Personnel: Fats Kaplin (Hawaiian steel guitar, tenor banjo, fiddle); Emily Nelson (cello); Jen Gunderman (accordion, piano); Chloe Feoranzo (clarinet, saxophone); Roy Agee (trombone); Dennis Crouch (upright bass); Tommy Perkinson (drums).
Photographer: Melissa Fuller.
Jimmie Rodgers has been the subject of tribute albums before -- perhaps the most memorable is Merle Haggard's 1969 classic Same Train, a Different Time -- but Paul Burch's Meridian Rising is distinctly different: the singer/songwriter designed his 2016 album as "an imagined musical autobiography" of the country legend. By neither following the conventions of a traditional tribute album nor the contours of a biography, Burch is freed to be fanciful, dreaming up scenarios for Rodgers that may not strictly adhere to written history and allowing himself to tip a hat to Rodgers' jazz and blues contemporaries. Such elasticity lends Meridian Rising considerable life, letting Burch slide into hot dance music as easily as he cops to a blue yodel. He's playful but not at the expense of his subject: if anything, his blurring of fact, fiction, and styles allows Rodgers to not be seen as a museum piece, a figure that exists only in dusty history books. Burch's wry, witty compositions -- which find their match in his swinging band, its lineup shifting to accentuate the tones of the tunes -- bring the Singing Brakeman to a colorful, full-bodied life while also illustrating how he's peerless as an Americana craftsman: he's absorbed tradition so thoroughly, he knows it's a shame to exist solely in the past, so he makes albums as rich and delightful as this. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine