Jason Tyler Burton
4 stars (out of 5)
By Donald Teplyske
Some wonderful albums could come from ‘anywhere’, and their universal appeal is one of the things that make them powerful. It matters not whether the songwriter was in Austin or Dublin, on the Spanish Steps or in Florence’s Accademia as his songs germinated, the lyrics and music reach across time and locales to capture emotions and sentiments that transcend something as obvious as setting.
Other albums are so assured in their sense of place they could only be from ‘that place.’ In every word, in each note, the sense of place is so strong that their connection to ‘that place’ is palpable.
Some of my favourite albums have that strength of place. Woodland Telegraph’s Sings Revival Hymns is one of those albums, a creation that is so tied to its genesis in the Canadian Rockies that it seemingly couldn’t have been produced elsewhere. To me, every album from John Wort Hannam and Maria Dunn share a similar feeling: these are Alberta albums, even if their subject matter, inspiration, and very sound cross provinces, countries, and oceans. If you ask me, Jay Clark’s album’s couldn’t come from anywhere but east Tennessee, and more recently, Josephy Lemay has created music that shares a similar connection to place.
All of which brings me to Jason Tyler Burton’s new album, a disc that overflows with the atmosphere, openness, and clarity of the Utah and Wyoming wilderness that this Kentuckian now calls home. Living in a van and exploring this western land, Burton has created a remarkable album that connects listeners to a place they may never have before experienced.
I come to Burton’s new album Headwaters with no familiarity with his music. With a little research, I came across some live performances including a challenging little number entitled “Caleb Meyer’s Ghost,” in which Burton creates the back story for Gillian Welch’s (still) greatest song; in Burton’s interpretation, Nellie Kane’s assailant had his own troubles in life, but Burton doesn’t let him off the hook and holds him accountable for his actions. There is a little interview with Burton about this well crafted song posted at Murder Ballad Monday. The song is from Burton’s first release, The Mend.
While appealing and creative, this wouldn’t interest me nearly as much if Headwaters didn’t turn out to be such a captivating album. Firmly within the parameters of the ‘singer-songwriter’ oeuvre, Burton has crafted a dozen songs across this intense album. Each of these finds the artist searching and exploring—for truths, for comfort, for meaning…for ‘the headwaters’ that feed our spirits.
As communicated through his songs, Burton’s nomadic existence reminds us that the greatest journeys are within, examinations of our soul, our beliefs. Headwaters encourages this exploration through lyrically rich compositions framed with complementary and crisp instrumentation.
In the encouraging “Fly” he sings of someone “made for much bigger things,” even if that means leaving the singer behind. Searching for where “my headwaters run” in the title track, he vows to “keep moving along” with Katy Taylor harmonizing along, reminding us that life’s journey is (thankfully) seldom solitary.
Augmented by both Jessika Soli Bartlett’s cello and Lynsey Shelar’s violin and especially Steve Lemmon’s percussion, piano, and drums, the songs are complete without misplaced polish and shine, atmospheric without falling into twee faux-intensity.
There was obvious vision for this recording, and Burton and co-producer Dave Tate—who also contributes electric guitar, percussion, piano, and bass—have brought it to life. While individual credits for the songs are not indicated, Ryan Tilby rates mention if only for his obvious steel contributions to a few songs; he also is credited with various bass, guitar, and banjo parts, but so are others including Burton and Tate so it isn’t possible to identify who is playing what where.
Burton explores the inspirational certainly, but he is also realistic, as when he sings “I’ve got silver linings for every one of my dark clouds but yours.” The message seems to be: Sometimes, just you can’t find a way. In “The Wanderer,” Burton seems to be sharing his own tale, and here the strings truly convey the spirit of the song—wistful hope blurring with stark realism.
The restless intensity of the protagonist of “Thicker Than Water” is tangible; what he is going to do with it, what is going to come of it, is less obvious. This is certainly my favourite song on the album, a performance that—like the Welch/Rawlings song that previously inspired Burton—provides motivation to this writer to explore the dark shadows of the woods.
Not to give the impression that the album is overly brooding—although Headwaters does have a bit of a minor key feel if not in actuality—”Evergreen” may be the album’s most lively number, coming close to being a mountain stomper. “Being ten thousand feet above this town” as he is in “Tightrope Walker” brings additional lightness to the album.
Headwaters has a strong, evident sense of place, but like all great albums of this nature it bridges the distance to allow listeners to become immersed in situations and experiences far from their comfort zone.
And, as an aside, if you haven’t listened to Guy Clark’s Dublin Blues in a couple of years, do that today; damn, that album is great!