with Jonny Burke
Jonny Burke fortifies vivid vignettes with a poet’s eye (“Behind the Pine Curtain”) and an alchemist’s precision (“High Katie”). Exhibit A: Behind the Pine Curtain. The Central Texas songwriter’s excellent new acoustic collection due April 26, 2022 deftly backs tongue-in-cheek narratives (“I Cut Off My Ankle Monitor to Be Here”) with Technicolor earworms (“Pipe Bomb Dream”). Time served in the Lone Star state’s penal system guides the journey. “The lyrical theme of the album was a conscious decision,” Burke says. “I wanted to explore all the events and circumstances surrounding that time and the people I was around while incarcerated.”
Behind the Pine Curtain delivers Burke’s trademark story songs over and again (“Last Time I Get Drunk in This House,” “Let Me Make It”). The songwriter aimed his ambitions high. “Before I went in a friend joked that I could come out and make a prison record that even Steve Earle couldn’t touch,” he says. “I tried to stay away from looking like I was glamorizing anything about it though because there’s nothing fun or fashionable about being locked up. I want to try to forget that year as quickly as I can, but while the memories were still fresh I knew it would be important to document them if they came out in song form with any merit. If for nothing else than to remind myself in the future to never end up back in that place.”
Results immediately turned heads. “I’ve been a fan of Jonny Burke’s for a long time now,” legendary East Nashville songwriter Todd Snider says. “He always has been able to express what he has been through with a poet’s touch. Now he’s been through the adventure of a lifetime and has turned it into a major album.” “Jonny Burke is one of the best songwriters around,” echoes Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter John Fullbright. “Jonny always has a new song that’s my new favorite. He’s a songwriter’s songwriter’s songwriter.” Spin the closing “Don’t Have Much Time” alone for evidence.
The title track might back the claim even better. “‘Behind The Pine Curtain’ was written while I was being transferred from a unit in Far East Texas to one north of Abilene,” Burke says. “If you’re being transferred you invariably end up back in Huntsville for a few nights or weeks even if it’s not on the way to where you’re going. In prison lingo it’s called ‘catching chain’ because you’re literally chained to another prisoner and and you’re loaded on the Bluebird packed like sardines. Nothing is air conditioned in TDCJ and A/C is a luxury I’ll never take for granted again.”
Burke mixes and matches blues and folk influences with a rock and roll heart throughout Behind the Pine Curtain, which is something he’s consistently done since forming the regionally popular Dedringers as a fifteen year old prodigy. The band grew their rabid following for seven years until an amicable split in 2009. Burke then spent three years living with a friend in Topanga Canyon, California and became a fixture of the Los Angeles music scene during that time while opening national tours for Ryan Bingham and James McMurtry.
Burke doubled down on his youthful influences to hone his singular songwriting during this time. “Chuck Berry’s songs spoke to me as a child and raised my consciousness to a greater level,” he says. “As did Hank Williams’ songs and John Prine’s. I learned very young that songs are a great medium for a story.” His studies have paid dividends. “Jonny Burke is as creative and prolific a songwriter as I’ve ever known,” Turnpike Troubadours lead singer Evan Felker says. “He’s devoted himself completely to his writing and in doing so has seen sides of the world in peaks and valleys many of us don’t know are there.” Celebrated tunesmith Joe Pug goes one further: “There are very few songwriters who can write with style about eternal things and Jonny Burke is one of them.”
Behind the Pine Curtain showcases lessons learned with that unmistakable style. “For some strange reason, when we got to Huntsville I got lucky and they put me in an isolation cell next door to all the people that are in there for life who are too dangerous for general population,” Burke says. “This was a huge plus, because it meant I had time to myself for the first time in months. That’s where I wrote “Behind the Pine Curtain” and others that are on this album. It’s about any number of the random guys I was locked up with. And also about the feeling that if I had gone searching for the bottom of the world, here it was.”
-Brian T. Atkinson