Songwriter Gary Burr tries his hand at being a sideman
By Beverly Keel
NOVEMBER 9, 1998: Although his songs have topped the country charts for most of the '90s, it was only recently that Gary Burr achieved one of his lifelong dreams--being a sideman in a rock 'n' roll band.
This wasn't just any band, though. It was the group that recently backed former Beatle Ringo Starr. Although Starr has toured internationally with his All-Star Band--which includes Nashvillian Peter Frampton--he didn't have a band to back him for his recent appearances on VH-1 Storytellers and The Late Show With David Letterman. Producer/songwriter Mark Hudson called Burr and asked if he would like to become an official guitarist for Ringo and the Roundheads.
"I said, 'Well, what are we talking about financially?' " Burr recalls. "He said $3,000, and I said, 'I can afford that. Will Ringo take a check?'
"We went on Letterman and played one of the old hits, his first No. 1 post-Beatles. We're trying to talk him into taking us and doing a little tour after the first of the year. I would do it in a heartbeat. I owe him--I owe those four guys my career. So whatever Ringo needs, he's got it from me."
While Burr, a former member of the Pure Prairie League, is used to being in the spotlight as a performer and writer, he really enjoyed being a sideman. "I love it because there's no pressure on you," he says. "All you have to do is do your job. You don't have to do all of the dog-and-pony show. It really is like a vacation.
"I don't take a lot of mental vacations where I'm not writing or thinking about my career. It's a great release for me to go and do something like this, where all I've got to worry about is what time to be down in the lobby, and when you go on stage, don't screw up."
Burr will take center stage at the Bluebird Cafe Saturday night to showcase his own versions of songs that have become career hits for other acts. Among the Burr-penned songs audience members might expect to hear: "On the Side of Angels" (a hit for Le Ann Rimes), "Till You Love Me" (Reba McEntire), "To Be Loved By You" (Wynonna), "What Mattered Most" (Ty Herndon), and "Sure Love" (Hal Ketchum). The show's format, however, depends on Burr's mood: One night he might perform all of his hits reggae-style; on other nights, the audience will select song titles from a jar.
"I like to try out new songs that I've just written," he says. "If I write a song that day, I'll chart it out and hand it to the band and say, 'OK, I want y'all in by the end of the first verse.' And sure enough, they're so good that they're playing along by the end of the first verse."
In January, Burr will join Nashvillians Matraca Berg, Jeff Hanna, Beth Nielsen Chapman, Raul Malo, and a host of rock and pop stars for "Music Bridge Over Troubled Waters," a goodwill music exchange program in Havana, Cuba. "You're sitting there and some of them barely speak English, and here you are writing songs," says Burr, who participated in similar trips to Romania and Bali. "It's very heartwarming, and you really feel like you make a difference in these people's lives and they make a difference in ours."
Despite having had more than 100 songs cut and having been voted Country Songwriter of the Year for three consecutive years, Burr still reports to his MCA Music Publishing office five days a week; he writes between 15 and 20 songs a month. "My whole life, I've always treated it the way my Dad always treated his job: I write every day, and I write with a different person every day. It sure beats having a regular day job, but I still treat it as a job because that's the way I get the best out of my brain."
Many country purists have been critical of Music Row's songwriting process, which has transformed over the last couple of decades from late-night whiskey-drenched barroom sessions to midday appointments in corporate offices. While the current MO has been fruitful for Burr, he agrees with the critics. "It shouldn't be like stamping out tin cans, and if it becomes that, I'll stop," he says. "But if I wasn't working at MCA, I'd be at home, and every day I'd sit with a guitar in my lap to see what happens. Why does that get tainted just because suddenly I'm a 'staff writer'?"
Burr has also stepped into the producer's chair for the Disney Country project and hopes to tackle more production jobs. "I would definitely like to do more than I'm doing," says Burr. "At this point in my life, all of these things--writing, playing, and producing--fall under the same umbrella: the music business. I love all of it.
"When I was 15 or 16, it was just like Disney World out there. I just wanted to ride all the rides, and that's what I'm doing. You don't want to ride the roller coaster exclusively, or you'll throw up."
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