It doesn’t get more pure than this. After releasing three albums with vocalist Sue Prodell under the Calico Drifters moniker, Mt. Horeb resident Thomas Burns has just released his first solo recording. The music of Calico Drifters was rootsy and sparse with haunting vocals and poetic lyrics. Taking Liberties is an even more stripped-down affair; just one beautifully-captured guitar and Burns’ vocals. No overdubs, no messin’ around. A little reverb and compression is as much as you’ll get here and the results are extraordinary. At times it feels like Burns could be right on the couch with you or just across the living room.
The album is aptly titled. There are only two originals that serve as bookends with six interpretations of traditional songs and older blues and Americana standards. Although the title might indicate deviations from the original form of these songs, Burns merely taps into them and gives them his own voice.
The stories behind the originals are worth knowing. “How Do You Watch a Moving Train” takes place in Baltimore. Burns spent several hours in a run-down bar near a door that opened to the Penn Station train yard, trading songs with a travelling companion for anyone who was interested. “She Won’t Be Back at All” was written in Alderson, West Virginia, home to the first Federal prison for women, the Federal Reformatory for Women. Trains are a recurring reference throughout the album.
Burns’ voice calls to mind Nashville Skyline-era Dylan, rich in quality and emotion. As a guitarist, Burns is massively underappreciated. He has a fluid fingerpicking style that is at its freest on the originals. “How Do You Watch a Moving Train” has some particularly nice moves.
Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain” has probably been recorded hundreds of times but here Burns makes it sound like his own. WC Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” is gorgeous, played in an open D tuning and projecting the loneliness central to the blues and early American musical forms. “Hesitation Blues,” a self-professed favorite, is given a spritely feel given its WWI-era origin. The more meditative “Come Back Baby” by Walter Davis is notable for the melodic phrasings Burns has built into the accompaniment.
Fans of traditional and early blues music should rush out to get this record. As a local release it fills a niche that is under-represented. Check out the T Burns website for show dates, too. He’s a great live act and a totally approachable artist, humble enough to go with a first initial instead of a first name.