Aaron Burdett to play Winston-Salem’s Ramkat
There are a lot of great railroad songs out there — “Wabash Cannonball,” “Casey Jones,” “The City of New Orleans,” “Hey, Porter,” “Crazy Train” and on and on — but singer/songwriter Aaron Burdett didn’t really want to try writing another one, even though he grew up in Saluda, a small town known for its perch atop the Saluda Grade, the steepest stretch of mainline railway line in the United States.
“The trains ran when I was a kid,” said Burdett, who spoke to me by phone last week as he drove by car Westward back up into the mountains. “And so there was always that nostalgia thing, but I always thought it was super-dorky to write a train song, so I avoided it.”
Burdett plays the Ramkat in Winston-Salem on Saturday, Dec. 1, with his acoustic trio on a bill with Town Mountain.
Burdett, who has been making records steadily since his 2005 debut The Weight of Words, did end up writing that train song and putting it on his 2017 album Refuge, his seventh record. It’s a song called “Pennies on the Tracks,” but it’s not your standard railway song. It’s not a retro fantasy about the golden days before the ascendancy of the automobile, and it’s not quite a transportation disaster song. It’s got hardship baked into it, the suffering of the laborers who worked to clear the land, dig, crush the stone and lay the track. Burdett sings about the exploitation of the workers who risked — and in some cases lost — their lives to complete that feat of construction and engineering.
“Pennies on the Tracks” is, in some ways, a little like Gordon Lightfoot’s “Canadian Railroad Trilogy,” a song that captures the generally unsung backbreaking toil that goes into taming the wilderness, putting the human stamp of transport, commerce and recreational sightseeing onto a landscape that is still ultimately bigger and stronger than us.
“One wrong move and we’ll all be torn apart,” sings Burdett in the voice of someone driving the Carolina Special, a luxury train that ran through from Ohio, through Asheville, and down that Saluda Grade into South Carolina.
If “Pennies on the Tracks” is a slight change of course from Burdett’s other material, a detour into historical storytelling, where many of his songs seem to be set closer to a recognizable present, what it has in common with a lot of Burdett’s songs is a sympathetic eye on the plight of working people. Burdett often sings about how the need to hold a job, to pay bills, to feed families and have stuff can run the risk of ruining everything, either by jeopardizing one’s health, by requiring time away from loved ones or by chewing away at a person’s sense of themselves.
“It’s A Living,” the second track on Refuge, chronicles someone wryly doing the math on their soulless day job at an office, and the hours it consumes of their life. “It’s good to have the bills paid, but it’s a precious trade, spending half of my time on something I don’t like, to pay for the half I do,” Burdett sings.
Another tune that might be a little closer to autobiographical for Burdett is “Rock and Roll.” It too explores the peculiar ironies and the bittersweet blur of being a performer, “a bluegrass picker hiding behind a Telecaster,” on the road, on stage, on a quest for some elusive glory, always suspicious that the whole game might be rigged or just a traveling circus in the end.
The indignities of the working world, the prospect of burnt bridges, romances that have faded and died, too much drinking, and what we generally call “poor choices,” these are fairly standard themes for country music. And Burdett walks that line, between George Jones and James Taylor, with a connection to artists like John Prine and even Jimmy Buffett. Sadness and dead-end scenarios show up in Burdett’s songs, but he’s got a sly sense of humor, and a dash of soul gets snuck in behind the ache of the pedal steel guitar. Sometimes there’s careful fingerpicking on an acoustic; sometimes he strums starkly on a Fender with some tremolo. Sometimes there’s a backbeat, a band and a fiddle, and sometimes it’s more of a folky setting. His tenor is clear and expressive, strong but also relaxed.
His song “Another Nail in the Coffin,” also off Refuge, captures that sad/funny comic/self-destructive perspective of someone who’s basically given up a little bit after a lover has left. It’s about a dude in a drive-thru in the wee hours waiting for another burger, sipping cheap whiskey and telling himself it doesn’t much matter how things fell apart. “Don’t waste your time thinking ‘bout what you coulda done differently, just drive another nail in the coffin, get that lid on tight,” he sings.
And after the characters who come unspooled, throw in the towel a bit too energetically, or who shoot themselves in the foot with a kind of sullen male inaction, on “Last Refuge” Burdett sings out about redemption and remaining anchored, a love song about someone who can pull a wanderer back to where they need to be.
As a songwriter and performer, Burdett said he wants the songs to be real, to be entertaining and to be good. But he also wants them to be varied, both sonically and thematically.
“They’re all about life,” he said, “at some point, somebody’s life, whether I’ve observed it or made it up.”
See Aaron Burdett’s Acoustic Trio at the Ramkat on Saturday, Dec. 1. theramkat.com.
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.