Gary Burr: Finding Success in Staying Focused

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If there’s a songwriter’s handbook somewhere that defines the term “hot streak,” it would have to be accompanied by a photo of Gary Burr. Last fall he had three songs in the top ten of the country chart at the same time; Patty Loveless; “I Try To Think About Elvis,” Collin Raye’s “Man Of My Word,” and Doug Stone’s “More Love.” His list of credits includes cuts by Garth Brooks (“One Night A Day”), Lorrie Morgan (“Watch Me”), John Berry (“What’s In It For Me?”), Tanya Tucker (“We Don’t Have To Do This”), and numerous other artists.If there’s a songwriter’s handbook somewhere that defines the term “hot streak,” it would have to be accompanied by a photo of Gary Burr. Last fall he had three songs in the top ten of the country chart at the same time; Patty Loveless; “I Try To Think About Elvis,” Collin Raye’s “Man Of My Word,” and Doug Stone’s “More Love.” His list of credits includes cuts by Garth Brooks (“One Night A Day”), Lorrie Morgan (“Watch Me”), John Berry (“What’s In It For Me?”), Tanya Tucker (“We Don’t Have To Do This”), and numerous other artists.

The key to Burr’s success seems to be his ability to stay focused. He performs around Nashville occasionally, and he’s currently producing a new act, but for the most part writing songs is his main thrust. He leaves the pitching to MCA Music’s pluggers and he revels in his own writing process.

“When I was 17, I didn’t lie awake at night wishing someday I’d grow up to be a publisher, but I did lay there and wish someday I’d be a songwriter.” Burr says. “I don’t produce any enough that it distracts me and I don’t sing enough and I don’t that it really takes a lot of time away from my writing. I like to keep this focus. I know why I’m here and I know where my strengths are. I just want to focus on that kind of stuff. I’m into simplification. I want as little in my life except the music as possible. That seems to work the best for me.”

A native of Connecticut, Burr started writing songs when he was in high school. “The main reason I got into music was that when I was in high school I broke my leg and I was in a body cast for three months,” he recalls. “I had to do something to keep the boredom away so I learned how to play guitar. When I got back on my feet, literally, I went to Woodstock, I sat there with a friend and we both sort of looked at each other and said ‘We’ve got to do this.’ So we went back and started a band.”

In most of the bands his group admired, it was the guitar player who wrote the songs. So the songwriting responsibilities fell on Gary’s shoulders. “I think I was lucky enough to have sort of a natural feel for it because people I was emulating were very good at it. They were very structure oriented,” he says. “Those first bands I was in, I played with some people who wrote songs that were very unstructured and I felt the difference in which type the audience likes, which was easier to play and easier to remember, and that helped me stick to the more traditional format of writing songs. I was lucky. Non one ever sat me down and said ‘Here’s how you write a song.’ It always struck me as obvious.”

Burr feels natural ability is important to being a songwriter. “I think you can teach anyone to be a songwriter,” he says, “but whether you’ll like the songs, that depends.. just because you have the tools doesn’t mean you can build a boat.”

Burr honed his songwriting and performing skills when he moved to California to join a band that played all original material. He refers to the time period as a great learning experience, but after awhile he returned to Connecticut and recorded a solo album for Tommy West and Terry Cashman’s Lifesong label. When the label folded, Burr landed a job with Pure Prairie League, replacing the departing Vince Gill. During his stint with them, he began pitching songs. “I sent songs to New York and L.A. and Nashville and just waited to see if anybody cared. Nashville was the town that responded,” he says. “So I just concentrated my efforts here.”

Those efforts paid off. Burr’s first cut, “Love’s Been A Little Bit Hard On Me,” became a pop and country hit for Juice Newton. His next cut, “Make My Life With You,” became a number one song for the Oak Ridge Boys. “The first song I ever had was a big pop song and the second song was a number one country song,” he recalls. “So after that I pretty much figured this is an easy industry, two out of the box, two hits. No problem. Then I settled in for about two years of dust on the telephone and realized you’re only as good as your chart position. That’s when I hunkered down and figured it was going to be a job, not just a flash.”

Burr admits one of the reasons for his cold spell during that time period was a fascination with technology that yielded a lot of songs that were all flash and no substance. “At that time I was sort of moving up in the technology department and bought a whole lot bunch of toys that I thought were going to make me a songwriter,” he says. “I had all the drum machines, the sequencers and synthesizers, and basically for two years I just had an awful lot of fun just recording these tiny nuggets of crap. That’s all they were. They weren’t any songs. I was so excited about the process and this whole new discovery that I was like Ben Franklin and the key just started sparkling. I wasn’t even finishing songs before I put the bass parts on. My publisher at the time (Bob Montgomery when he had House of Gold) sat me down and said ‘You know since you put in that studio at your house, how can you see over the toilet rail.’ He had a lot of other colorful euphemisms for it, but basically he was telling me that I was not doing the level of work that he would have liked. Bob Montgomery could be a very blunt man and he shook me out of that. Basically I scrapped all of that stuff, picked up an acoustic guitar, and figured that if I couldn’t write it and play it on an acoustic guitar, it shouldn’t be.”

Along the way Burr also learned valuable lessons about the importance of keeping the commercial aspect in mind when writing. He admits he went through a stage when he was writing unusual songs that had little or no chance of getting cut, until his publisher pointed out the error of his ways. “I wrote a lot of uptempo songs and if I had a ballad they were basically bizarre psycho drama like ‘He loved her. He lost her. He shot her.’ My publisher came to me and said, ‘Just once if you’d write a positive love song, you might have a career. Have you ever considered that? Or do you like wearing a hair net and serving ice cream?,'” Burr recalls with a laugh. “I said I’d give it a try. So I wrote one positive ballad and turned it in. It got recorded and went to number one. And I didn’t write another positive ballad for probably another year. He kept saying, ‘See I thought we proved something here. I thought you would see that you did it. You made money. Do it again. Don’t you want to make money more often?’ So I put away the psycho drama killer songs and started writing tender love ballads.”

Burr’s career continued to gain momentum with songs like Billy Joe Royal’s comeback hit “Burned Like A Rocket,” Kenny Rogers’ “The Vows Go Unbroken,” and Conway Twitty’s “That’s My Job.” For years Burr lived in Connecticut, pitched songs and had a stream of cuts, then in 1989 he decided to move to Nashville. “I was really frustrated professionally up there because I knew that I was doing okay selling songs, but I also knew that there were a lot of other facets of the industry that I wasn’t able to tap into and would like to be a part of,” Burr says. “I knew that I couldn’t sing on other people’s albums. I couldn’t produce acts and I couldn’t play the night clubs that I’d read about in the magazines. It’s a very multi-dimensional business and I wanted to be a part of all of it.”

On of the things Burr enjoys most about living in Nashville is the opportunity to co-write. Among the songwriters he collaborates with are Bob DiPiero, Victoria Shaw, John Jarrard, Susan Longacre, Robert Ellis Orrall, Tom Shapiro and Don Schlitz. “The nice thing about getting to the point where you’re fairly well established is you can pretty much pick the people you have the most fun with,” he says. “I’ve written some great, successful songs with people where we’ve basically spent the afternoon playing Gameboy and sitting by the pool. There ain’t nothing wrong with that… It’s great to write with somebody who’s really strong in all aspects of it because no matter what hurdle you run into you know that somebody in the room is going to figure out a way to get over it.”

Burr co-writes the majority of the time, but also writes alone. “I try to be fairly structured in that I have to get out of the house otherwise I’ll watch Gilligan all day,” he says. “That’s why I asked them to give me this little office here at MCA… I was a solo writer. I enjoy the process and I still try to set a certain amount of time a year aside to write by myself. The songs I write alone are the ones I get up at three in the morning and jot it down or work on it while I’m driving around.”

One of the most recent hits Burr wrote solo was “I Try to Think About Elvis” which was recorded by Patty Loveless. “I had to rewrite ‘Elvis’ because it was a very testosterone-driven song,” he says. “It was also all about homeruns, hand guns, and red meat. They said ‘We’d really love to do it but Patty would rather not sing about hand guns and red meat.’ So I rewrote it and tried to get in touch with my feminine side. There’s a fine line. I didn’t want to be sexist, but I wanted it taken more to the feminine side. So I wrote about hair-dos and tattoos- two important things to a woman to me.”

Burr has a lot of interesting stories about the songs he’s written and listening to him relate them is extremely entertaining. He enjoys writing songs and can even turn an indecisive moment with a co-writing friend into a hit. Such was the case when he and Victoria Shaw were going to co-write and then thought maybe they’d just go to lunch instead. Victoria looked at him and said “We don’t have to do this.” Suddenly lunch was put on hold. They wrote the song and it became a hit for Tanya Tucker.

Another anecdote Burr shared was concerning “Burned Like A Rocket.” “I did all the doo wop harmonies behind it and they never sounded I pitch to me,” he says. “They always sounded flat, but I said ‘Screw it. Nobody’s going to hear it.’ When they wanted the song for Billy Joe Royal, they bought my demo, just erased my voice, and had him sing over it. That’s me singing all the doo wop harmonies and to this day when I hear it, I cringe. I thought no one would ever hear it and instead everybody heard it. It’s a valuable lesson to get it right and don’t assume anything in business.”

When asked his opinion on the current climate in country music, and the fact that many people are disgruntled about the kind of songs getting cut, Burr responded, “I don’t mind light, substance-free songs as long as they’re not so obviously by the numbers, as long as they’re not just a long string of clichés… There will always be plenty of songs out there full of pathos and to give you a life lesson, but there’s plenty of room for fun songs. I think there’s room for everything as long as its well done.”

One aspect of the Nashville music industry Burr enjoys is the camaraderie and spirit of good will. He says when he has his producer’s hat on and approaches someone looking for material, it’s not uncommon for a publisher to play him a song that isn’t even theirs if it’s a song they like and think will fit what he’s looking for. As a writer, he says if someone asks for a certain type of tune and he doesn’t have what they are looking for, he’ll happily steer them to another writer who does. “Every good song that somebody writes helps that process,” he relates. “Anything any of us can do to help the other guy helps all of us. It’s just wonderful. That’s the way it’s supposed to work.”

That’s one of the reasons he feels it’s important for people who are interested in writing move to Nashville. Once here, a writer can become a part of the writing community and take advantage of all Nashville has to offer, and that includes utilizing songpluggers. Burr says he doesn’t pitch his own material unless someone approaches him directly and asks for a song. “To have a career you have to have a sustained attack,” he says. “The occasional sighting [of artists, A&R people, or producers] in restaurants is not enough to sustain any kind of songwriting career. So I need a plugging staff that is here and dedicated to going out everyday and beating the bushes.”



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