I’ve always admired the songwriters with one boot on the stage and one on the back porch. The balancing act between art and family is more often than not pitched over a deception that one must eventually outweigh the other. As a younger man fueled by legend and my own ego, I believed as much, but edging towards middle age and (hopefully) wisdom, I wish I’d had more artists like Dallas Burrow to study. It’s not that Burrow hasn’t struggled against those same myths– or worse, blindly careened towards them– but he’s embraced the simple truth that living his songs and living well aren’t mutually exclusive. Carefully recorded at Bruce Robison’s Bunker studio during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the self-titled follow-up to 2019’s Southern Wind showcases a son, a father, a husband, and a troubadour in real-time. It’s not a rose-colored look over the shoulder or a phone-framed glimpse of tomorrow. It’s Dallas Burrow’s life unfolding between the blinks.
I- I loved Southern Wind and it seems like a lifetime ago since that record came out! I guess in some ways, for you, it really has been a lifetime. You’ve been very open about your sobriety and your spirituality and with this album, along with your family, that’s what you focus on.
Yes, sir! Man. I think those are definitely the central focuses in my life right now, and that’s just what I wanted to write songs about, hopin’ that those things will resonate with people.
Sobriety, I think for any artist who chooses that, the question always seems to be, “Can I still do it? Can I still perform at the level I thought that I was at?” I think BJ Barham from American Aquarium, I asked him about it one time and he likened it to running a marathon with your shoes tied. And then as soon as you become sober, all of a sudden you’re running without your shoes tied together and you can really, really fly! Did it feel like that for you when it came to writing?
Absolutely, man! BJ’s a great guy and a great example of somebody who really got it together once they got sober. Yeah, I think that there’s a misconception as an artist that you have to party and drink and do all those things to fit in with the crowd or that it’s part of the lifestyle of bein’ a musician. But I really found, much like BJ mentioned, that my writing and my performing and just my overall sense of wellbeing, in general, has just improved tenfold! It’s hard to calculate, but I feel much better suited for a life on the road performing in front of people. I feel good about gettin’ in front of people. I feel like I got my act together. As far as the writing goes, yeah, I think my thought processes and my focus is much greater. It’s been nothin’ but a good thing for me.
I’m glad you bring up that misconception because I also think that there’s an undue amount of pressure that gets placed on artists, especially to fit into a certain mold as a Texan, in your case, and as a songwriter. Do you feel the challenge of redefining that role in the 21st Century for you and your time now?
I think there’s definitely an opportunity to do that. You look at guys, our heroes like Townes Van Zandt in particular who, God bless him, he’s one of the greatest ever do it, but he was certainly kind of a tragic figure, you know? He dealt with the personal demons of alcohol and drug use and it was a rampant theme throughout his life. So I think there’s definitely an opportunity to redefine what it means to be an artist in the 21st Century– a Texas songwriter, songwriter, performer, whatever, however you want to look at it. If you’re gonna have the opportunity to affect people’s lives in such a capacity that they’ll look at you and your lifestyle and wonder, “Is that somebody that I want to pattern myself after?” Like the way my generation has looked at guys like Townes. So if you’re gonna put yourself in that position, I think if at all possible, to live a healthy lifestyle and be a good example to the youth and so on can only be a good thing.
The new album, 14 songs, some of these you wrote during the pandemic. COVID-19, being stuck at home, not being able to get out and play– how did that affect you as a writer?
Definitely, we had plenty of time on our hands! Texas of all places was about as laid back as any place was. I did my best to keep playin’ where I could when I could as much as I could. But obviously, even still, there were large gaps of time where we weren’t doin’ much. It gave me plenty of time to think about what was goin’ on in my life, what was goin’ on in the world around me. I feel like it was a great opportunity to kinda collect my thoughts and focus some of that energy into songwriting. If anything, I think it was a positive in that regard.
Through the wonders of social media, I feel like I have been peekin’ in through the window, watchin’ the entire process of you puttin’ this album together. I had a chance to speak to Bruce Robison a while back and brought up that I was aware that you had been down at the Bunker recording. He was very excited about the project. Something that he mentioned in the course of a conversation you had with him was that you are writing about what’s happening in your life– that is what’s front and center for you. That’s not the case with a lot of writers. Most people that I talk to tell me that they have to marinate on stuff for a while, that it has to sit and simmer before they can make sense of it. Whereas you– are you writing to make sense of it?
Yeah, that’s probably a good way to look at it. There’s not that much rhyme or reason that goes into it other than it’s what’s fresh on my mind. It’s what’s happening at the moment that I want to articulate somehow. And yeah, it does help me to make sense of stuff, I think, to put it into songs. I find that to be an effective way to connect with people. When you’re gettin’ up in front of a group of people, bearin’ your soul, not holdin’ much back and you lay it all out there and you play the song that really drives that point home, I found that to be a really effective way to connect with folks. I don’t think too hard about it. It comes natural to me to talk about what’s going on in my life in my songs. It seems to be an obvious thing for me to do.
Tell me about workin’ with Bruce in the Bunker. How was that experience?
It was incredible! It was a real honor to be up there and to get to be around him a little bit. He and his team are just awesome, man! They make great records up there. And it’s something else, recordin’ to 2-inch analog tape, usin’ the old board and everything! You gotta get it right! And if you don’t? After a couple of takes, if you’re not gettin’ it right, nobody’s there to pad your ego. It’s like, “Man, are you gonna get it or not?” (Laughs)
That was your first time recording to analog tape?
Yes, sir, it was! And man, there’s nothin’ like it! Everything just sounds so good as soon as you hear it back. It’s warm and real. It sounds the way old records used to sound. It sounds like you’re in a room with the people that are playin’ the music, so from the outside looking in, it was just so cool. I hope I get to do it again sometime!
Let’s talk about some of the songs on the record. “American Dream”, an autobiographical track, I believe. Something that’s occupied my mind, especially over this last year and a half watching the world around me, is tryin’ to figure out the best way to get through it and to take care of everybody. It’s not so much the dream itself as it is the fragility of it. I feel like that’s also a fear that you have and something that you explore in that song.
Definitely, man. That’s very true. It’s not like an over-glamorized way that I’m talking about the American Dream, right? It’s with humility and it’s a salt of the earth kind of look at it. I feel grateful to have had a relatively comfortable life growin’ up. We didn’t come from a lot of money or anything like that by any means, but I had a roof over my head, and we never wanted for much. I think in that regard that most of us are really lucky. Tryin’ to figure out where we are as a nation going forward through all the things that we’ve been havin’ to navigate in the last year or two with the politics and the pandemic and all that stuff, I leave it pretty open-ended. I’m not drawin’ any hard lines about anything, but I’m just grateful for the opportunity to live in America and tryin’ to figure out what we can do at a local level, within our own families for that matter, to try to improve it goin’ forward.
I was talkin’ to Charley Crockett back last spring was when Welcome To Hard Times came out. He’s got that great song on there, “The Poplar Tree”, that you and he wrote. He was tellin’ me all about you firin’ lines back and forth at each other over the phone to write that song. He was tellin’ me that you’ve got a pretty decent spread down on the Guadalupe River, and he told me a story that your grandmother was a shaman, was a medicine woman.
Wow, man! Well, it’s true. My great-grandmother as a matter of fact was a faith healer. The community used to come to her just to have her pray over them. There’s stories about her curin’ people of cancer and helpin’ folks just find things that were otherwise gonna stay lost. She had some really kinda supernatural, sixth sense about stuff, but it was all ultimately about having a connection with God. She was a God-fearing woman. She definitely is a legend in my family and around these parts. I still run into people that have stories about her. In fact, the spread we have on the Guadalupe River, somebody left to her after she had spent some time helpin’ ’em through whatever they were going through. They left her the farm. That’s why we got what we got, actually.
For a while, I saw you out there workin’ hard on that place! It’s an ongoin’ thing when you’ve got a spot of your own!
It is, man! It’s a lot of work to keep it up, but it’s definitely a blessing. We certainly consider ourselves lucky to have a place like that. The same woods that my mom grew up playin’ in, I grew up playin’ in, my son is gonna grow up playin’ in. So it’s a lot of work, but man, it sure is a sweet place in the world!
Your father, speakin’ of family, Mike, on Southern Wind, you had a song that he wrote, “I Come and I Go”. This new album, he’s got some credit on that one too. Do you sit and write with him or is it just [songs] that you’ve just held with you all these years?
I’m still real close with my father, man. I grew up listenin’ to him sit around and sing and play and that left a big mark on me. “I Come and I Go” is one of the first songs I think I can remember hearing, and so it’s just always been etched in my mind. But he’ll bring me ideas. On this album, the song is “Outlaw Highway” and it was a poem. It was already finished. He just had it typed up on a typewriter and it looked like it was probably 20, 30 years old! It was just somethin’ he dug out of his trunk of old material, and he brought it over to me.
As soon as I read it, it blew me away! Just the story and the storytelling and the characters and it’s got this really authentic Wild West picture it paints. I real quickly sat down and banged out a couple chords and figured out how to make a song out of it. But I sit around and pick with my dad, man. I get him up on stage with me as much as I can. Charley had me open up for him last year at this place down here in San Antonio called Floore’s Country Store, and in front of a sold-out crowd, it was pretty special to be able to bring my dad up on stage and sing in front of an audience like that. That connection I have with him is a really unique one. I probably take it for granted some, but people remind me all the time how lucky I am to have that because, obviously, not everybody gets to be that close with their pops.
He’s a connection for you to the past, as well. If I’m not mistaken, he was a runnin’ buddy with these heroes that you were talking about earlier. He was pals with the Townes Van Zandt and knew Guy Clark and Billy Joe [Shaver]?
Right, man! Yeah, all those guys! He was just around back then– in Austin and Nashville and all those places that those guys were hangin’ out. He was just one of the guys, one of the hippies that was around the scene. But it’s funny because to hear dad talk about Townes, Townes was just another guy! He was just another writer! He does say that he was one of the most mesmerizing performers he ever saw, but it never occurred to him or any of the rest of those folks back then that Townes was gonna become the legend that he has become. He was just another one of the guys!
My dad and his brothers and sister had a restaurant. It was actually a TGI Friday’s on Elliston Place in Nashville, which is kinda near where the Exit/In is and The Gold Rush, places like that, which was this place all those folks hung out. Skinny Dennis [Sanchez], who was the bass player that oftentimes played with Guy and Townes, had the house band at the Friday’s. Back in those days, Friday’s was more like a bar. It was more a place [where] people just hung, and so Guy Clark and Townes were around and would oftentimes come sit in with the band. In fact, my dad’s sister, my Aunt Pat, dated Townes. And then in the ’80s, she was hit by a drunk driver in Austin and Townes came and played for her on her death bed at the hospital! Yeah, there’s definitely a deep family connection there to those guys.
There’s some crazy story about some night in the late ’70s in Nashville of my dad and Townes and Richard Dobson, who’s another songwriter who a lot of times would open up for Townes, and John Lomax III, who was at some point, I think Townes’s manager and from that Lomax family– you know, the ones that went down to the swamps and recorded all the bluesmen. They all got drunk and who knows what they were doin’– just high and wild– and they went out on some farm out in Hendersonville where some of those people were stayin’. I think Townes had the idea that they should all become blood brothers and they all cut their arms open– and so, yeah, my dad’s blood brothers with Townes, man!
(Laughs) That’s an amazing story! I saw that in your current bio about Mike, but they don’t actually tell the whole story! Now, I want to ask you about another tradition that you are continuing. You’ve opened the Red Bird Listening Room, which just looks like an amazing place! I see the people listed that you have come through, but it also gives you an opportunity to provide a stage for other musicians at different phases of their careers– the beginning, middle, and in some cases I would imagine even the comeback. Tell me what led you to open up your own room?
That’s true, man! The opportunity arose, we had this place in the family, this old house not far off the highway here in New Braunfels. We’re kinda smack dab between San Antonio and Austin, so we’re right in the thick of an area that’s got a pretty rich musical tradition. Right up the highway, there’s this little line shack. It was boarded up for years and most people probably woulda demolished it, but my family and I got together in the past couple of years and started looking at it and just had this dream that we could create a space to provide a unique listening experience for concert-goers and also too for musicians.
We’ve got a lot of storied venues in this area– some legendary places– but there’s not really a true listening room. Or there wasn’t. There’s some around, but just not right here in Central Texas. There’s places like the Old Quarter down in Galveston and Bugle Boy out in La Grange– and you guys have a couple of things like that out that direction if I’m not mistaken. Eddie’s Attic? As somebody who just loves to hear songwriters tell their stories and sing their songs and not have to fight, screamin’ over, or wrangle with the crowd at a bar, it seemed like somethin’ to me that would be worth doin’. So we got together and did it! It took a lot of work and it was a big group effort. Everybody in the family pitched in to make it happen!
Man, we gotta really cool space! It’s only about 900 square feet, comfortably seats probably 60, 65. We sell 50 tickets and leave a few extra seats for friends and people that the artists wannna have on their guest list. We’ve got some old church pews, we’ve got some old stadium seating, we have a piano in here, and yeah, man, we have tried to put together some concerts with some folks that are just a real pleasure to get to hear up close and personal. And like you’re sayin’, we also have a songwriter’s night on Thursday nights, where people who might be just startin’ out are tryin’ to work on their stuff or cut their teeth or whatever can come and get in front of people. And if they’re good then maybe we’ll book ’em a show down the line and help jumpstart some careers! But ultimately, we’re just tryin’ to carry on that tradition of having a space for artists to be heard.