Posted May 2020
For those who may not have heard of them, you might think it’s some circus act or the name of some sort of Mexican food joint. But to the older siblings of the baby boomer generation, the name brings back memories and names from the late sixties and very early seventies. Memories associated with their songs like ‘If You Gotta Go,’ or names like the late Gram Parsons or Chris Hillman from the Byrds – both of whom formed the original incarnation of the band.
Since those wild and crazy days, the band has gone through almost innumerable line-up changes but have pretty much always stayed true to their innovative, Americana/country-rock sound.
Currently called The Burrito Brothers, the band consists of Bob Hatter on guitar, Peter Young on drums, Tony Paoletta on steel guitar, and Chris P. James on keys and vocals.
While confined by a government-ordered COVID-19 driven “sheltering in place”, Mr. James and I caught up with each other to chat about the band’s new disc, ‘The Notorious Burrito Brothers’. After exchanging thoughts and stories about what we saw, heard, and knew about the virus, I asked Chris to tell me about the new disc and which song from the new disc he would point to as the calling card for it.
“Well, we're thrilled with it. And we think we accomplished what we set out to do with it. We initially had this idea of pretty much a concept album. I mean, not a full story. Not like Tommy by The Who or something, but more like those albums that feel like their pace in such a way that it all hangs together, that it opens with the invite you in song, Bring It On, come on and join the party, kind of thing, and it finishes with a very definite finale that has little references to the previous songs and the songs before it on the album. The pacing is, as well, thought out and includes a 10- or 11-minute suite, which is four songs all kind of glued together - all put together to become one piece, and we just were all on the same page doing it.
“The musicianship is so sky-high in this group right now and being Tony Paoletta on pedal steel and Bob Hatter on guitar and Peter Young on drums and background vocals. They're just top-level guys who are in demand regularly. They do lots of sessions, probably less so right now with this virus.
“But that's their deal. They're just brilliant virtuoso level musicians. We're all longtime friends and we just kind of all got really on the same page more than I ever recall. We were close on our previous album from 2018, except that it took so long to finish. We made it. We were offered by John Sturdivant Jr. He's the owner and operator of Junction Studio in Madison, Tennessee. It’s on Kitty Wells Boulevard because it's got that connection, his grandmother - Kitty Wells. John offered to record an album. This was back in late 2016, at his place. I was really wanting to do it and my brother, Fred, who had produced our previous album, had this mindset that, ‘Nah, you don't do it till you got the deal and they paid for it and all that.’ It resulted in not making an album for about six years. So, when John offered, ‘Naw, let's just make one.’ And he did it and he produced it. I thought, ‘Sure, I'll take you up on that.’
‘It turned out he was kind of nitpicker or something. I don't want to knock the guy. But it just obsessive. It seems like we could never be done. He kept insisting that we had to tweak this or that. And he mixed it over and over again. And it just seemed to take forever. It took a couple of years. And the result was very nice. It came out on our own Junction label, which was kind of a mistake in hindsight. It's called, ‘Still Going Strong’. And after we weren't as successful as we hoped in trying to market it ourselves, we tried pitching it, saying, ‘You know, it wasn't a real label, it was just our own, we all own the rights and everything.’ We had a company that we're now with, SSM records in England, they really liked it, but said, ‘I'm sorry, even though you own it now, it's really still seen as having been released. It's available on download. You've got a registered UPC code, all this stuff.’ They do not want to handle an album that's already out there and pretend that it's a new release.
“So, they said, ‘Let us know as soon as you got something new.’ I told John that - this was the start of last year; which I loved the idea of 2019 being the 50th anniversary of the Flying Burrito Brothers Gilded Palace of Sin first album. ‘So, let's get an album done. Let's kind of knocked this one out and not spend all that time on it.’
“Well, that just wasn't John's way of doing stuff. He just flipped out about it. In his mind, he thought there might be another two, three years. Just finally finished one. And so, he bailed out of the group, which, if you look at the history of the Burrito Brothers, that's nothing new. There's always new guys coming in.
“Our answer was real easy because we just asked Peter Young, who was in the group before John if he'd come back. He was happy to. He's a real agreeable guy who's got enough irons in the fire, he's not that hung up on stuff. And he was the perfect answer, and he brought us to Alchematic studio in Franklin. Owned and operated by Mark Richardson who used to be at Electric Lady Land in New York.
“We've got the best sound we've ever gotten and it just flowed so easy. We were out from under the previous nitpicking and taking too long and everything. And we just decided, ‘You know, let's compose and conceive of an album and just go do it.’ And when we were not even, gosh, we were just a little over halfway through, we sent our representative in England, Bob Boiling who's a great friend and a real good go-getter business guy. And I love his initials Bob Boiling, B B - like Burrito Brothers. He got it to this guy, Bryan Adams - not the Canadian rock singer but the same name, Head of SSM Records - who said, ‘Yep, I'll take it’, even before we were done. So, we knew we had a deal as we finished the album that we had a sweet, sweet situation and we just had a better report, just a whole respecting and liking each other. It just worked so nicely. It just feels to me like the smoothest I've seen and I'm confident that it's the best album that I've been involved with and it's probably the best Burrito Brothers album in a long time because it's really that good.
“It's also a pretty, pretty significant moment in the history of the group because it's such a nice deal. It’s a major label with worldwide distribution and promotion. I don't think that that's the biggest record deal that the Burrito Brothers have had in decades. So, it's a real sweet, nice time. Kind of weird to be marked by this pandemic at the same time, but it's still a special entry in the history of the Burrito Brothers.”
Regarding how long the album took to record, Chris said:
“I suppose you could say a year to make if you count everything. If you count us getting together long before going into the studio and writing and organizing all our plans and then going in and recording. But it seems to me the actual recording is only just about, three or four months, which is even misleading because with everybody's schedule and not having a massive budget. We probably went in one day every couple weeks or so. I think there may have even been occasions where more than two weeks went by between the sessions. It's probably a total of about five or six sessions. It was really efficiently done.
“The result proves that you don't have to belabor over it. In fact, I think, it's a decidedly better mix than the previous album. I think perhaps some of that obsessing doesn't result in a better product. Plus, it's a lot easier to be fired up about this one because it remained pretty fresh, we were still excited. There we were having a deal before we even finished it and we were just on a high on it.
“The other one I remember really distinctly thinking by the time it was out, it already felt old to me. I mean, we'd been doing the material for that album was less concisely figured out. The album before, Still Going Strong, in twenty eighteen is sound as ever in 2011. So, there's seven years there between those two albums. And I was going crazy. My favorite thing to do is make the new album. After a couple of years, you know, like about 2013 or 2014, I'm thinking, ‘Come on guys, it's time to do it again.’
“We had a couple of personnel shifts right in there. We had that idea that we needed the deal first and all this stuff. Yet it's not like I or the other members of the band weren't still into writing songs, I mean coming up with the material, I believe we could have made an album in 2013 quite easily. We had plenty of material. A lot of the stuff that wound up on Still Going Strong had been percolating for half a dozen years.”
What song would James point to as the calling card for the album?
“Well, I would think probably the first one. It's the one that invites everybody in. It's kind of that old idea - I'm sure many people said it but I remember Todd Rundgren telling me that you put that main radio song on first; the one you think is the one that could be the hit, that could draw people in. That's what we do. So, probably ‘Bring It’ is probably my choice if you had to pick one that you hope made an impression to make people want to hear more.”
I suggested that this album dovetailed nicely, to which Chris replied:
“Absolutely! It's a thing where to be the Burrito Brothers is something with some degree of already preset parameters; an idea of the kind of stuff you should be doing. The initial concept brought out by Gram Parsons and Chris Hellman when they made the first album, which is now just widely regarded as a bona fide classic – The Gilded Palace of Sin. The idea is to bring some country aesthetics - some of the idea of country music into the rock arena. They were not marketed or treated as if they were a country band. They were in the rock crowd, but they were wanting to turn that crowd on to the idea that country wasn't just a bunch of old fogies or whatever. It could be cool that there were good sounds there. It was part of a whole wave, a whole movement, all those hippie country-rock groups like a Pure Prairie League and Poco and New Riders of the Purple Sage and, for that matter, Grateful Dead, The Byrds. Those groups, if you A-B’d them to what’s on country radio today, probably sound more like an older school country than today's boogie and rock version. But, still, in their day that was filed under the genre of Rock that wasn't considered a country group. That's what I think - strongly believe we are. We're not a country group. We're a rock group. We incorporate flavors and instrumentation that is often associated with country but it's far more inventive, progressive sort of window we're looking out of; making the concept type album and liking things that are almost psychedelic and things like that. It's a group that utilizes that hybrid.”
And what’s on The Burrito Brothers’ radar for the next year or so?
“Part of the whole plan for this album, which was better realized than we'd been before, as I've already pretty much alluded to, even included a focus aimed at England and Europe and foreign countries. The idea, we feel, is that they'd be more receptive, even, dare I say, respectful of a group of seasoned professionals with a real ability to deliver this uniquely American art form and really good at it. I'd liken it to be the way some black jazz guys back in the 50s and 60s would go to Europe and find much better reception and success and respect. It's like that saying that you can't be a prophet in your own town. And speaking of hometown: in Nashville, there’s so many groups and everybody’s trying to get a little piece of attention. They’re much more into whatever they're doing. When you broaden that out to the rest of the country, I wouldn't say we aren't received well. We've done a lot of really nice gigs. But still, in a broader sense, they're not going to embrace this on the country charts. That's not their thing these days. The pop charts, pop radio or whatever is filled with those electronic sounding things that rap and synthesized tracks that have a drum sequence - not even real musicians playing; one guy in a studio, building a track that he gets somebody to talk over and sing to. We're just not in keeping with that at all. So, our goal was to aim toward the European market. The feeling is that it's such a global village now with the internet and everything and communications. Such big potential out there. I mean, all we got to do is find a few pockets that love us and we may have it made.
“But just the idea of aiming our attention in hopes of making some marks overseas is what we were saying. We've already spoken to an agent or two and we got a man over in England, Bob Boiling, and the plan was, upon release of this album and with a little bit of buzz from it, will bring about some nice little trips overseas.
“We’re not any kind of band who really wants to just be out on the road all the time. Too many family things. We just like a shorter, well-figured out, focused trip; you know, ten days, two weeks, something like that; handfuls of them during the year. Not that, ‘Boy, let's just get in the van and hit the road and be out there all year!’ No breaks.
“We sort of wondered if you had to name the genre for this band - for a while there, not quite ten years ago, we were wondering if we could make some inroads with Americana. But it seemed to not be as welcoming as we'd hoped. And we knew that the country music scene, its way to market, control, whatever, that an old group like us isn't that easily included.
“So, I thought we could call it classic rock. But I got corrected and I'm sure it was wrong because classic rock is just a radio format that plays old hits and it isn't really an ongoing genre. I mean, it's sort of, in a way, the definition of rock groups from a classic by-gone time. But the Burrito Brothers didn't have big mega-hits that everyone out there in the general public knows. They're more of a group that was regarded for having really good albums and always being a good solid group and having great musicians in it.
“But, you know, it's interesting that the fact that this group has lasted for 51 years - it's interesting that it's a whole different dynamic for most groups that have lasted like that. I suppose the Stones are one of the few exceptions of really essentially being intact. Most groups that have lasted for a long, long time have one last remaining guy from way back when; the original drummer or something. Then they a staffed group to go out and play those oldies shows or to play performances. This group has never had two albums in a row with the same person. Every single time they got around to making their next album, at least one guy is gone and the next guy is in. But interestingly, there's never been an audition. It's always the guys who remain who need to find the next guy to fill any vacancy. It’s like, ‘Oh, it's time to get our buddy here to join, which is essentially what happened with me in 2009. I've been around for a long time. Subbed on various occasions and even played on a couple of albums as a guest. And that's what happens. You finally get your turn. I should mention that each time the group reconstitutes, it's always because it's an offer. There's a label who's interested in them or there's a touring, booking guy who has dates. It's like little, you know, fine, if he doesn't want to do it anymore, he quit for whatever reason, get a new guy and let's get the band back up and running. What happens is there is a distinct tendency each time it's reconstituted to show their stuff to prove that this lineup is just as good as it was before. Check it, check us out and we're going to let you know that it's in the right hands.
“I strongly feel that we just did that with our new album, The Notorious Burrito Brothers. This is good. There's been a personnel change, but there's an upswing in the quality of the music that’s out now. There's the fact that the group was under the radar a lot of years. Perhaps you could even kind of say we still are. But hopefully, we are kind of surfacing a little more over time. That and just these days, weird, social media, judgmental, curmudgeonly mindset that many show.
“There's people who say, ‘Well, they're not the real Burrito Brothers.’ Well, unfortunately, you can't name anybody who is. I mean, maybe you could make the case that The Gilded Palace of Sin with Gram Parsons, Sneaky Pete Klein, Chris Hillman, and Chris Ethridge was the one and only real Burrito Brothers? They made one album. There was already a personnel change on the second, and Gram Parsons - the leading light - was gone by the third. And yet the group has continued the whole time. There isn't an iconic lineup unless it's that one. And how do you explain fifty-five years of carrying on and every single time, the personnel shifted. It was not a bunch of guys who had never been in the band. It was always the nucleus from before adding a new guy. There's a career and we got a timeline on our website and it shows how the whole thing transpired. There's an entry for each year since 1967 and who was in the band that year. If an album came out then it's just an entry for the whole crazy, convoluted progression. It is a definite lineage. It's not at any point where I remember some guy saying, ‘Oh, that's not the Burrito Brothers.’ I've learned not to engage in it. Does it make me look any good? But I want to say, ‘Yes, we are. We own the trademark rights and you can look it up on the timeline.’ But that's just not worth it. But this guy went so far as to say, 'Maybe I could just find three guys and we'll call ourselves The Beatles". I thought, ‘That's got to be one of the dumbest things I've ever heard. You're comparing a group that has absolutely a precedent of changing people throughout its entire history to the biggest group of all time who has four iconic names who cannot possibly ever be anyone else. There's no comparison, that's an absurd analogy.”
As we wrapped up our chat, Chris wanted to mention a particular song to be sure and listen to: ‘Acrostic’.
“Acrostic is a really cool thing. I didn't know what that word meant when I came across it a year and a half ago. I looked it up and it is a poetic lyrical tool in which the first letter of each line spells out a different message. It's like if you're looking at a lyric sheet, you read it vertically downward on the left-hand column, the first letter of each line, and I came up with one. Then I thought. ‘I don't know of a song that's an acrostic. I don't think anybody's done that before.’ So, I came up with a little message and then fitted lyrics that were really, really nice. My mother had just passed away and I came up with this idea of a mother or a parent giving their child some good words, some advice, about how to face life. It worked out really nice. The guy who did the artwork for the cover of the Notorious Burrito Brothers - his name was Warren Ells - he put together a conceptual video acrostic and it's not bad at all. I think we'll do another like that since we can't really do a video shoot right now. I thought that his conceptual treatment of that song worked out just fine.”
The Burrito Brothers are more than fine. Keep up with them at their website, TheBurritoBrothers.net.