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John Burnette's debut album casts a wide net

He plays South on Main May 24.


  • Brandon Otto

It's hard to imagine John Burnette "rage quitting" anything. He's unshakable, even-keeled, with a hushed voice that's equal parts honey and velvet, the kind of voice you lean in to hear more closely. Still, he claims, he was near fits with an inauspicious fishing trip in the fall of 2012 to Mirror Lake, near Burnette's native Mountain View. "The otters were stealing fish, the blue herons were out, and you had to watch close for deer on the highway," he recalled. It was overcast, and the clouds had dissuaded all but Burnette and an older man fishing nearby. As Burnette was about to throw in the towel, the old-timer beckoned to him, evidently witness to one fruitless cast after another. The two ended up talking for hours, mostly about the old man's recently deceased wife, a topic he returned to between mini-tutorials on fishing techniques and an artificial fly called a Woolly Bugger. Burnette ended up catching his limit that day. He also ended up writing a tearjerker of a waltz called "She Called Him Jim," the sixth track on Burnette's self-titled debut album. It's a work years in the making, and he'll celebrate its completion with a show at South on Main on Wednesday, May 24.

Burnette's in Charlotte, N.C., now. It's a city whose growth, he says, is fueled by transplants like him, from all over the U.S. "It's not like Austin or Portland or Seattle, where there's a built-in identity. It's a bunch of transplants kinda getting together, trying to make it a cool place to live." He's carved out a creative spot in Charlotte, most recently as an extra in Evan Peters' film "American Animals," which tells the true story of the 2004 Transylvania University book heist. (Burnette responded to a casting call requiring a musician for a club scene, but when the filmmakers saw his headshots, they decided he looked too young and cast him as a beer-soaked college student.)

Despite the move, Burnette said, "Arkansas is home." Burnette's history here — musical and familial — made it a natural place to celebrate the release of his first album. "It does feel like a very Arkansas record," he said. "Some of my family is from Memphis, so there's a little Memphis soul. It's got some Ozark kind of stuff, a little bit of a Tulsa sound to it, some New Orleans horn, a little bit of bluesy Delta type stuff." There's a Dixieland brass band breakdown in "Mona, Fiona and Me," a tongue-in-cheek take on love across the Kinsey scale. There's a flamenco-style guitar introduction to "Chulo Says Sancho," a song Burnette wrote about political spectacle after reading David Foster Wallace's "Up, Simba!" There's an oceanic-6/8 sailor's rhythm to the expansive opener, "Fever Dream." "The only way I wrote those songs was to kind of let all that blow across me," Burnette said. "And the only way to let it blow across me was to have been in Arkansas."

Because Burnette wasn't certain he'd be able to hire a band, the album was recorded piecemeal: part of it at Fellowship Hall Sound and part of it at a nascent Capitol View Studio, when it was little more than a garage adjoined to an apartment. Burnette, engineer Mark Colbert and others "tried a little bit of everything," Burnette said. "Threw down every idea and just kind of peeled it back. What's that they say? ... " He hesitated, evidently weighing whether or not decorum permitted him to say the word "bullshit" in an interview. "B.S. makes the best fertilizer," he said. "It took a while, but I'm glad we took our time with it and were able to shape it the way we wanted to," he said. "Kind of like rock polishing."

Burnette laid down tracks in closets, bathrooms and other borrowed spaces. He eventually began trying to mimic other instruments on his guitar.

"A couple years ago," he said, "my wife, as a hobby, thought, 'Oh, I'm gonna learn to play the violin.' So we bought a cheap violin, and just kinda threw it in the closet. I found the bow and thought, 'I wonder if I can mimic some string sounds.' " He did, and he mimicked horn sounds, too — "a loose interpretation," he said. Although he eventually brought in some jazz-minded colleagues — saxophonist and clarinetist Matt Schatz, trombonist Jeff Woodward, trumpeter Guido Ritchie and multi-instrumentalist Matt Stone — to fill things out, most of Burnette's instrumental impersonations ended up on the album anyway, and that arsenal of timbres lends a depth to the 11 tracks that doesn't necessarily come with standard instrumentation. "Once we mixed it all together, it sounded really cohesive," he said. (That happened last year, but Burnette still seems a little surprised.) "So there's a lot of interplay between me trying to mimic the instrument and the actual instrument happening. A happy little accident, I guess."

Burnette's performance at South on Main is part of the venue's "Sessions" series, curated in May by Capitol View Studio owner and founder Bryan Frazier. The show starts at 8 p.m. and tickets are $10. You can reserve a table by calling 244-9660.

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