Bart Budwig, Another Burn on the AstroTurf
The Wallowa-Whitman Wilderness is a sprawling two million acre expanse of mountain ranges and deep timber canyons. It swallows northeast Oregon and northern Idaho in a West that is still wild. Places on the map here have names like He Devil, and Hell’s Canyon. Nestled deep in this back-of-beyond is Enterprise, Oregon, the new folk center of the universe.
At the epicenter of this untamed wild is The OK Theater, a century-old palace in the middle of faithful restoration. From its proscenium a jester reigns king.
Bart Budwig is a son of Idaho, a cosmic country crooner, a rousing trumpet player, and cryin’-style soul singer. His music is made up of seemingly incongruous parts; thrum & strum country rhythms, jazz guitar melodies, R&B vocals. When Bart sings he draws out words into meditative mantras, whole note neologisms that keep you hanging on until his raspy voice trails off in a ragged edge. His latest album, Another Burn On The AstroTurf was recorded over five days by a seven piece band inside the OK theater. It’s a melancholy rhapsody that recalls the uncorked rock n’ roll spirituality of king mystic Van Morrison, the gloomy nostalgia of dark prince Nick Drake and the songcraft sans self-seriousness of 70s Muscle Shoals.
Like those psycho-spiritual song crafters, his power comes from vocal idiosyncrasies - intonations of love, impermanence, hope, humor. The album opens with Budwig originals “Time For Two”, “First To Go”, and “Strong Coffee”-- originally presented with just solo guitar (and crackling wood stove) on the album Sabai. The songs are recorded here live, full band, in medley, with hot electric guitar, woody double bass, and drums. The band electrifies and scourges the flesh of the songs into fully formed folk rock stunners. Like most Budwig songs all three deal with personal relationships. “Time For Two” confronts the difficulties with continuing friendships while living a nomadic musician’s lifestyle. “First To Go” takes on mortality. “Strong Coffee” is a full band version of a Budwig soul standard; on it piano beats in time with a trap kit, trudging somberly through love. It’s three minutes you wish would last forever.
There is what the Romans called a “divine lustre” about Bart Budwig. His rich auburn hair and beard wrap around his collar, and frame his smile in a nimbus of gold. His radiance belies the loyalty he commands of an army of talent. He’d sooner tell you a joke than reveal to you he’s recorded dozens of albums and hundreds of songs in the last few years. He’s lent his engineering talents to acts like Caitlin Jemma, mixed Shook Twins latest album, and recorded albums for himself, John Craigie, Nevada Sowle, Ben Walden. Many of the players he’s worked with, or recorded --An American Forrest, Margo Cilker, Jeremy James Meyer--appear on the album. Psych-folk string bender Nevada Sowle performed sound engineering duties for the band and has captured each downbeat and crescendo with accuracy.
Budwig’s close attention to the work of other artists has resulted in impressive covers over the years, many of which became the album Paint By Numbers Jesus. Continuing this folk process Budwig has covered two songs on Another Burn On The Astroturf; “Oh Mother” a despondent recollection of an alcoholic father, by independent artist Allison Olender, and Nick Drake’s classic “Northern Sky”. Budwig is a natural trumpet player and adds a solo to open the song that the dark prince himself would enjoy. “Northern Sky” comes from Drake and John Cale’s late 60s masterpiece Bryter Layter, but Budwig makes it his own here, demonstrating the album as part of a continuing creation of a new American sound, for which Budwig is at the helm. A massive coda-outro swirls disorientingly into the next track “Four Leaf Clover,” a psych-folk medley with clangorous, shocking, acoustic-electric guitar improvisation, and a duet with Kati Claborn.
The first time I met Bart was at a folk festival, where his primary concern was finding the right patch of grass to rest in and roll a cigarette. That and handing off a tiny, playable trumpet to another musician; for what, he could not reveal. After discussions about snack-foods, and Enterprise, and beers in the sun, Bart played a set. He transformed from the impish, giggling forest creature I’d met into a christ in majesty, the world went blue as he wrapped around his instrument like Picasso’s old man and guitar. He held an open air audience rapt for forty minutes. He didn’t even have to wear shoes.
One of the songs he played that day was “The Captain And The Dreamer”. It’s the type of song that bears repeated listening, one you can become obsessed with, because it is the rare, perfect song. Guitar and piano back Budwig’s singing. In it he describes the contrast in the abilities of the wayfarer. A sailor may grasp the complex physics of mass, the galactic interplay of the moon, the tides, and how to bend them into a voyage home, but all the navigational skill in the world is no defense against innate primacy of the need to wander, or as Bart sings, being “lost at shore, and lost at sea”.
For all the intensity in Bart’s music he never loses his sense of humor. The brightest moments on the album come from a transcendent Rolling Stones “Beast Of Burden” inspired track “Rolling Stoned”, in which he ponders if he is, in fact, bad enough, rich enough, good enough. The answer is, of course, not, but he also humorously notes that if any of us were that good, then aren’t we better off with...something better? On “Sock Song” the dynamics of intimate relationships boil down to one sock’s tendency to wander from its destined partner as soon as it hits the dryer. His musical similarities to spiritual seekers Van Morrison and Nick Drake are undeniable now, but he’s not lost on the path as them, he’s grounded, infectiously grateful. Bart’s mastery of dramatic irony turns his work with complex emotional states of being into comforting, uplifting, relatable music.
It’s this ability to combine tragedy and comedy in his humanist hallelujahs that makes Budwig a gravitational force and industry chimera. The studio general, the clown prince, the sensitive songwriter with a rugged voice. The soul singer with a cosmic country band. The creator of a folk universe drawing musicians from everywhere to the middle of nowhere. It’s this juxtaposition that makes Another Burn On The Astroturf another success for Bart Budwig, and a must listen for you.
Bart Budwig Tour Dates