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The Cultlette of Charlie Burton

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by Tim McMahan

"When you talk about cult figures, you think Alex Chilton or Jack Logan. I have what you'd call a 'cultlette.' It's a nice cultlette, and I'm happy with it because it's all I've got."

It's more than a lot of people get after 21 years in the music biz, says twang master Charlie Burton, a former Lincoln, Neb., resident, who in 1991 became part of the legendary and nouveau-fashionable Austin, Texas, music scene. Omahans remember Burton for his anything-can-happen stage shows, where he and his band, the Hiccups, slammed out clever rock-heavy rockabilly ditties between shots and made sure everyone was having a grand ol' time. I remember seeing Burton play at the now defunct Howard Street Tavern sometime around 1988. He was less country-fied back then, more pseudo-punkish with only a slight Western lilt to his voice. His tight crowd of followers was riveted to his sweaty performance that included a lot of swagger and a couple of stumbles, received with hoots of laughter and applause. They were the first members of his soon-to-be international cultlette.

These days, Burton's taken on a more professional, more C&W demeanor, with his revolving-door band, The Texas Twelve Steppers -- an ever-changing assortment of Austin musicians drawn together by the willingness to hit the road. "This is the third time I've toured this year; each time with a different band," Burton says. "I get on the phone and see who's willing to drive 1,600 miles to play."

When the tour comes to Lincoln's Zoo Bar Aug. 21-22 and Omaha's 18th Amendment Aug. 23, the Twelve Steppers will be the Austin rockabilly trio Git Gone. They'll open for Burton and then return to the stage to be reborn as the Twelve Steppers.

Burton released his first full-length Texas Twelve Steppers CD, Rustic Fixer-Upper, last year on Lazy S.O.B. Recordings. It was a slickly recorded country/rockabilly outing (produced by Asleep at the Wheel drummer Dave Sanger) chock full o' hook-filled tracks like "I'm the Guy Who Let Miss Universe Slip Through His Fingers," "Thin Ice/Deep Water" and "Livin' on Borrowed Time (Livin' on Borrowed Money)." Though sometimes wrongly placed in the "novelty/humor" category, Burton's lyrics are clever and witty, sort of a cross between Stan Ridgway and Lyle Lovett.

"People who throw me in the novelty category can fuck off," Burton says, adding that he's especially offended by comparisons to Mojo Nixon. "If you said Mojo Nixon equals the Three Stooges, then Charlie Burton equals The Marx Bros. My stuff isn't crude, it's a shot at intelligent wordplay."

Rustic Fixer-Upper garnered critical huzzahs from the likes of Goldmine ("...running for the best Austin country album of the year..."), Country Music People (rating 9/10, "...scores high on the ol' clapometer."), and The Austin Chronicle (4 stars, "...achieves the rare trick of not simply mimicking tradition, but enlivening it as well.").

Riding his wave of critical success, Bulldog Records this fall is releasing "One Man's Trash," a "best of..." compilation spanning Burton's storied career, including long out-of-print singles and albums. "It's pathetic that 21 years of recording can be captured in a 74-minute CD," he says. "Putting it together forced me to listen to my old stuff, which shocked me because it was really good. I'm thinking of calling the next volume, 'This One's Gonna Really Do It for Us,' because after we put out every record in Nebraska, some fool would blurt out that statement. It seemed like a curse."

Burton says on some levels, his career is "probably doing fucking great," but that his original dream of netting a long-term contract with a major American record label ultimately resulted in a short-term contract with a very minor American label.

"My goals have changed," he says. "I do this now because it's something that I have to do. I enjoy it like a golfer enjoys playing a game of golf. It's the only thing I really give a shit about. I'm not living in a fantasy world where I think I'm ever gonna get any type of showbiz break."

Still, Burton continues to be a perennial favorite at the South by Southwest Festival, an annual industry feeding frenzy held in Austin where up-and-coming bands strut their stuff for record company scouts during a week of performances. It's a big part of what turned Austin into a music Mecca of sorts, though Burton says his decision to move there had more to do with pursuing a relationship than making it big in the business.

"I had been with my band for 10 years; I left Nebraska to try something different," he says. "The relationship didn't last long and I ended up staying here. I've grown as a musician because there's so much talent down here to put together a band."

On the other hand, there's so many bands that you can get lost in the shuffle. "It's like slogging through the mud. There's as much bad as good stuff. Most of it is average or mediocre or annoying. It's a competitive scene. South By Southwest is the one week a year that I feel that I get respect in this town. The other 51, it's like I'm just another musician."

Burton sums up the festival with a story that is so good, he was afraid it would dominate the article. At first, he didn't want to tell me, either because he doesn't want to come off as glum or because he doesn't want it to be a metaphor for his entire career.

"It was right after last year's South by Southwest festival," he said. "We played very well, and my friends from all over came to see me. It inflated my ego, stroked it, and then it was over. Suddenly it was Sunday and I had to go back to work at ABCD's (an Austin CD store). As I opened up that morning, these lyrics just kept running through my mind -- the line from P.F. Sloan's "Eve of Destruction," as sung by Barry McGuire: 'You might leave for four days in space, but when you return it's the same old place.' It was like the day after Christmas, when you've opened all your presents and are already bored with them.

"So this guy walks in the store and asks for the Charlie Burton CD. 'Do we have it?,' I said, 'as a matter of fact I am Charlie Burton!' He says, 'I saw your first 45 reviewed in Cream magazine in 1977. You sent me an autographed copy. I ordered more and gave them to all my friends. It's still one of my favorites of all time.'

"He walks up with a copy of Rustic Fixer Upper and I offer to sign it for him. He gives me his card so I know who to write it to and the guy's the vice president of A&R for Warner Bros. I said, 'How come I have all these big fans in the record business and I'm starving out here?' His response, basically was 'You're not 24 anymore, are you Charlie? And that's what I'm looking for.'"

Burton sold him the CD and also sent a copy of the single "Spare me the Details," (which will be on the One Man's Trash compilation) along with a letter. "I realized that I had an opportunity to kiss the guy's ass, but missed it. I haven't even received so much as a 'thank you.'

"I don't know what those guys want anyway. Back when I was a kid, you either liked the Beatles or the Stones or both. Now music buying public is so fractionalized, they want lounge or swing or urban... Yesterday's gothic Trent Reznor kid is tomorrow's rockabilly Dale Watson fan. The trends are run down their throats. They haven't figured out they are being taken advantage of."

Despite the angst, Burton knows that there's no other kind of music he can -- or wants -- to play. "I still believe in myself, but the bottom line is that the industry wags know when they see a money-losing proposition. Maybe they're right; maybe I never made it because I don't deserve to."

Like Johnny Carson or Dick Cavett, Burton says there's a certain kind of blandness or normalness that's associated with being from the Midwest. "With out a doubt, I'm still from the Midwest," he says. "Culturally, I'm still normal."

Despite living in Austin, Burton says the Midwest is still his home. "When I watch CBS Sunday Morning with Roger Welsh and see his postcard from Nebraska, and I see the color of the sky and the color of the earth, I want to walk into my TV. It's still home to me. I miss driving from Lincoln to Omaha to the gig and afterward, driving back, looking at the stars and knowing that we did a good job. I'm really looking forward to playing there again; it's a thrill to go home."

Check out Charlie's website at

(back to Band Profiles home)

Originallly Printed in The Reader August 20, 1998.

Copyright 1998 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.

"If you said Mojo Nixon equals the Three Stooges, then Charlie Burton equals The Marx Bros. My stuff isn't crude, it's a shot at intelligent wordplay."
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"I still believe in myself, but the bottom line is that the industry wags know when they see a money-losing proposition. Maybe they're right; maybe I never made it because I don't deserve to."