Paul Burch Wrote “The Tell” To Avoid Getting Clobbered by Karen Allen

If Raiders of the Lost Ark, songwriter Kevin Gordon, and Khadrawy dates have anything in common, it’s this: they all lurk in Paul Burch’s subconscious. More specifically, they all featured prominently in a vivid dream that led Burch to write his new single, “The Tell,” which sees the beloved Nashville roots singer-songwriter and composer dodging an unhinged Karen Allen.

“‘The Tell’ was written after I [dreamt] I was in a Middle Eastern market in a real-life version of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark,’” Burch tells American Songwriter. “Karen Allen was about to clobber me with a skillet and I shouted ‘I know the tell that gave you away!’ Suddenly my friend and songwriter Kevin Gordon appeared as a one-eyed merchant selling Khadrawy dates. He held up his palm toward Karen in mid-swing and whispered to me: ‘You’re writing a good song–you should wake up and write that down.’ So I did. Aaron Lee Tasjan sang harmony and wore a spectacular hat.”

“The Tell”–premiering today on American Songwriter with an accompanying video–is a wistful, exuberant number built on the absurd foundation of that dream.

“I know the tell that gave you away / It broke the spell that gave you away,” Burch sings in the opening verse as his longtime band WPA Ballclub starts to groove. “Deflection, reflection, you don’t know it’s there / it might be a stare or the blink of an eye.” 

Burch sounds deranged and delighted as he delivers his wry lyrics: “When you play strong I know it’s a lie / Deception, misdirection, holding your breath / I know the tell that gives you away.” 

The video for “The Tell” stemmed from a collaboration between Burch and noted portrait photographer Jim Herrington, whose portrait subjects have included the likes of Benny Goodman, Willlie Nelson, Morgan Freeman, and Dolly Parton.

“Jim and I have been working together for over 25 years,” Burch says of his creative relationship with the photographer. “He has shot three of my albums and we’ve now run out of places to go in Nashville. Except the graveyard. We’re saving that for last.”

In the video, Burch sings straight into the camera with a sober expression. These shots are contrasted with black and white close-ups of his face obscured by splotchy filters. Both the song and video have a nervous edge–a whiff of anxiety or paranoia or dread. Still, the track is rollicking. 

“The Tell” is the second single off Burch’s forthcoming 11th album, Light Sensitive, following lead single “Fool About Me,” released in January. Light Sensitive comes after Burch’s acclaimed 2016 album, Meridian Rising, which Burch has described as “an imagined musical autobiography of Jimmie Rodgers: the Singing Brakeman, the Blue Yodeler, and the Father of Country Music.” 

Like Meridian Rising, Light Sensitive is a record rooted in history and place. It was inspired by a trip Burch took to his former hometown of Oxford, Mississippi, and includes a commissioned piece that tells the tale of “Mobile’s Renaissance Man” Eugene Walter. Co-produced with bassist Dennis Crouch, the album also features guest contributions from Amy Rigby, Luther Dickinson, Robyn Hitchcock, and Fats Kaplin in addition to Tasjan, whose harmonies can be heard in “The Tell.”


Light Sensitive is out April 17 via Plowboy Records.

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