The old guitar has seen lots of hits. It's a classical, like Willie Nelson plays, and it rests on a stand in a corner next to the couch in a room inside Caldwell Hall on the UGA campus.
Bruce Burch smiles when it's noticed. He bounces up, grabs it and strums a chord. "I love this guitar," he says. "It uses gut string, so it's easy to play and doesn't hurt my fingers."
Burch carries it back to his chair, sits down and strums another chord. "Don't look so sad, I know it's over," he sings in a sad, plaintive voice.
It's the Kris Kristofferson song that made Burch fall in love with country music in 1972, just as he entered the University of Georgia. And it's the song that inspired him to learn to play the guitar. "That song hit me like a ton of bricks," he says. "It was like this guy was living my life. Three months later, I wrote my first song, about my grandmother. It just spilled out."
Years later, after Burch had penned No. 1 hits himself and had become creative director of EMI's publishing division, he worked with Kristofferson and pitched his material to artists who depend on Nashville's songwriting factory. Burch eventually confessed to Kristofferson that his music was the reason he got into the business.
Kristofferson looked up and deadpanned, "Don't blame me for that shit."
Burch laughs as he strums the guitar. "You know, these days I only write one or two songs a year," he say. "I used to write a hundred every year. I'd get up, write in the morning and then pitch songs all afternoon. That was my routine."
When he graduated from UGA in 1975, Burch knew he wanted to be a songwriter, but had no clue how to get into the music business. It took him five years to get his first song recorded. When one of his tunes finally cracked the top 10, he was still waiting tables for a living.
Once Burch was established, he realized he'd become as much businessman as songwriter. He opened his own publishing company so he could peddle his songs, and found his fortunes rested on how well he networked and sold himself.
Then, six years ago, Burch hatched an idea so obvious that it's a wonder no one had ever thought of it before: a music-business program at UGA. Now he's co-director of the fledgling program, which he learned last month will be the recipient of a $500,000 pledge from a prominent Atlanta businessman.
For Burch, the program provides an opportunity to teach students the lessons he learned the hard way during his rise in Nashville.
"Writing songs, you're living by your wits," he says. "In the music business, success is surviving."
When the 70 students in the music-business program show up for their first day of class after the Christmas break, there are four somewhat scruffy-looking characters seated behind a table on the podium. For the students, the visitors need no introduction: They are members of the Drive-By Truckers, one of the übergroups to rise out of the Athens music scene.
The Truckers are home to play a three-night stand at the 40 Watt Club that will introduce their new album to the world and kick off a long tour. Burch worked for days with bandleader Patterson Hood to nail down a commitment for the Truckers to speak to the music-business class; it's been difficult to arrange because the group is in deep rehearsal mode. But Hood is a logical pick – he spoke to the very first music-business class when the program kicked off in January 2006.
Burch tries to have as many guest speakers as possible. He wants the students to get an education they would never find in a textbook, or in a music magazine. "Why should I try to teach them about management when we can bring in Bertis Downs or Buck Williams?" says Burch, referring to, respectively, the general counsel for R.E.M. and co-manager of Widespread Panic.
There's nothing like a big-name band sitting in front of them to grab the students' attention. Only about a third of the kids are musicians; most hope to be behind-the-scenes players in the industry. And when the floor is opened up to questions, there are few inquiries about the new album or the tour or who plays what guitar. These students want to know about the band's management, how they work with their booking agent, how they interact with their producer.
One thread of questions leads to a long discussion of the behind-the-scenes drama that led to the release of the band's breakthrough album, Southern Rock Opera, in 2001. The Drive-By Truckers had no label at that point. The band members paid the recording costs out of their pockets, which put them on the verge of financial ruin. Hood says they played a sold-out showcase at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, in the hope of landing a recording contract. But the Truckers left Austin with nothing more than what they already had: an album that no label wanted to release.
This is such a cool idea and the performance is great (I've been twice) but…
Ugliest bunch of girls I've ever seen.
Shuddup ya dumb beatnik
Neko Case has so much to applaud. Hardest-working girl who we're glad to have on…