A down-home, rootsy bluegrass offering from an industry veteran that deserves to get his time in the spotlight.
Although ‘Dream Rich, Dirt Poor’ is Aaron Burdett’s eighth studio album, you would be forgiven if his was not a name you instantly recognised, despite him having been named alongside the likes of Steep Canyon Rangers and The Avett Brothers as one of the most important musicians from western North Carolina. So, it almost goes without saying that if you’re a fan of roots and bluegrass, Burdett’s name is one that you’d be wise to get acquainted with.
“We were dream rich but we were dirt poor / We were hanging our hopes on a little more,” Burdett laments on the chorus of the opener ‘Dirt Poor’, the part namesake of the album’s title. “In those days you spent most days helping somebody out / You grow what you eat and hide a little weed out in between the corn / And all get together on a Saturday night, remembering what it’s all for,” he continues against a rootsy fiddle and mandolin, perfectly invoking a nostalgia for yesteryear. ‘Loser’s Bracket’ is a toe-tapping and banjo heavy simple tale of accepting who you are: “The top of the loser’s bracket is as good as I’m gonna get / It might not look like much to you but you don’t know where I’ve been”.
‘Arlo’ is the kind of expertly crafted story of a life not lived to the full that pulls at just the heartstrings in the best way (“I’m 63 years old now, still living hand to mouth / Work at the aluminum plant, ‘til Uncle Sam starts paying out”), while ‘Working Class’ continues the theme of disillusionment with the American dream (“I learned to do the work from old men / They learned in turn from those who are gone / They taught me how to get through the days / And how to trade my life for a wage”) against a backdrop that’s acoustic and airy.
‘Rockefeller’ is a bluegrass stomper that sees Burdett dream of what he might do with tremendous riches (“Wish I was a Rockefeller, wish I was a richer fellow / Wish I was a Carnegie, with money far as I can see”) before ‘Written in Red’ takes the tempo down a level and to a more folky sound, albeit with a strong backbone of bluegrass holding the whole thing together. ‘No Stoplight Town’ is a song that wouldn’t sound out of place on mainstream US country radio (“Thinking hard about second chances / Peeking out from behind the fences / There’s nothing can hold you down / Like the inertia of a sweet little no stoplight town”), and when such a song is executed as well as this with sweet harmonies and twinkling mandolin, that’s no bad thing at all.
The earlier thread of barely getting by but trying to be grateful for what you have is picked up again in ‘Hard Hand’ (“Life dealt us a hard hand / It’s been too long now we’ve been down / But when I gather it up / We’ve got just enough / Doing the best we can / With a hard hand”), the theme made all the more powerful by a warm and real vocal performance from Burdett, something he continues on the next track ‘I Won the Fight’. ‘Too Far From Home’ plays us out and it’s a comfortingly warm and rootsy affair that’s narrative rich with its story of a man setting off for a new life but encountering some trouble along the way (“Ran into trouble on federal land / Caught a mandatory minimum, did a 6-year span / Up in backwoods west Virginia, place was pretty nice / A prison’s still a prison but they treated us alright”).
So, while Aaron Burdett might not have been a name you’d have known previously, it’s one you’ll want to commit to memory as Burdett’s is a career to follow if this fresh sounding but still rootsy output is any indication of the quality you can expect to be rewarded with.