words by Michael Todd | photos by Hilary Stohs-Krause
Pass George Burl on a western Nebraska highway, and you can bet he'll be waving. Only, if he's not on the way to play a concert, he won't be George Burl, but rather Michael Walworth. That's the name by which his town of Imperial, Neb., likely knows the prolific songwriter. Only they know the frequency of the Walworth wave, but his good-natured, well-spoken interview helps Hear Nebraska make an informed guess.
Out in the southwestern corner of the state, Burl has been producing EPs at a steady clip. He's made at least eight shorter releases in the past two years, and most of them come singin' and pickin' from his own recording studio. Most of them, that is, except for Really Good Brown Gravy, which Burl took to Nashville's Station West Studios for a new kind of treatment.
As part of a five-song set, he brought the "Middle of the Country" to Tennessee and says it talks about a mix of reality and popular perceptions of this region. He owes its origin to a crack of lightning right off I-76, and below, he tells the story. Follow along with the lead sheet of chords and lyrics at the very bottom along with a special video lesson from Burl via Skype.
Hear Nebraska: Tell me about this last record you released that "Middle of the Country" is on.
George Burl: This last one is called Really Good Brown Gravy. I recorded it in Nashville, and I think it’s what they call a demo in technical terms. I just blazed through it, saved some money up then went and did it. I wanted to put some of my songs through the grinder, so to speak, so I just let ‘em at it. I was really happy with the result. It’s a lot different from the things I've been doing at home obviously.
HN: How did you find the studio in Nashville that produced it?
GB: Oh, just years of knowing people. I just finally found someone that knew someone I knew and was willing to work with me and bend the rules. They have a process as far as getting songs recorded in a certain way, and they let me have a lot of leniency there.
HN: Could you talk more about what rules were bent?
GB: Oh, they're not rules, but rather conventions, I'd say: certain things that are conventional for that type of recording session. For instance, I was lucky to have a lot of very good players. These guys don't need direction from me, but they were willing to listen to some of the ideas that I brought from my basement.
We tried to throw them together really quickly because I didn't have a lot of time. It was on my dime. And they patiently listened and did their best to faithfully reproduce the ideas I was trying to get across. I can have as much time as I'm willing to pay for, but they were very courteous. It was a very good experience.
HN: Now talking about the song in particular, when did you write it and what were you thinking about when you wrote it?
GB: I don't have a lot of good stories for some of my songs. This one is very interesting that you chose to ask about. I have a one and a half year old, and we were driving back from Colorado. We had him in a birthing center up there, but we were coming back from some trip in separate cars for some reason.
I was in front and there was this storm brewing. I was coming east from Colorado down I-76 through the open land, driving for hours, past Sterling and that area. The storm that was just coming was brewing up in front of me, and as I drove into it, it got darker and darker. Right as we came into it, I was just humming along, and this lightning bolt struck somewhere close by, so close that the flash and thunder were together. With that, I had this song, the whole first verse in my head.
I started singing it all the whole way home. Then I thought that if I could just leave it alone for a little bit and write some lyrics that are, I don't know if prosaic is the right word, but some that fit with the idea. So I worked on them a little bit. I always liked the song. Everybody that I sang the first couple lines really liked it, so I guess it’s been a year and a half now.
HN: OK, I talked to a couple bands from Alliance, Nebraska, last night, but I also wanted to get your thoughts on what it's like playing music in western Nebraska, and what you think eastern Nebraska should know about it.
GB: Oh, man. The rest of the state should know that people are working hard. One, consciously trying to have a good time. Two, consciously listening to music. And three, consciously trying to build a scene, really, for no other reason than that it means something to have people to share their music with.
It's everything from kids to adults, and there’s a lot happening out here. I’ve run into a lot of enthusiastic people, both listeners and promoters.
HN: All right, that's about all I have for questions. What else would you like to add about "Middle of the Country."
GB: It’s pretty self-explanatory. I'm just going over the lyrics in my head now. In my own little universe, I like to believe that I put a lot of thought into my lyrics, as I'm sure we all do. For this one, I put a lot of thought into not putting a lot of thought into it.
I just wanted to follow the theme of describing not what I physically saw out here, but what I thought I saw. It’s a mix of impressions that everybody has of this area of the world and the reality in what I hope is equal amounts to be both plausible and entertaining.
It’s as close as anything I have to a pop song. I was thinking "pop" in my head, though it doesn't sound like pop. It sounds like me (laughs). It sounds like my song. Think of it as a way to interpret what is happening in the head. This is my idea of a pop song, and I took it to people who record pop songs.
So that’s sort of a Rosetta Stone or guide for how to translate the rest of what I’m doing as I try to catch up with myself.