Meridian Rising is not your typical album, and that is a good thing. Nashville-based singer/songwriter Paul Burch has created a nearly hour-long song-cycle about Jimmie Rodgers that serves as something like a musical documentary about legendary American musician.Burch does a wonderful job taking significant moments in Rodgers’ life and dramatizing them in songs. His songs are stuffed with colorful details but you don’t feel like you’re listening to a history lesson. Burch really evokes the world that Rodgers’ inhabited, from his days growing up poor in Meridian to his on-the-road misadventures in New Orleans and San Antonio and his dying days in New York City.
While each song tells an interesting story about Rodgers’ life, several stand out beyond the context of this conceptual work. “Cadillacin’,” which looks at Rodgers’ early success as a musician, is a revved-up roadhouse number with a proto-rocker vibe, while “To Paris (With Regrets)” sparkles with a gypsy jazz flair. “The Girl I Sawed In Half” and “Gunter Hotel Blues” both are darkly humorous tunes that showcase Burch’s nimble wordplay.
Burch doesn’t try to imitate Rodgers’ musical style, although he does inject a yodel every now and then. Instead, he draws upon the various strands of music that Rodgers’ utilized, intermingling jazz, blues, folk and country into a spirited mix of early 20th century American roots music. Helping him create this vital, vintage sound is a cast of talented players, including Billy Bragg, Jon Langford, Garry Tallent, Richard Bennett, Tim O’Brien, Dennis Couch, Jen Gunderman and Fats Kaplin.
Throughout his career, Burch has demonstrated his love for music from the past; it’s no coincidence that the name of his longtime backing band WPA Ballclub references the famous 1930’s New Deal program. Burch’s work has regularly received critical accolades; however, he has aimed higher on his 10th release and hit a bull’s-eye. #Meridian Rising# is an ambitious work that succeeds both as a well-researched, engaging look at Jimmie Rodgers’ life and as a terrific set of lively songs that are rooted in pre-war American music traditions.