It’s a land of beauty and wonder and unbridled humanity, this America we inhabit. Or at least it was once. As we forge ahead into new challenges, with doubt at every turn, a warm voice of comfort and nostalgia is just what the doctor ordered. And that’s exactly what Brian Burns, as has become his way, has vibrantly delivered. American Junkyard is the sixth studio release from this icon of Texas music, and like the five before, it follows no standard formulas. The tracks range from simple, pure, soul-wrenching country “State of the Art” through inspired covers reminding us just who we are and what it is that matters. Burns has long been a genius at finding the hidden gems of other artists, and the jukebox in his head doesn’t disappoint on this go-round.
Tracks from Russell Smith (Amazing Rhythm Aces) to Keith Grimwood and Ezra Idlet (Trout Fishing in America) fit seamlessly into a sweeping panorama of ideals and memories, reminding us of the value in the commonly uncommon amongst us. Where Burns himself deals most often here with the larger scale American Junkyard, “J.D.’s Junk City,” the covers bring us face to face with ourselves as individuals. Smith’s “The King Is In His Castle”, interpreted through Burns’ powerful vocals and a gospel choir, handles this task with all the gentle fury of a babbling brook. It rises and falls and flows, all the while underscoring the treasures of simple lives well lived.
“State of the Art”, a Burns original, takes a decidedly different tack. It’s as pure and sweet a country melody as has ever been put to strings, with Gary Carpenter’s pedal steel thrown in to round out the atmosphere in stunning fashion. The track, entirely devoid of the maudlin preachiness which too often infuses this sort of thing, stabs right at the heart of what’s wrong with music today – the listener. It’s a blunt yet gentle reminder that the guys in the suits are going to produce what we buy, and that it’s consequently our fault if the airwaves are clogged with crap.
If Waylon Jennings walked into a Houston beer joint, got up on stage and sang “MacArthur Park” -Would you just yell “Freebird” or would you stop and listen and appreciate the state of the art?
But again, preachy is not the aim of this record. There’s plenty of the patented Burns humor around, notably “Rattlesnake Tequila” and “Upside Down.” The former picks up where the last CD’s title cut “Border Radio” left off, taking Texas highways and desert vistas to a venomous extreme. Based in fact, it’s a mind-bending romp through the aftereffects of a combination of mescal, cinnamon, lime, and rattlesnake. There’s a picture up at www.brianburnsmusic.com if you need some proof. “Upside Down” is a drinking song of a different sort, and a celebration of drunken ingenuity to boot. Try this line the next time you’re standing on a roadside being interviewed for a driving while exhilarated award:
The car was upside down when I got here
I left it right-side up some time ago
Some kids drove by and poured somethin’ all down my shirt
It might have been tequila, I don’t know.
I stepped into the woods for a midnight prayer
I don’t know what went down when I was not here…
And for those who find humor a balm for tattered souls, “To Make A Long Story Short” will be an unmitigated boon. Unconventional in structure, really just a stream-of-consciousness story put to music without regard for chorus and verse, it’s a universal story of what happens when a relationship just can’t work. Absent of true venom or malice, rollickingly funny at times, it’s genius. One of the record’s standout tracks, infused throughout with a grim humor that creates smiles every time it’s played.
But moreso perhaps than in any Burns offering to date, there’s wisdom in each track. Longtime fans will remember the wonder of Angels and Outlaws, or the haunted memories of Montgomery Street. Both are improved upon here, in spades. The title track is as clear a summation of Americana as has ever been put to song. The opening harmonica strains evoke the best of Springsteen’s most introspective works, while the rolling guitar lead and backing piano and organ harmonies create a sweeping panorama of almost visual sound. It’s an arrangement both lush and simplified, an aural representation of what makes America the wonderful place that it is. And the lyrics get right at the heart of it:
We got outlaws who outran their restlessness
poets and preachers who did their best
Teachers with courage and selflessness
just try tellin’ them times ain’t hard
Department store dummies with missin’ hands
songbooks from Salvation Army bands
Old dogs whose owners made other plans
we’ve got it all here for sale
In the American Junkyard
Backing vocals from The American Junkyard Full-Gospel Choir turn the spiraling chorus and final stanza into a masterful, heartfelt paean to all of us. Who we are, where we’re going, and most importantly where we’ve been…. Because without that piece of our past to guide our paths, we’re lost. That’s the underlying theme of the record, and it’s brought home in piercing, sardonic fashion in the chorus of the achingly beautiful “JD’s Junk City.”
Come on in and take a look inside a junkman’s heart
Where one man’s heap of garbage is another’s work of art
Then look out into a world where hearts have turned to stone
And tell me which side of the fence the junkyard’s really on
Other tracks, notably “Burnin’ Gasoline” and “Postcard from Jamaica”, find Burns in alternately reverent and wonderingly nostalgic moods. The closer, “Along Old Fencelines”, will take its place as one of the best songs the man has ever written. The pedal steel accompaniment seems torn from a George Strait record, circa 1983, while the sentiments espoused delve far deeper than country music’s king has ever gone. It’s tracks like this one, and like the title cut, which underscore Burns’ mastery of his craft. We’ve seen him hone his skills over the past decade. We’ve followed him down lost highways, shared a listen to both haunted jukeboxes and border radio. We’ve heard him sing of storms and urban legends, of epic train wrecks, distant memories, and even fire ants. Texian soldiers, lovers, rogues, old Pullman porters and the wisdom of the sagest of drunks have populated the landscape of Brian Burns records since Highways, Heartaches and Honky-Tonks first hit the airwaves.
But here, in this album, Burns has told the story of us. Perhaps more importantly, the story of what we’ve lost. In that way, he’s taken his place as one of those rare generational singers or songwriters with the ability to transform and inspire. Croce, Lightfoot, Clark. Hank, Waylon, Lefty. Dylan and the Boss. All different and unique, but all with the ability to strike at the very core of each of us. American Junkyard makes it clear that Brian Burns belongs in that pantheon. The question is simply whether, in this madcap workaday world, anyone will stop to listen. For those who do, a bountiful treasure awaits.
www.brianburnsmusic.com for info, lyrics, song clips, CD orders, and a myriad of other ways to meaningfully while away the time.
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Dave Pilot lives in north Texas with his first good wife (don’t ask about the other one), seven horses, and five dogs. When his wife’s not looking, he tries to figure out ways to feed the 987 or so cats to the coyotes out behind the fenceline. When he’s not trying to raise his kids to turn out better than he did, he’s hitting historical sites on his way to honky-tonks from Denton to Port Aransas.
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