Little black book
The life and times of country rock band Biggs Roller
Though perhaps a broad generalization, songwriters seem to fall into two camps: There are those who write because they want to, as a hobby or passion. And then there are folks like Jeff Burkhart, who write because they need to.
“This is the way I communicate,” Burkhart says, sitting at a corner table inside Duffy’s Tavern, dressed all in black, from shoes to beanie.
The thin, intensely opinionated guitarist/vocalist and chief songwriter for Biggs Roller is surrounded by music in the form of burned discs, a black guitar case and a shoebox filled with worn-out tapes from past live performances, which Burkhart records religiously. On top of the table, a songbook rests in pristine condition. Inside, dozens upon dozens of songs are laid out, complete with lyrics and chord changes marked by yellow highlighter. Most of these are Biggs Roller songs and other originals, yet some covers are thrown in by the likes of Hank Williams, Tom Petty and, um … Skid Row.
“Hey, if you countrify it, it’s pretty cool,” he says, laughing.
Performed solo, Burkhart’s songs are intimate and spare, with only his acoustic guitar and an expressive voice accentuated with an occasional quaver. When played as Biggs Roller—which plans to release an album in May—the songs are framed in a mix of styles that, while heavy on folk, country and rock influences, still manage to regularly incorporate everything from mandolin and accordion to the occasional harp and bagpipes. Still, Burkhart’s lyrics—honest, dark, light-hearted, sincere or funny—are at the heart of the songs, no matter the context they’re played in.
“I always feel that the better songs are the ones that come out by accident,” he says.
Upon closer inspection, however, Burkhart’s book goes beyond simply being a collection of songs and becomes a sort of symbolic representation of the Biggs Roller philosophy—music and lyrics—no egos, no bullshit and no artificial motivations to do what they do.
Burkhart is also extremely passionate about keeping personalities out of music (in fact, he chose not to reveal his full name during the interview, and insisted on being referred to simply as “jeffyb"). And even though he and the rest of Biggs Roller—which includes Aaron Markus, Preston Howard, Kay Debacle and Chad Kelley—have been active musicians and participants in the local music scene for years, Burkhart prefers to let the band’s music, not previous members’ projects, speak for itself.
“When I get on stage, I can tell people about my life to a tee,” Burkhart says, flipping through the songbook. “This is true; this one’s true; they’re all true.”
In the appropriately titled “Diaper,” Burkhart sings, “This diaper, smells so bad … This diaper, it stinks, so bad,” over jangly, up-tempo guitar strumming. By the time he reaches the sing-along portion of “oooo ooo oooo” (only in this song, the lyrics are actually “pooo poo pooo"), it’s impossible not to smile and imagine the lyrics escaping the lips of every parent in Butte County.
On “Slip Away,” the tone is much more melancholy and somber, with lyrics like “Every time I turn my back from you, you slip away / Just can’t seem to make things go my way.”
For Burkhart, it seems as though anything, whether it’s a fight with his wife or something more trivial, is fair game for a song. He says putting himself out there, exposed to that degree, can be tough, though.
After a Biggs Roller member recently created a MySpace page for the band, Burkhart flipped out upon discovering it, initially demanding that it be taken off before eventually calming down and embracing it. When asked why it worried him so much, Burkhart answers with the same degree of sincerity than can be found in his music.
“I don’t know,” he says. “I guess I’d be heartbroken if someone didn’t like it.”