On a Sunday morning you might find him at the Elora Brewing Company picking 40’s country for the Honky Tonk Brunch. Or playing early American blues on a Saturday night with Waterloo groups Frog & Henry, and the Ever Lovin’ Jug Band. On a weekday, he’s often tutoring students at his home studio on the guitar, ukulele, or lap steel. Over the last 8 years, Rich Burnett has spent much of his career expanding and transforming his musical skills, becoming an integral part of the musical communities surrounding his home in Fergus, ON.
“I’m a folkie at heart, who got hooked on the creative side of music. Writing, and collaborating with other musicians, as well as teaching, has continued to fuel an ongoing exploration in composition.”
Burnett was 17 when he first took interest in the guitar himself. “I remember watching my step father play Hank Williams and Johnny Cash on the guitar as a kid. The fretboard seemed so abstract at the time. I had a keyboard in high school, and joined my first band. That’s when I really started to take interest in instruments like the guitar, bass and drums. Once I did, I was playing guitar daily, learning to travis pick, and writing songs.” After High School, Burnett was accepted into a college pre-music program, but soon recognized he wasn’t fitting neatly into the ‘jazz’ stereotype. “I was listening to a wide range of music, the Grateful Dead, Willie Nelson, Mississippi John Hurt, and Nina Simone. I wasn’t sure how to relate it to my experiences at college.” Perhaps a defining moment in the way his “creative career” began to take shape, Rich chose a fingerpicking arrangement of Nina Simone’s ‘Wild is the Wind’, for his year end audition piece into the jazz program. Something that resonated with Rich, but was a marked departure from the traditional chord melody expected. As fate would have it, Rich did not pass his audition. And while this essentially marked the end of his “school days”, it was certainly not the end of Rich’s personal education in music.
Instead, he headed south to Chicago where his father had been living the last 10 years. A radio DJ for the local jazz station WDCB, his father had started the ‘John Burnett Swing Orchestra’ at the height of the swing dance revival of the late 90’s. All of a sudden, Rich found himself touring a multitude of ballrooms throughout the Chicago area. The exposure to the many working musicians throughout the Chicago music scene provided him with an understanding of what it meant to be an “in-the-trenches”, gigging musician. “I was taking theory lessons from the lead alto player in my dad’s orchestra. Studying on the piano, and practicing 10 hours a day. These musicians were all very proficient on their chosen instruments, yet many had a full-time day job, and were playing any gig they could get. I realized that performing jazz did not guarantee a successful career in music, and refocused my intentions on what drew me to music to begin with; songwriting.” It was an education that no formal schooling would ever be able to provide.
Rich returned to Toronto in 2001 and spent the next four years sharing stages all over the city with the likes of Justin Rutledge, Royal Wood and Catherine MacLellan. “I think the songwriter is a special breed of musician. It takes courage to stand up in front of an audience, wholly responsible for the journey they are experiencing. You have to be ok with criticism, and accept that not everyone will like what you do. I am proud to say the majority of my musical collaborations are working with artists creating original music.”
Before leaving Toronto in 2004, Rich met notable percussionist Don Kerr (Ron Sexsmith, Rheostatics). He soon began working on his first full length album ‘Not So Blue’, at Kerr’s home studio, the Rooster. A chronicle of his move from the city, to the small farm town of Arthur, ON, ‘Not So Blue’ was released in 2010, and gained radio play on CBC and college radio across Canada. But rather than touring, Burnett focused on starting a family, finally settling in Fergus, ON.
It wasn‘t long before his musical inclinations connected him to artists in the area. Most notable is his work with Guelph artist Bry Webb, the front man for Canadian indie rock titans, the Constantines. Burnett’s tasteful lap steel has provided the perfect backdrop to all three of Webb’s solo releases, including the Live at Massey Hall LP in 2015. The strong connection between these two musicians can be clearly heard and felt when they perform together. “Bry grew up listening to punk rock and the counter culture music of the 60’s and 70’s. Travelling together, Bry has introduced me to a wealth of recordings I had missed growing up listening to folk, country, jazz and blues. What many Guelph artists have in common is a punk ethos at its core. A do-it-yourself integrity, which embraces its imperfections, resulting in a performance made far more powerful for its honesty and vulnerability.”
Burnett’s sophomore album, ‘All Shapes and Sizes’ is set for release in the fall of 2018. Touching on themes of community, work, parenthood, and the shared experience of loneliness, Burnett croons like Roger Miller or Willie Nelson. At its core, a folk record, with the graceful support of Julia Narveson on fiddle (The Ever-Loving Jug-Band), and his own signature lap steel weaving throughout the album. At times haunting and hopeful, it‘s embellished with string arrangements from the TSO’s first violinist Leslie Dawn Knowles, backing vocals from acclaimed singer Tamara Lindeman (The Weather Station), keys from Guelph’s Thomas Hammerton, and the return of Toronto’s go-to percussionist, Don Kerr on drums.
Burnett has now been helping aspiring musicians and hobbyists as a private music instructor in the Centre Wellington area for more than a decade. Word of mouth has spread of his natural ability to help simplify many aspects of the guitar, ukulele and lap steel.
“Music has always had room for all. Anyone can pick up an instrument and start to learn or create. That’s the beauty of it; its scope is so wide. As an artist and teacher, I have tried to find a middle ground, to not sacrifice heart, for technicality. To be knowledgeable, but above all be a good listener, and follow my intuition.”
To find out more about where Rich is playing, or to inquire about lessons visit www.richburnett.com