In the Studio: Paul Burch's Merician Rising

The making of Paul Burch's Jimmie Rodgers-inspired album Meridian Rising
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The latest release from Nashville-based roots artist/recordist Paul Burch is Meridian Rising: a clever and beautifully crafted concept album that imagines the life of country legend Jimmie Rodgers (1897-1933). “Years ago, I heard a recording that Jimmie made with the blues guitarist Clifford Gibson,” Burch recalls. “It was a version of ‘Let Me Be Your Sidetrack’ that was unreleased in Jimmie’s time. I just loved it, and the more I thought about it, the more I thought about Jimmie’s life as a musician and how it would be a lot of fun to write from his point of view.”

It’s an exercise musicians use often, on some level: write or play a new song in the style they imagine their heroes might. In Burch’s case, he was inspired to create an album of period-correct original songs, which he then recorded with some of his favorite musicians, in his personal studio, Pan American Sound. Recording to an MCI 1-inch 8-track analog tape machine, the artist committed to an era-specific sound to tell his stories—not via antique audio gear, but by recording live, using the room and all acoustic, carefully chosen instruments.

“I didn’t give much thought to stressing a ‘vintage’ sound,” Burch explains. “I did give thought to limiting the choice of instrumentation to the time period, but that actually opened up my imagination to brass and woodwinds. But for the basic tracking, virtually everything was cut with drums, upright bass, and acoustic guitar. If the piano player could make it—Jen Gunderman, who also plays with Sheryl Crow—she was there, too.

“There’s one song called ‘Cadillacin’,’ which sounds like it has fuzz guitar, but it’s actually an acoustic guitar through a Placid Audio Copperphone mic,” Burch says. “That mic [is designed to] give everything a telephone-like sound, but if you play a guitar through it, it sounds like a fuzz guitar, and that’s an example of something where I had to ask, “How do I get some funky sounds without breaking the No Electric rule?’

“When we would go for a cut, I would sing really softly in the room but not on the mic—kind of whispering-singing, just so they could hear my phrasing,” Burch continues. “Jen likes to make charts, but mostly everybody else was going by head arrangements. The idea was, the band would record live and I would listen back to it and sing along to the playback and make sure I could get my phrasing the way I wanted it.

Burch’s vocals were mainly captured via a Neumann U87. “But the label, Plowboy Records is owned by the grandson of Eddie Arnold, and we did have Eddie Arnold’s RCA 44 around the studio. We used that some for voice; we also used that in front of the drums to pick up the sound of the kit,” Burch says.

“In general, I tended to use a combination of small mics on everything. I have a 57 with the old Mercenary Audio transformer mod, an SM7—mostly conventional mics.”

Burch recorded the tracks while simultaneously leading the band except for “To Paris,” which was recorded by David Leonard. “David was so helpful; when I explained to him how we like to record, he said [we should] get really close together to have as little delay in the room as possible. I might have wanted to record everything in a really wide open space, because Jimmie’s voice always seems very wide open, but he said, ‘You want different soundscapes because, if everything’s wide open, things are going to compete with each other.’”

Leonard—whose engineering and production credits include Prince, Heart, Toto, Dwight Yoakam, and k.d. lang, to name a few—kindly built waist-high baffles for Burch and his band. “The stylistic approach was everybody in the room playing live with close mics or spot mics on them, but basically the AEA and RCA ribbons in the room picking up the entirety,” Leonard says. “That way, the bleed between the mics would be good bleed.”