

"Any Road" belatedly follows on the heels of his first solo album "The Ride"  The combination of the two,  gives us all the evidence we need to declare Burton a New Mexican original, a true blue musical heirloom. I've been a fan of Burton's music since 1980, I rediscovered his music in 2010, maybe it's time that you follow suit.