'As Hard as It Is, It’s a Beautiful Thing:' Todd Burge on #WVMusic and Identity

Jun 2, 2016

Since the show began almost two years ago, A Change of Tune has highlighted some of the best up-and-coming artists out of these West Virginia hills with podcast-y chats that range from Heavy-Set Paw-Paws to Qiet, Sean Richardson to Goodwolf and beyond.  But those interviews have been a bit infrequent, and since West Virginia day is coming up, not to mention A Change of Tune’s second birthday, we thought we’d do something special: 30 days, 30 brand new West Virginia music interviews that range from Morgantown alt-rockers to Parkersburg singer-songwriters to venues and management and artists, all of which contribute to this state’s wild and wonderful music scene. 

And today, we are chatting with Parkersburg’s own Todd Burge, who’s often named one of West Virginia’s premier singer-songwriters. From choir boy to punk rocker to folky acoustic musician, Todd Burge has played it all and seen it all. He’s even co-hosted Mountain Stage with Larry Groce, but we’ll get to that in the interview.

Todd Burge's newest release is Todd Burge: Live on Mountain Stage. You can find him, his music and his tour schedule on toddburge.com. You can hear him on A Change of Tune, airing Saturday nights at 10 on West Virginia Public Broadcasting. And for more #WVmusic chats, make sure to go to wvpublic.org/wvmusic.

Interview Highlights

On playing in bands over the years:

It really was the punk rock scene of Morgantown in the eighties [that led me to being a musician]. It really struck me. I can pin-point the second that I decided I had to be a songwriter and get into the music scene. I was turning the corner of Kingwood and Wilson, and I heard a band called Gene Pool on U92 there in Morgantown on the radio, and it was a song I heard the night before called “Pilots are Melting.” It was my first venture into the Underground Railroad there, what’s now 123 Pleasant Street. I heard that song on the radio, and as silly as it sounds, it was like a bolt of lightning. I thought, “I’ve got to do that! Here’s a local band… on the radio? Are you kidding me?!” That didn’t happen in Parkersburg. It was unheard of, and it just blew me away.

Six or seven weeks later, I learned three chords, got together with some buddies, and we were in the garage writing songs. There was an attitude there, a do-it-yourself attitude… Live music is crucial. I went from a choir boy to literally weeks later playing at some club in Parkersburg.

On his “bad record business” story:

Everybody who’s been in it long enough and has been signed to a label has their little “bad record business” story, and this is kind of mine. I had a falling out, I couldn’t get tour support and the label went under, and I could never get those [Bunj and the Beats] tapes for that record, which I really liked. And 30 years ago this year, literally a month ago, I got those tapes back and had it digitized. [Laughing] So I have this record that has never been released, which was my first full-length record with this band, Bunj and the Beats. I don’t know what I’m going to do with it, but I still like it.

Todd Burge, performing with his band 63 Eyes back in 2013.
Credit Courtesy of Todd Burge

On transitioning from playing in bands to being a solo singer-songwriter:

It didn’t just happen. I always wrote songs on acoustic guitar. Always. I would take those songs to whomever I was around. The music became something different depending on whatever room I was in and whoever was with me. A lot of people say Dylan, Black Francis or Jello Biafra was my biggest inspiration. For me, more realistically, it’s the people you’re sitting in the room with, whether it’s Mark Poole of the Phantom Six (who I was with in 63 Eyes), Jimmy Clinton, Tim O’Brien or William Matheny. The songs become what they are depending on who you’re surrounded by.

I was always really writing what I considered acoustic-based, folky-sounding stuff, and then I would put it in whatever weird blender. 63 Eyes was really melodic, and I still consider it folk stuff, but nobody would say that about that kind of music [because] I had to sing over top a chain saw and [laughing] some bone-crunching rhythm section.

I started playing some acoustic shows for fun at Maxwell’s in Morgantown. I would play two sets by myself and realize, “Jeez, I could make more money by doing this.” That’s really where the acoustic stuff started. That’s really where the acoustic solo stuff started.  It was an ego trip for me to pull off a show by myself, too. [Laughing] I’m willing to admit: I’m here for the attention, folks.

On the difficulty of making original music (and the value of playing covers) in West Virginia:

When I came back to West Virginia and started this band, 63 Eyes, there was no way I wanted to do a regular job, even though I had four years at WVU. I took psychology and English, and I wasn’t going to go into psychology and have [63 Eyes] as my backburner thing. The music had to be number one for me. And we realized that there was a big demand for cover bands… everywhere. So how could we be a cover band, an offshoot band, a different band with the same members so we didn’t have to depend on other people, and make that our day job and our way to pay the bills while we were home. Because you couldn’t play original music in this area. Nobody was doing it in the Parkersburg area at that point.

So we started going to the animal lodges and seeing what they’d do there, and they were all playing Bob Seger and stuff that just wore us out. And we thought, “Well Jeez, no one is doing Dwight Yoakam and Hank (as in the original Hank).”

63 Eyes' alter ego (Triple Shot) made an appearance for this 2013 show.
Credit Courtesy of Todd Burge

So we started this rockabilly traditional George Jones-like cover band called Triple Shot. Same three guys, but totally different band genre-wise, but we realized those places didn’t want to hear that stuff. [Laughing] But we forced our way through and finally started getting gigs, and we played every honkey-tonk imaginable as Triple Shot. And then we’d sneak in Replacements covers, and no one would notice. We would do some Neil Young, and we would throw in some originals. It was such a music education to learn those covers in that genre, and it really was where I learned how to do bass. It was an invaluable education to come up with 50 songs.

We would play the Pub 47 in Parkersburg. We would start on Wednesday and play till Sunday, five sets a night. It was a physical work out, and you were getting these classic songs embedded into your nervous system. It was valuable.

On live recordings vs. studio recordings:

I always say that the CD is small but the music’s been enlarged to show texture, and that’s what happens in the studio. You take the songs and you expand them, and it’s nothing like what the live experience is like. But people are always asking me when I play live, “What CD is most like what you just did?” And I’ve thought, “Well… nothing really.” [This new CD] is real, and it is live, and it’s a totally different vibe. There’s an energy you just can’t get in a studio. There’s a huge difference really. It’s a totally different beast.

On staying motivated as a musician:

You have to struggle through. A lot of times, what I chose to do was to answer to myself. People think that I sit here and write songs all day. “Oh god, that would be great to be you and sit around and play music all day!” I have to carve out time to do that, to write, and it’s a must because it doesn’t survive without that. But it’s just like anything that anybody does, really. You have to be tenacious, you have to stick with it if you’re self-employed. My challenge to myself is to always do something new and to not repeat myself, and that’s a blast and a challenge. And to realize that eventually, something interesting will come along that I like that I can present it. I try not to get wrapped up in the dry spots creatively. I try to stay calm in that regard. But the frustrating part is that people don’t understand what I’m doing [laughing], but the beautiful part is also that as well.

Only Todd Burge could convince Bob Thompson (normally known for his role as the Mountain Stage Band's pianist) to sing along with Ron Sowell and Julie Adams during this 2015 Mountain Stage performance.
Credit Josh Saul/Mountain Stage

On his first experiences with Mountain Stage:

[Mountain Stage] was like being on Saturday Night Live. It was huge, and it still is in my mind. It’s not like I’ve gotten used to being on Mountain Stage (even though I’ve done a few of them).

I think I tried to get on [the show] for a year-and-a-half or two years, as people do.

The story goes that I opened up for [The Dukes of Hazard’s] Tom Wopat in Parkersburg here at the Smoot Theatre. And I asked Deni Bonet from the Mountain Stage Band to play fiddle with me. I didn’t know her at all. I just called her and asked her to do it, expecting her to say no. Because in the music business, they say no. I would say 90 percent of the time, the things you ask or want to do or are reaching for, “no” is the answer. That’s just the way it is. But she said “yes,” and I freaked out. She played with me, so I came in through that backdoor. She listened to my music, and I started bugging Larry Groce. I sent every newspaper article that was written about me. I sent postcards. I would invite them to shows when I would come to play Charleston. On and on and on.

And then Larry told me I was supposed to be on a show with Joan Baez, and that just blew my mind. I mean, she used to date Bob Dylan! But then I got bumped by Bob Mould for my first Mountain Stage. And then I waited another six months before I was on that first one. But from there on out, I was able to say that I was on Mountain Stage and I would literally book shows (pre-Internet) on the road by saying I had been on Mountain Stage, without even sending stuff. Through the years, it’s worked for me in that way. It gives you “cred.”

On performing on Mountain Stage since 1991 but releasing Todd Burge: Live on Mountain Stage with performances starting in 2006:

I started performing in 1991, but if people want to know why [the record] started in 2006… One reason was a technical reason: around that time, [Mountain Stage] went digital. So it was much easier to get those recordings from 2006.

For Todd Burge, this 2006 Mountain Stage performance was a career reawakening of sorts.
Credit Brian Blauser/Mountain Stage

Now, there’s another thing: in 2006, at that Tamarack show, something clicked in me. Nothing before that time for me made sense musically. Those performances were crucial before that time, between 1991 to 2006, but I was not really happen with [my performances] on Mountain Stage. I was a wreck. I was a mess. I was a bundle of nuts. And so I never really relaxed and performed on that show, and that was a long freak’n stretch. People have told me, “Jeez, I would have never known,” but I can’t even exaggerate how flakey I was on that show. I was glad to get it over with, [laughing] but I’m on freak’n Mountain Stage! I just couldn’t get over the nerves. I didn’t really get comfortable on stage as a solo performer until the year 2006. It was around that year where I got to the point where I had a show, I had an act, and I had a comfort level where I was real on stage. I was just faking it up till then. That’s another thing I can’t exaggerate: what Mountain Stage has meant to what I do.

On what it takes to be a musician from West Virginia:

The West Virginia thing is brought up almost like it’s a weight that we’re carrying, or like we’re trapped on this side of the mountain or living in a bubble or whatever. People make a lot of that. But what I’d say is get in your car, drive out of the state, play some shows and come back. [Laughing] It’s that simple.

Being from West Virginia is a big plus. I’ve lived in Austin, San Francisco, and Pittsburgh, and I’ve lived most of my life in West Virginia. What I’d tell people is work your ass off, organize your work, and book your shows and go. Make your shows as good as they can be. Once you do that, make your show better and keep doing that. Make that your priority.

I’m here because I want to be. Maybe I have to be in West Virginia. Maybe if I was working a regular job (whatever a regular job means) and had to tend to that every day, I don’t know if I could do that. I think it’s a plus, especially when I go up north. I’ve got a little bit of a twang in my voice and people dig that. There’s this thing about West Virginia.

Music Featured in this #WVmusic chat:

Todd Burge- "Time to Waste Time - Live on Mountain Stage"

Todd Burge- "The Longer - Live on Mountain Stage"

Todd Burge- "Enough About Me - Live on Mountain Stage"