But I just discovered Richard Brandenburg this past fall. I was listening to an album I got from a California artist named David Thom at the IBMA World of Bluegrass in Raleigh, a good album, which I enjoyed, but nothing surprising, until I came to a song called “My Way of Saying Goodbye.” It was, on the face of it, a modest tale about chance encounter at a fireworks display, but it was a song that grabbed you by the collar and made you pay attention as it plumbed the depths of a lost love:
At the end of the summer I saw her
At the midway of the fair;
Stood on the hill for the fireworks;
She didn’t see me there.
For a moment she looked like a stranger,
Strolling so happy and free.
At the edge of her eyes was a remnant of pain
I knew had been caused by me. . .
Well, I was thinking of posting the whole lyric, but it’s not just a poem but a song, and it needs the soft, plaintive melody that harks back to a thousand old songs. So you have to listen to find out what happens—or doesn’t.
I’ve found very little about Richard Brandenburg. He lives in California, wears a cowboy hat sometimes, writes songs, and performs, his own and (judging from a couple of YouTube videos) old country songs. The only recording I’ve found is this album from 2010 called Flickering Dreams. He’s tied into the bluegrass community in California, and Kathy Kallick (guitar, vocals), Tony Marcus (fiddle), John Reischman (mandolin), and Matt Dudman (bass) join him on some of the songs. Kathy produced the album.
Flickering Dreams is, to my ear, a country album, though the melodies remind me of old mountain bluegrass. Richard sounds like a somewhat weary Lefty Frizell, with maybe a hint of Carter Stanley. But Flickering Dreams is really a songwriter’s album; it’s the words that matter:
. . . if you don’t love me, I can’t change your heart,
And if you don’t want me, not much I can do;
Once together, forever apart,
Now I mean no part of nothin’ to you.
(“No Part of Nothing”)
They’re mostly about lost loves, old memories, and present regrets. But there are familiar themes from old country songs, as in “Ashes and Dust,” where he returns to the old homestead:
. . . On the far side of this darkening valley,
Where the dogwood flowers cover the ground,
All the laughter and tears of my poor family’s years,
Fall and fade without making a sound.
(“Ashes and Dust”)
Transience becomes a repeated theme, as in “Mayflies”: “All that seems real, fast fades away.” Even the rare upbeat “The Wave of the Past” is full of regret for home in Texas, as the singer haunts honky-tonks that play the “San Antonio Rose.” A traditional-sounding bluegrass number that could have come right from the Stanleys in the ’60s, still bears an unmistakable Brandenburg melancholy:
I pretend to myself that your memory don’t haunt me,
I pretend to the world that I’m not constantly blue;
The best hours of my life were believing you want me,
I can’t bear to know it’ll never be true.
(“This Letter I Write”)
Indeed, a reflective sadness is the dominant mood of Richard Brandenburg’s writing. Even the ostensibly comical “That Ain’t Gonna Happen Anymore” is tinged with regret:
Well I’m pretty sure I heard the stuff you had to say to me;
I oughta know, I used to hear you with great frequency.
But babe, we can’t make nothin’ better in the used-to-be
By shouting through the door—
That ain’t gonna happen anymore.
And it all comes back to another lost love. In “If You Speak of Me” the singer imagines. . .
Some night, half-lit in the neon of some little bar,
You might hear some old song that reminds you of me.
Someone might think you look lonely, and ask if you are,
And you might turn and start talking, about what used to be. . .
He sings of riding “the trail” together, then “you rode off alone.” So eventually, the song comes back to the bar,
And I wonder if you’ll speak of me well,
When the world you’re describing has faded away,
And become just some story you tell
In a dim little room to a stranger at the end of the day.
There’s more. There’s a genuine train song, with yodeling (“Loving the Train”), but it too begins “We parted that night at the depot. . .” It’s a sad song about “The train and that lonesome old whistle,” and the memories they bring. But I guess it ends on a happy note, at least for train fans:
I get weary of the lonesome old whistle,
But I’ll never stop lovin’ the train.
I started this post a few months ago, and then put it aside. I’ve been playing songs from Flickering Dreams on HAH for a while, but I knew that to write more I’d have to sit down and listen to the album all the way through. You really have to pay attention to get the flavor of the writing, but the the way these songs draw you in can be emotionally draining; one at a time is enough. That’s awfully high praise from a jaded old country DJ, who runs through new albums scrawling an X or a check by each song before moving on.
I was curious about the melodies, which seem so hauntingly familiar, yet somehow original. In an interview with Rick Jamison, who hosts a blog called On Songwriting, Richard Brandenburg describes how the melody works itself into the song:
When you write an original song, which tends to come first: the lyrics or the music?
Well, they arrive at around the same time, though the words are usually first through the door.
Some evocative combination of words will resonate in my thoughts or feelings, and the potential song will have presented itself. I acknowledge it, I write something down, and from that point on it will clamor for my attention, waking or sleeping.
I have a couple of notebooks books full of such clamoring, unfinished songs with a few lines, or verses, or a chorus. And all with melodies; I can hardly write down words without hearing some sort of tune. I have no pages of lyrics waiting for a melody. It’s not mysterious at all. A melody will just emerge from how a spoken phrase sounds. It will change as the words do, and evolve through repetition, as the song develops. . .
As for the traditional feel of the songs, here’s a little more:
Your songwriting is evocative of an earlier, simpler time rooted in early country, folk and honky-tonk styles. Tell me more about that.
What I write evokes earlier styles because it’s not fundamentally different from them. I do listen primarily to “traditional” stuff, and respond in pretty much the same language, which has gone in and out of style commercially, but apart from a few idioms, not really changed. . .
Finally, for you songwriters out there:
What are the top three songwriting tips you would offer to aspiring songwriters?
1. Don’t pay too much attention to tips offered by people who write songs.
2. No, you won’t remember it: write it down.
3. Harlan Howard already wrote it.
PS Here’s “Mayflies,” on KPFA: