Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Brent Burns: From Ahab The Arab to Going Ugly Early.

"You've got to have some folks that hate your songs for them to be funny. Those are the people I'm writing about!" That's singer/songwriter Brent Burns talking about the biting humor in much of his material in general, in particular his ode to temporary transplants from up North, "If It's Snowbird Season, Why Don't We Shoot 'Em?" "I live in a town that gets a lot of Snowbirds and I love 'em. They support me, I play golf with them...But I hear all the time, 'I LOVE your stuff, but I've got a buddy...'  So, I know the song is hitting it's target!" 

Burn's traces his comedic songwriting skills back to hearing Ray Stevens' "Ahab The Arab" in the sixth grade. "It made everybody in the class laugh! I was hooked." Many years later, Stevens' influence can still be heard on much of the Trop Rocker's stuff, with titles like "Double Wide In The Sky", "Nurse Rambo", "Big Boat, Little Johnson" and "I Think I'm Going Blonde". "Ray has always been a hero of mine. I was thrilled when I got to record with him (for a track on Burns' 2008 cd, "Beach In My Backyard"). I called Brent at his home in Gulf Shores, Alabama and asked him - among many other things - about writing songs...

You're probably best known for writing some very funny songs...

"Comedy is one of my strong suits, I have embraced it. I like to make people laugh".

But, they often have a point - you have to LISTEN to the lyrics to get it. Like in "Going Ugly Early Tonight" (from the cd, 'Tropical Nuts'). The whole song is a set up for the punch line at the end. If you're not listening, you could miss the whole joke. How does that work in a bar environment, where people might not be paying as much attention?

"Yeah, bars can be tough. I'm a storyteller and, sometimes, the stories don't go over as well if people are just casually listening. With 'Going Ugly' women will shoot darts at me with their eyes during the verses. But, then, if they've been paying attention, they get a big kick out of it at the end" (If you have heard the song, you know what the twist is. If you haven't heard it yet, I won't spoil it for you - Fred). It's really about the venue. It's another reason why, like a lot of people, I'm trying to do more 'listening venues' and House Concerts. That's where I can give people the background on why I wrote something and they can actually HEAR the songs. I'll still do bars, it's just a different kind of thing."

Does the environment affect what kind of show you do?

"Not really. When I was about 16, I saw the Everly Brothers in concert. This was well after they had their big hits. But, they still put on a GREAT show. They were true entertainers. That was a big influence on me. Also, one of my philosophies is 'You make one friend at a time.' I've done great shows where there were just fifteen people. It's really about being a professional. You're being paid to do a job. I keep playing, keep telling my stories, whether I think people are paying attention or not. It's funny, sometimes I'll think people aren't listening, then they will come up after the show and buy some cds, say 'I loved your stuff! So, I always try to put on a great show no matter what."

Tell me about your songwriting process.

""I'm not a fast writer. I have to work at it. And I can't write on the road, I have to have three or four days off in a row at home. Since 2003, I have been working with Bill Whyte, a comedian, musician, and radio dj in Nashville. We'll talk on the phone and throw ideas back and forth, or he'll come down and we'll write together. I have a songwriting room here in my house, with a piano, a couple of guitars...and a tv for football season! When I'm home and working on a new project, I try to spend at least an hour and a half to two hours each day really concentrating on it. It's tough sometimes - you're sitting there staring at a piece of blank paper and nothing is coming out. Other times the ideas fly out. That's what happened with the first cd.

'Livin' The Life'?

"Yeah. I moved to Nashville and things just weren't working out - this was in the 80's. I had written a few songs, had a couple of Top 40 hits earlier. I was playing bars, doing mostly covers, hadn't written a song in a long time. I just hit a dry spell. There was a moment where I thought I was never going to write again. I decided to move back to the beach in 1991. Then, in 1998, I saw an interview with Jimmy Buffett on (the tv show) 60 Minutes. I wrote the song "Livin' The Life (Jimmy Buffett Only Wrote About)" and that was it. The flood gates opened. Before I knew it, I had a fuIl cd. I followed that with a second cd, Perpetual Vacation in 2000"

Had you met Jimmy?

"I knew his music, had some of his cds, but I wouldn't say I was a big fan. I didn't even know about the whole 'Parrot Head' thing. About the time I was releasing 'Livin' The Life', I got a call about putting my song on a copulation cd - Wow! I meant COMPILATION! Gotta be careful mixing up those two words! (laughs). The cd was called "Thongs In The Key Of Life". On it were people like John Reno, Jim Morris, "Sunny Jim" White; guys that were writing about some of the same things I was. The person who put it together, Jim Hoehn, also told me about this gathering called "Meeting Of The Minds' in Key West. I had never heard of it!"

Was it an automatic connection to the Parrot Head world?

"I was introduced to it after 'Livin' The life', but it wasn't until my third cd, 'Tropical Nuts', in 2003 that I actually went down to Meeting of the Minds. I put a copy of the cd in each goodie bag, so that helped me get alot of exposure. By 'Margarita Smile' in 2005, a lot of the Trop Rock world had discovered me and then, in 2008 I put out 'Ragtops and Flip Flops', which won Trop Rock Album of the Year."

Your 2010 CD, "Beach In My Backyard' has an interesting cover. It's a guy with a Corona, but he definitely doesn't look like he's at the beach - he's got a scarf and gloves on.

"That's my salute to the people I have met and played for in colder climates - places up North. They create their own little tropical world in their homes and backyards, even if it's just with inflatable palm trees. It's me saying 'you can have a beach anywhere, as long as you have the attitude'."

So, do YOU actually have a beach in your backyard?

"Hah! Not anymore! Hurricane Ivan tore up my beach house in 2004. I live about two or three miles from the beach now, which I kind of like. It's close enough to go down there when I have the time, but far enough away to avoid the tourist traffic."

What's a typical "day off" for you?

I don't have many of those right now! Especially in May and June... I did just take eight days off, went to the Czech Republic on vacation..."

The Czech Republic? Doesn't sound very Tropical!

laughs.."Yeah, living at the beach is great, but not necessarily where you want to spend your vacations. You kind of want a break from time to time. It's like living next to Disney World. My son married a Czech girl so we went to see her family. Had a great time, spent a couple days in a small town, a couple days in Prague. Man, they definitely know how to party there! They don't do it often, but when they do... One party we went to, they started bringing out food and booze. Then there was coffee, then another round of food and booze. It started at 1 in the afternoon and went until 2 in the morning." 

What about back in Gulf Shores, what do you do on your days off when you are home?

"I like to read, if I'm in the mood I'll write for a little while, go to the gym. Just relax and wait for Happy Hour!".

Cruise around in that pretty convertible Mustang you have, the one on the cover of 'Ragtops and Flip Flops'?

"That's back in the shop right now! It's been a three and a half year project - a long story that included it being locked in a body shop's garage when they went out of business. I could see it through the window but couldn't get to it! Finally, I found somebody who would let me get in and rescue it. Right now it's just getting some final detailing, then it should finally be done. It's a '66 that I've had for about 16 years. The original color was "Ember Glow" but I had it painted Candy Apple Red after I got into a fender bender."

You mentioned Happy Hour. Where are your favorite spots to go?

"Lulu's (owned by Jimmy Buffett's sister, Lucy) is my anchor. I have been playing Monday nights there for, like, seven years. Also, Doc's Seafood. It's a locals hangout, only about ten seats at the bar. And, if we're going to be hanging out later at night, we usually end up at a place called the Cubano Cigar Bar. It's just a few minutes from our house."

Let's get back to your music. I don't want to give too much away - that's what people go to House Concerts for, to hear about the stories behind the songs...But, I did want to ask you about a few tracks. Let's start with "Cheaper Crude". That got you some interesting airplay!

"A buddy of mine sent that song in to Paul Harvey. Paul liked the song so much he played it THREE TIMES on the air. Most people remember Paul, he has passed on now but he was HUGE at the time. And he NEVER played any music. So, for him to play the song was a major indorsement. From that, we were on the Mike Douglass Show, Hee Haw, got a deal with a label in Nashville...although, the label ended up going bankrupt - with alot of my money - but that's another story..."

That sucks...

"Yeah. They sold 400,000 copies of the record and I didn't see a dime. I learned from it, though. I hang on to my material now. It's better to have some smaller success but own your own stuff than to go for the home run and, maybe, lose everything. The internet has changed things a lot, too, for independent artists. Used to be you needed a label to get your music out. People would hear you play somewhere - or hear your song on the radio - but, if the local record stores didn't carry it, they couldn't buy it. Now, they can go to Amazon, or CD baby, or my website and buy whatever they want. The internet has leveled the playing field considerably."

How about 'Hot Beer, Cold Women'?

"I was sitting around with a friend, Jim Allison - at the time we were both single - and talking about women, how you can score one day and the next it's like you have a huge wart on your forehead. As I like to say, 'sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes the bear eats you'. So, it came from that, a single guy's worst day..."

'Kenny Roger's Face'
I guess I saw Kenny Rogers (the singer, not the pitcher - Fred) somewhere, all the plastic surgery he had. I'll leave it at that. I started thinking about all the things that were no longer the same. I wrote that with Bill Whyte - we were laughing the whole time we were recording it."

'I Married My Stalker'
"That never actually happened to me, although I've had some near misses. I got the idea from a friend named Malcom Bond. He has a real deadpan sense of humor, always complaining about his wife. One day I said something about stalkers and he said, with a straight face, 'I married mine'. Turns out he had been in a rock and roll band, had a girl that used to follow him to shows, turn up back at his hotel room, even if he was there with another woman. I told him I was going to write a song about that and I did, gave him credit for the inspiration on the liner notes of the cd."

That's funny, You never know where inspiration is going to come from.
We have talked about the comedy aspects of your music, but you also do a lot of serious work - playing for the troops and helping charities like Habitat For Humanity...
"You have to give back. I learned that from my parents. There are a lot of people who struggle, I've been blessed. I don't want to get too philosophical, but - call it what you want - I really believe that the more you give out, the more comes back. As I like to say, 'You can't out give God."

For more on Brent, including where he will be performing next, or to order his cds, check out his website