What did country music legend Jimmie Rodgers enjoy for dinner when he was on tour in the 1920s? If you want an answer to that question, Paul Burch is the man to ask. He knows his Jimmie Rodgers. Burch’s Meridian Rising, a brainy and beautiful imagined autobiography of Rodgers, reads as both a well-researched history project and an exercise in method acting, with Burch adopting the persona of Rodgers from his Mississippi childhood through his years on the road to his death from Tuberculosis at the age of 35. The record (released 2/26 on Plowboy Records) manages to take the listener back in time without resorting to musical clichés, providing a fresh and modern take on Rodgers’ life and work.
Paste chatted with Burch about truck stop hot dogs (the kind that seem to have been roasting “longer than sorrow,”), the fresh-killed chicken, steaming turnip greens and fruit pie with a lard crust he convincingly imagines as Rodgers’ road fare. It’s enough to make you want to go back in time, at least for dinner.
Paste: You’re at a truck stop, you’re starving, and you have five minutes to assemble a meal. Please describe that meal, and how you feel about it.
Paul Burch: Well… (all great rockabilly songs begin with Well…) it depends on the quality of the truck stop. Mid-level? Apple, banana and a vanilla yogurt. Starbucks iced coffee has the least amount of sugar. Simply Orange is the closest thing to an actual orange. A higher grade truck stop might have hard boiled eggs. Now you’re in high cotton! All you need is a cheese stick and a pickle and you got yourself an egg salad sandwich. Beef jerky? Be careful! A peanut butter sandwich with honey is the ultimate standby. In the South, the saddest truck stop will sometimes inexplicably have fried chicken. I think this is always a “go” over the eternally roasting hot dogs that have been there—in the words of Gabriel Garcia Marquez— “longer than sorrow.” How do I feel about all this? Like I couldn’t have gone another mile without any of it.
Paste: When you’re traveling, what food from home do you crave?
PB: Like a great archaeologist who can see the remains of ancient settlements where others see only dirt, my wife can take the mere shadow of a green onion and turn it into a leek. So I miss it all when I’m away: homemade drop biscuits, magical soups, frittatas, meatballs, roasted vegetables, or rice with steamed carrots, cabbage and tamari butter. Where can you get that on the road? You can’t. That’s why it’s the road.
Paste: Is there anything special you like to eat before you play a show? Or anything you definitely do not like to eat before you play?
PB: MSG shuts my voicebox down like a frightened clam. A pasta dinner will hold my lungs hostage for air. Popcorn or mixed nuts will cling to my vocal chords like a petrified 8-year-old rock climber who just looked down at mom and dad from 40 feet high. And I can’t sing or play on bourbon or any other luxury item, which perhaps is further evidence (if needed) that the artists of Sun Records were men among men, since many of them were better drunk than anyone in the charts are today sober.
Paste: Do you have any superstitious pre-show drink rituals?
A fine cup of coffee. As for other rituals, I’m usually so relaxed that I could almost fall asleep. But once I’m onstage, I feel absolutely fearless.
Paste: Please imagine a meal Jimmie Rodgers might have eaten on the road and describe the setting and the food.
PB: Jimmie is on record (literally) asking the woman of the house to go out in the yard and kill some chickens for the Carter Family. Who today has had a fresh-killed chicken? Now on that table with the fresh-killed chickens, I could see some steaming greens—kale or turnip—fresh rolls, sorghum, and maybe a nice fruit pie with a lard crust. With money in his pocket after “Blue Yodel (T for Texas)” hit big, Jimmie dined (as opposed to supper’d) in fine hotels enjoying oysters, duck, champagne, a puff of cigar (without inhaling—not good for TB-scarred lungs) and crab cakes.
Jimmie loved Coney Island, too, with a flask of bootleg spirits in the company of fine women of all sizes and styles. How about a hot dog from Nathan’s, a funnel cake, and a Coca Cola chaser, all with the sound of a calliope in his ear. And when he was back down south playing dances with the Mississippi Sheiks, there wasn’t a rabbit safe within five miles. (Have fiddle and pistol, will-travel.) If you’re going to be the pioneer stylist of American popular music, then you have to have an open mind about what’s cookin’.
Paste: Can you tell me about a meal or a particular food that you were supposed to like but didn’t?
PB: As a child, growing up with long-haired hippie young people in a large farm house in the seventies (now hipsters with hip replacements), I recall sneaking away from a plate of supremely yucky vegetable spaghetti (What, no meatballs?) and going up to my room to watch a M*A*S*H* re-run thinking that if I stayed up there all night, the offending meal would be gone the next morning. It wasn’t. The joke was on me.
Paste: What’s the most important food or drink item in your rider?
PB: I’m flattered that you would think I would draw enough people at any club so as to inspire said club to cater to my wishes. I do love honey and lemon before a show (because I heard that’s what Otis Redding used) and hot tea. Avocado and chips is so appreciated, too. I, for one, admire Third Man Records for their exacting guacamole recipe on Jack White’s rider. Hey— it’s a good free recipe. Unlike Neiman Marcus and their chocolate chip cookie debacle, TMR don’t charge the club $250 for it.
Paste: What restaurant in the world do you most look forward to visiting when you’re on tour? What do you like to eat there?
PB: Though it’s not a restaurant, I love to visit Molinari’s grocery in San Francisco, which has been there since 1896. The smell of sopressatta and mortadella will make the most steadfast vegetarian weak. I first visited while on tour with Ryan Adams (when he made his return to the Fillmore after being banned). I especially love the homemade spinach pasta with its thick curvy waves that look like green ground beef dusted with flour.
In Philly, I love Tony Luke’s where late one night Laura Cantrell and I dissected the music business after a dreary gig and decided what we really needed to do was split another cheese steak.
Paste: Almost every musician I know is obsessed with food. What are some of the connections between food and music?
Food is at the center of family, friends, celebration and remorse. We eat to remember, to forget, stop time, move on, say hello, goodbye, begin the day and end the day. Some people make the most of the music and food around them. Others are deaf and dumb to what they’re missing. I don’t think I’ve met a great artist who didn’t know a thing or two about food. Duke Ellington ate his dessert first. Horowitz wouldn’t play Russia until he was promised fresh fish before every concert.
Paste: Can you share a memorable on-the-road food story?
PB: Around 2002, Fats Kaplin, his wife Kristi Rose and Jason Ringenberg of the Scorchers and I were the headliners of the Kilkenny Folk Festival. Our HQ was John Cleere’s pub (immortalized in my song “The Ballad of Henry & Jimmy”). Cleere explained we would be fed every day at the Golden Inn Palace Chinese Restaurant around the corner. We were skeptical but kept our opinions to ourselves. Chinese food in Kilkenny, Ireland? Ha! Let me tell you—it ranks among the best Chinese food I’ve had. And what about Farmer Jason—beloved young person’s educator on the importance of farming? Well, let’s just say when he entered the Golden Inn Palace, the head waiter immediately snapped his fingers toward the kitchen and a large order of Peking Duck very soon was delivered still-sizzling to our table. That’s all, folks.
Freda Love Smith is a drummer, Northwestern University lecturer and the author of Red Velvet Underground: A Rock Memoir, with Recipes. She blogs about food here. Follow her on twitter.