On first listen, Tré Burt’s debut album Caught It From the Rye feels a bit like Bob Dylan cosplay. All the markers are there: the coarse, slightly nasal voice, the rustic fingerpicked guitar, the just-out-of-time duet and even the harmonica. It’s easy to cast this release aside as just another folk record in a long line of folk records that sound virtually exactly like this, but that doesn’t credit what makes this album special: Caught It From the Rye takes a tried-and-true formula and injects it with a triple shot of black joy and heartbreak. Burt’s stories, be them freewheeling tales about watching time pass by or hyper-focused political screeds, represent a breath of fresh air in the Americana genre.
And it’s his Dylan-esque protest songs where he shines the brightest. “And Mother Nature, I guess she caters / To those with white skin / I don’t feel well anymore / To darkness I’m returnin’,” Burt croons on “Undead God of War,” the sort of track that could have hit home with African American listeners had the song been released in the mid-’60s alongside The Times They Are a-Changin’. But by using traditional folk methods to write about issues facing the black community around the peak of Black Lives Matter in the aftermath of Trump’s electoral victory (the record, which originally came out in late 2018, is being re-released a year-and-a-half later by John Prine’s Oh Boy Records), Caught It From the Rye is radical and a must-listen. The mere existence of a stanza like “Conditionally, I spend time in society / Yes, not unless I’m sure my freedoms follow me / Cause some of my friends, troubles hound them constantly / The judiciary branch falls off the money tree,” also from “Undead God of War,” in this format in 2020, is something to be celebrated.
But Caught It From the Rye isn’t an inherently political record either. There’s talk about “all the missiles that’s searchin’ for land” and “So far removed from the issues at hand / In the Western World, we see it in vain’’ in “Only Sorrow Remains,” but the vast majority of these nine songs speak to Burt’s experience as a black man living in America. Because “the personal is political,” he does occasionally wade into the issues surrounding racial injustice, but these songs speak to him as a person, too, one who loves his family and is in search of a soul mate.
These touching sentiments, sung over acoustic guitar strums, are frequently beautiful and heartbreaking: “It’s been a long time since I’ve had you near / Now you’re the bell in my pocket that chimes outta fear,” Burt sings on “Get It By Now Blues.” The slow-rolling, rustic “What Good” is the highlight as he ruminates about the passing of time and tries to figure out what’s most important in his life. The track plays like a Vetiver-Tallest Man on Earth hybrid as Burt combines lovely pieces of advice (“Make amends, tell your childhood friend they were something to you / ‘Cause it gets dark, and when it’s so dark you gonna wish for a light or two”) and subtle disappointment (“Here I am standing at the edge of this wooden pier / And through this fog at the waterfront docks see the ship sails disappear / Yes it is gone to another shore where the sky’s shiny, blue and clear / But is it wrong to expect return at the end of a troubled year?”). Like the rest of the record, it’s gorgeous and sonically calming.
At no point throughout Caught It From the Rye does Tré Burt try to reinvent the wheel, instead utilizing the blueprint the greats left before him to tell his own stories. And on first listen, it may seem like he’s simply copying those folk legends, but dig a bit deeper and you’ll understand why this record is so vital and why he caught the ear of John Prine: Burt’s stories showcase a different, vivid and vital perspective in Americana in 2020. Artists like Tré Burt are the future of the genre, and Caught It From the Rye proves he’s here to stay.