In an age characterized by an ironic smirk, there’s a wide-eyed sincerity inherent in Sam Burchfield’s work, an enduring optimism in his worldview. Unarmored (2016) and its follow-up single “Strawberry Blonde,” a tribute to his wife Pip the Pansy, are love letters that find Burchfield in perpetual honeymoon bliss, while Graveyard Flower (2020) testifies to nature’s restorative powers (“Waking Up”) and perseverance in the face of mortality (“The Last of the Honey Bees”). Life is good, as the stickers tell us.
Sam Burchfield has spent his career espousing the beautiful, which is why his latest release, the ever-growing Scoundrel, hits like a backwoods horror movie jump scare. His songs still rely on his acoustic guitar, but the arrangements are sparser, the vocals exposed, the subject matter darker, occasionally bleak. Consider the lead track “Arms Of A Lover” a harbinger– it plays like a traditional love song until guns and knives turn it into a murder ballad. From there, Burchfield gives us his own version of Wisconsin Death Trip, an Appalachian edition full of anti-heroes, trigger fingers, self-indulgence, exploitation, and bloodshed, but as the title track intimates, redemption is a possibility. With Jesus standing in league with Jesse James and Burchfield now playing the role of provocateur, we’re unsure who gets out alive or who finds grace, so we must listen.
CF- First, I saw the video you posted, asking if anyone had a van for sale. Did you find one?
SB- Yes, I finally did, actually. I got an old Econoline. I was hoping there was some magical person out there that had the hookup. I bought it and then took it in and got some new brakes and a few days later, I drove it to Texas. I think it officially passed the test a van needs to go through.
Did the pandemic derail touring plans for your last record, Graveyard Flower?
Yeah, we were actually in the middle of touring when things really hit. When things got weird, we were in DC. People were starting to talk about canceling, and I think we did maybe two more shows on the run, and then it was just done. That was a weird week, getting all the emails and calls that things were just not happening and then heading home. It was weird.
How did you stay focused during the downtime? You’d just released a record, so maintaining momentum was essential.
With COVID, everybody pivoted. My booking agent went really deep into how to do livestream and do it really well. We found ways to sell merch. Also how to cut our costs, too, like how to live down a little bit. And also during this time, finding ways to capitalize on it.
I think the perspective from all of that for me is that my wife and I really valued the space we had. I think it’s easy to cram your calendar full and to have everything pulled out from underneath you. It made us appreciate that margin and that space, which it’s weird now because we’re picking back up, and we have a little baby at home. I think everybody has the same struggle where you start to pack your schedule and feel “I’ve got to do more, so I can provide,” and I’m trying to find balance because there was such an odd piece to the pandemic for us where we had all the space at home and time to be creative and be with each other.
Now, you are touring again, and I noticed on your website that you have an application section where people can apply to host house shows where you’ll perform. I think that’s an ingenious idea! I’ve never seen that before. How did that idea come about?
That came out of COVID too. My wife and I were living on the bus. We finished the bus during the first part of COVID, and then we moved into the bus. The house application was a way where we could be mobile and be traveling and not happen to have too much of a typed-out schedule, like a tour schedule. If people were comfortable having us come to the backyard, and if you could make it work with wherever we happened to be traveling to, I can go on there and look and be like, “Oh, someone wants me to play here. Let’s see if we can make it work.” It cuts out the venue middleman, too. It’s been really cool. Someone put one in there for Australia, which I thought was awesome!
Will you be able to make that one?
I jokingly pulled it up and showed my wife, and said, “Look, Melbourne, Australia! Isn’t that funny?” She said, “Hey, we could make it happen!” But maybe in the future.
What does a house show offer that you can’t get from an ordinary venue gig?
I think there’s sort of an intimate thing that happens before and after the show because you’re hanging out with people, and everybody does it differently. Some people have a full-on stage they built in their backyard, or they’ve gutted their basement and turned it into a venue. People do it differently, but there’s always more hanging out with people, and it’s more laid-back. About 95% of the time, I only play acoustic, so that’s a different thing. You can’t get the same production level as you can at a venue. But there’s something nice about barbecuing at someone’s house, talking about whatever, and then getting up and telling some stories and playing some songs.
I can tell that your fans mean a lot to you. Are there any artists you admired who gave you one-on-one time, helped you out, or maybe took you under their wing?
To me, it’s not actually about fans versus not-fans. My wife points this out to me: I’m just really passionate about connecting with people on a real level. Whether it’s fans at a show or people at a bar, I want to know what’s going on in your life, in hopes of inspiring people to take a step towards their passions. I try to legitimately talk to people when they come to the merch table, or when they reach out, I try to get back to them. I don’t know if I had any experiences as a fan, myself. It’s more just person-to-person.
I know your Appalachian roots are essential to your identity. Is that appreciation of history and heritage something you’ve always had, or did that develop with age and maturity?
I definitely think it came later with age and maturity in my respect for it, but the one thing that was just there in my DNA is the love of the mountains, not necessarily like me digging back into my family history or anything like that, but just my earliest childhood memories. My granny had a house in North Carolina, and we’d be up there. And growing up in the foothills in South Carolina, an hour and a half from Ashville, we’d do little church trips up here. Man, I just remember running around in the creek and romping and stuff, and it feels so essential.
The older I got, the more it’s interesting to think about it from a cultural perspective. My family is from all over the place, but I do have some relatives that go back to this Appalachia area. It’s just the connection to place, the connection to the geography that I was familiar with as a kid. It’s like I can’t undo that.
You eventually landed at UGA for college. What did Athens provide for you musically or even beyond that continued to provide for you?
I think that it was the realization that this was a serious pursuit for me because I was studying to do PR, but I was doing this music business program there with David Barbe, who’s an awesome guy and awesome producer. I think he kicked me in the pants with this “Hey, if you’re gonna do this, do this” mentality. It forced me to take myself seriously and do things I’d been putting off. He said to go ahead and make a website; go ahead and record that first official record; stop holding your hands and waiting for someone to do something for you.
And I met a lot of other musicians and artists through that scene. It’s funny– I did go to college there, but it was almost like my version of going to college in the music industry, testing myself and getting my feet wet in this sort of safe way.
And now you’re in Jasper, Georgia, right? What does it provide in the way of inspiration?
We were living on the bus, traveling out a little bit after that. But we basically got back to Georgia and knew we needed a place to live. Coming from a smaller town, there’s an appealing thing about that. We’d been in and out of Atlanta for a little bit before the bus. I was over it and wanted to get out. We just found a home that checked all our boxes. We had never heard of Jasper before. And then we come to the little town, and it’s like, “Oh my God. This is a little town. This is the thing that I have been singing about from childhood,” and then also dreaming about someday ending up in a place like this. To have it be here, close to family, it’s a perfect fit.
I think the inspiration that has been here so far has been just how important community is. We’ve thrown ourselves into this community. At the beginning, it was out of necessity, trying to pick up gigs close to home with the baby. We met all these awesome people downtown. We actually had a shrimp boil this past Tuesday with a bunch of local people at our house. It’s something that I didn’t know that I needed as bad as I did, as far as that small town community. That’s been the inspiration from being here.
I wanted to talk a bit about your latest release, Scoundrel. It’s unlike your other works in that you’re adopting these different personas, these different points of view. And it’s much darker. How do you account for the narrative shift?
Basically, I’m putting out singles, gradually. And each time they come out, it has all the other songs underneath them. The whole record came about because I’ve written a few songs in this sort of different space, the outlaw-murderer realm and western stuff. I was wondering how I could turn this into a project. I basically came up with this almost alter-ego, because I think my whole life, I’ve been a pretty law-abiding good guy, and I thought why not dig into this alter-ego, this darker side, do it in a way where I’m digging into the psyche of a different person. Think about a murderer– what’s going on in their brain and are they really that different from any other person? What’s going on? What’s the beginning of that? So there’s songs like “It Feels Alright” sarcastically talking about where if you live your life, where if it feels all right, then it must be right, and you do whatever is self-serving at the moment, you will end up in a ditch.
In that story, it’s the guy who takes his life in a motel room. So, obviously, that’s not me– I’m not killing people—but I like to think about what it takes for someone to go down these different paths, and then at the same time, how can you have forgiveness for those people? Can you have grace and redemption in these different scenarios, or do you get what’s coming to you? Who is a bad guy? Who’s a good guy? It’s these sorts of questions that I think about already, and I write about those types of things in my other songs, but yeah, this record just became what it needed to be, which was this alter-ego different world, this whole story that is interwoven. It’s not necessarily from personal experience, but in a way is pulling on personal things or pulling on these different threads that I’m thinking about as far as why people do what they do– you know, what happens if you let a certain thing get out of control? So yeah, it’s been fun. I really, really enjoy the experience of writing.
Could you have written this same record, an album full of dark character studies, a few years ago, or is it a product of its time, with COVID and social, political, and economic upheaval in the periphery?
A couple of things– I do think one piece of this is a return to my roots, as far as this is more of a record that my dad likes. As far as the sonic palette, I just turned 30, and I just became a dad, so it’s like this whole full-circle kind of thing. I genuinely appreciate my dad’s music more than I ever have. I’m listening to Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and Willie Nelson, which I always liked, but I think I rebelled against that when I was younger and wanted to do rock music or soul music, something that was just different, so there’s that element to it.
I think as far as culturally, I wanted to be a little bit provocative because I think with what’s going on in the culture right now, there’s so much division. On the cover of this record is an old Appalachian moonshiner guy…
I was wondering about that fellow. The photo establishes the tone before we even hear the music…
His name is actually Sam Burchfield! I don’t know if we’re related, but he was a moonshiner in East Tennessee. I think he killed a couple people, but he was on the cover of a Great Smoky Mountains National Park postcard, which is where I found it. It just happens to be public domain, and I asked if I could use it for the cover.
I think something that we all need to think about right now, culturally, is… Look at this album cover– it’s an old white dude with a gun, not very culturally “in” and right now, and honestly, he killed people, so he did do things that are wrong. I wanted to take that and look at what’s going on with the culture, how there’s a lot of negative things that have happened in history and culture, but then also say: Who’s good and bad? Who decides who’s good or bad? And can you forgive people? Because that’s the thing that we need the most of. People on whatever side of the fence you fall on can do bad things and can be bad people, and are you going to find a way to love them and forgive them?
The last song on the record is called “Don’t Cry”. It’s sort of about that. One of the lines is, “There’s sinners and scoundrels all along heaven’s gate,” the whole idea that nobody’s better than anybody else. That’s a motif I sing about often on this: We’re all the same. We’re all cut from the same cloth, so can we love each other? Can we get along regardless of what we look like?
I wrote some of these songs a long time ago, but I think as the project came together, I did want to lean into some of the division and try to help heal it in a provocative way because, again, it’s this old Southern man on the cover, and a lot of people aren’t into that…
A song like “Bonnie” lends itself to a feminist reading because you have this character who’s had enough of this guy and pulls a pistol, in the end, finally standing up for herself.
Exactly. A lot of this record is playing with people’s perception of maybe what Southern music is. Again the song “It Feels Alright,” you can listen to that one way and just think it’s just a classic outlaw song. If you look at the lyrics, it’s actually sarcastic. It’s calling that out, or yeah, “Bonnie” and actually “Arms Of A Lover” too, she actually kills him at the end.
“Arms Of A Lover” is the first song I heard from Scoundrel, and I was walking, listening to what I thought was a love song, and by the end of the song, a gun and a knife show up, and it’s a murder ballad.
It’s how I’ve always been as a songwriter. I always like to have one angle people might see, like maybe the common people might just skim over and see one thing, but then I like for people to dig a little bit and find another thing, and then another thing. There’s layers of the songs and meanings behind the songs. So yeah, it sounds like a little love song, and it turns into very quickly a murder ballad.
And the same with “It Feels Alright.” If you’re not paying attention, it sounds like a “YOLO” or “If it feels good, do it” bumper sticker, but you’re really calling out the realities of living without regard of any consequences…
Exactly. That is a 100% my thinking about this is record: We have consequences for the way we live. There’s some songs that aren’t out yet, so there’s so there’s a few songs that deal with a similar thing, an outlawed gun-slinging guy. How does that play out when the people that you’ve been slinging guns at come back to find you? Or how does it play out with your lover when you betray her or she betrays you?
There’s also some bigger thematic songs. “Sugarcane” is about greed and slavery. It’s pointing out how capitalism and the need for moving product– like the sugar trade– was one of the factors that caused slavery. There’s always sort of a deeper look at it.
With “Scoundrel”, you have this fascinating character, a sort of anti-hero. There’s a bit of Jesse James and Joan of Arc, corruption and redemption. Do you have an affection for those characters in movies or books?
Yeah, man, it’s one of the key things here; it’s the Outlaw King. It’s an archetype that I think we culturally– certainly in the West, but I think in all cultures–put up on a pedestal, and I do think actually rightfully so. There’s something about being willing to speak truth to power. The Robin Hoods or Jesus is obviously an example, someone that’s going to come along, who is going against the status quo. They’re not just doing it for the sake of going against it. I think the key with this record and some of these ideas is if you’re anchored to the truth, then wherever you go, it doesn’t matter if you’re an outlaw; it’s the way people call you an outlaw, or call you one thing or the other. It’s like, “Hey, maybe I’m this outcast character, maybe I’m rough around the edges, but if I know myself, and I know what I’m doing, I know that we’re all this one thing; we’re all one and the same.
There are so many characters through history, and I threw in some classics like Jesse James. I think the interesting thing to ponder is that with some people or some stories, we do know if they were in the right or the wrong. Sometimes we don’t know. We don’t know the full story for a lot of historical figures or ourselves or the people we run into on the street. Someone might look like an outlaw, a rough character, but could be an incredibly good person. And then vice versa. That was the real thing I wanted call into questions: Some people might look like they’re self-righteous, good people and often those are the people who are not.
Nature figures prominently in your work. I know you’re in Jasper now, removed from the city. How do you keep these diversions like social media and cell phones at arm’s length when you want to create or participate in your community?
Man, I wish I had the answer to that…
I was hoping you did too (laughs)…
I don’t know, man. Even today, I feel like I was in a rut, looking at my phone too much. I had to do emails and stuff. As I mentioned earlier, having margins, not packing your schedule, leaving space for something else to come up in your schedule, a lot of times when you let that stuff happen, it often leads to nature. If you leave other things away, it’s the most interesting thing: Put down your phone for a literal second, nature is amazing and you look outside, there’s things growing. It’s so amazing.
But no, man, I don’t have any answers. I mean, I think we all know it; everybody always brings it up. I think we’re at this really tricky part of society, culture, and technology, and I think we definitely all need to learn to close our laptops and turn our phones off as much as we can.