Back when the South Bay was better known for its verdant orchards than for semiconductors, it was something of a hothouse for country music and Western swing. Today that sound is rapidly fading as the musicians responsible for successive Western swing revivals ride off into the sunset, a generational transition that adds a note of particular poignancy to Don Burnham’s concert Sunday, June 4 at Freight & Salvage.
Celebrating the release of his album California Skies and his 76th birthday, the vocalist and songwriter has rounded up the overlapping cast of musicians from his Western swing bands Lost Weekend and the Bolos. He’s been working with some of the players for decades, like bassist Bing Nathan, fiddler Paul Anastasio, and steel guitarist Bobby Black.
A legendary figure who has largely retired, the 89-year-old Black connects an expansive web of scenes and styles, from 1950s Nashville and the South Bay’s lively honkytonk era to the 1970s resurgence of Western swing via Asleep at the Wheel and the pioneering country rock combo Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen.
“Bobby Black and I grew up down the street from each other,” Burnham said. “Kris Kristofferson was a few blocks away. We all went to San Mateo High, but I was 15 years after them.”
He also forged close ties with Bobby Black’s younger brother, the late, powerhouse guitarist Larry Black. The siblings were teenagers when a plum gig in the house band at San Jose’s Tracy Gardens came up. It’s where they connected with asoldier stationed at Moffett Field who would come by regularly in uniform to sit in. They called him the Singing Marine, but he made history a couple years later as George Jones, and Bobby Black played on several of his early tracks.
Much like Black, Burnham’s musical interests range across the American landscape. While the Freight concert centers on his original songs from California Skies, tunes he’s been performing and meaning to record for years, Burnham’srepertoire also encompasses classic Western swing numbers, country tunes, blues and jazz standards.
In many ways, the set list tracks Burnham’s peripatetic musical journey, which started in the Griffiths Hall dorms at UC Berkeley when he borrowed a guitar owned by his roommate David Featherstone (who’s now a prominent photographer).
“David had the first Doc Watson record and some Joan Baez,” Burnham recalled. “I was interested in folk music and I’d look at this guitar. I started playing late, and right from the beginning people wanted to hear me sing. I don’t know why. But somehow it kind of worked.”
A two-year stint in the Army serving in South Korea took him off the scene in 1968, but when Burnham got back in 1970, he plunged in as a solo performer, spending the next decade playing coffee houses, folk clubs, bars, and joints. He picked up an affinity for the blues along the way, courtesy of Steve Mann, who’d wandered up to the Bay Area after making a name for himself on the L.A. studio scene as part of the Wrecking Crew (Burnham is compiling his far-flung tales in a musical memoir, Life Behind Guitars).
By the 1980s he was gravitating toward trad jazz, the pre-swing-era idiom that had reignited in 1940s San Francisco. Four decades later, many of the revivalists were still active, and Burnham combined his parallel passions. Since Western swing patriarch Bob Wills took inspiration from early jazz, Burnham had a strong model to follow.
He had led the trad-oriented New Century Jazz Band for a dozen years when the opportunity arose to bring a Western swing quartet into Paul's Saloon in San Francisco in 1984. Oakland string player Tony Marcus, a film buff, suggested the band’s name, playing on the similarity of Burnham’s name with Ray Milland’s alcoholic character Don Birnam in Billy Wilder's 1945 film Lost Weekend.
They weren’t the only Western swing outfit working regularly. “Jimmy Rivers had a regular gig at the 23 Club in Brisbane for years, and he was a hell of a guitarist,” said Marcus, who plays at the Freight with East Bay alt-country band Jill Rogers and Crying Time as part of a “California Country” triple bill June 26 with the Familiar Strangers and the Carolyn Sills Combo. “The scene in the South Bay kept going a lot longer. But Bobby Black was playing in a bar right in downtown Oakland.”
Burnham knew he needed an ace lap steel guitarist when he created Lost Weekend and he called on Black whenever he could. The combo turned into a full-scale Western swing outfit in 1991, when Randall Kline asked Burnham to produce a Bob Wills tribute at Bimbo’s 365 Club for the San Francisco Jazz Festival. He kept it working fairly regularly as a nine-to-11-piece band for the next quarter century.
Opportunities to get the old gang together were dwindling long before the advent of COVID. The economics of larger ensembles are daunting even in good times. If there’s one thing that’s stayed dependable and constant in Burnham’s career it’s the Freight, in every incarnation.
“When I got back to Berkeley in 1970, the Freight had only been open for about two years, and it was first place I ended up,” he said, referring to the original space, a converted used furniture store front at 1827 San Pablo Avenue. “I used to be the emcee at the hoots at the old Freight. I’ve played at all three clubs. It’s always been my home club and I’m so appreciative. You would have never thought this little hole in the wall would have turned into such an important institution.”