Tuesday, May 1, 2001

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Friends of singer-songwriter Paul Burch have worn him out with speculation about whether the success of the soundtrack “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” might augur well for him.
“Timing is everything,” says a hopeful but somewhat skeptical Mr. Burch, who has written and released an album based on the novel “Jim the Boy,” written by Tony Earley.
Mr. Burchs “Last of My Kind” album features the kind of traditional country music that has sold millions of the “O Brother” soundtrack.
Its a modern country music album without any country-rock or pop music influence.
However, it likely wont lodge at the No. 1 spot on the country album charts the way “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” did for more than 15 weeks.
First of all, North Carolina-based Merge Records doesnt have the marketing muscle of Mercury Records, which released “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” And although the novel sold well, it cant provide the same boost the popular Coen brothers film did for sales of its soundtrack album.
“Last of My Kind” is Mr. Burchs third album.
Mr. Earley and Mr. Burch became friends in 1998 at Vanderbilt University, where Mr. Earley teaches and Mr. Burch was doing clerical work.
“The way I came into the building with my bagel and Diet Coke, I would pass Pauls office,” Mr. Earley says. “And it seems like I would always think of a question about Johnny Cash or something. … Twenty minutes later, Id be like, ‘Oh, no, now I dont have time to get ready for class.”
The two discovered they were artists with a common purpose.
“What we were talking about in music is exactly what I was trying to do in writing,” Mr. Earley says. “We had all these conversations about simplicity and how to work without affectation, the way Ralph Stanley does.
“That was very much what I was trying to do in ‘Jim the Boy.”
Mr. Earleys novel, published last year, portrays one year in the life of 10-year-old Jim Glass as his mother and three uncles raise him in Depression-era North Carolina. The specter of Jims deceased father hangs over his life.
For a reading at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville last year, Mr. Earley asked Mr. Burch to play some Carter Family songs. Mr. Burch proposed writing some original songs instead.
“I could kind of relate to the idea of something missing in someones life growing up,” says Mr. Burch, whose grandfather died at a young age.
“The idea that a family is glad to have a child, but theres a certain amount of history in you before you grow up to make your own history. … I sort of treated it like a play and thought everybody would sort of have their chance to speak up.”
The result is an album that stands on its own but is so intertwined with the characters that it offers an even richer experience for those who have read the book.
“Rocky road Ill trespass it/Blowing wind Ill outlast it/Livin up to the man you see in me,” Mr. Burch sings in Jims voice on “Livin Up to the Man You See in Me.”
“If like you say/Papa went to heaven/I love a cloudy day/because Papas in the rain.”
Mr. Earley says Mr. Burch got his characters right.
“It was really a great experience hearing people that I made up saying things I didnt write,” Mr. Earley says. “It was like they really were alive and talking to me.”
Mr. Burch doesnt know whether his music will be used in the upcoming Hallmark Hall of Fame television adaptation of “Jim the Boy,” despite the authors endorsement.
“Lonesome Dove” author Larry McMurtry is writing the screenplay, but it hasnt been cast or scheduled to air yet.
Mr. Earley is hopeful.
“Weve been throwing CDs into the wind and hoping they land in the right places. We know officially that Larry McMurtry has one, but we dont know if it has made its way all the way to the production company or not,” he says.
“I think it would be crazy if they didnt use it.”

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