It’s Fat Tuesday at 3rd & Lindsley in Nashville. The legendary music venue is modest and unrefined. Dirty. Its walls worn with stories and its bar busy with bodies. The tales are as tall as the ceiling. Fish and chips are carried to small circular tables where seats are filled with awaiting listeners. The band sets up. Piano, drums, electric and stand-up bass, a guitar. Here comes the horn section. Back-up singers. A cellist is testing her levels.
Many have come before to tell their stories at the illustrious, beer-spilled stage of 3rd & Lindsley—Vince Gill, Wilco, Ray LaMontagne, Lucinda Williams, to name a few. Tonight, Heidi Burson tells her story.
Burson’s latest effort, The Story, is an impressive 15-song studio album of original compositions that range from soul to jazz to blues to ballad and back again. Led by Burson’s commanding and soulful voice—one with a range that rivals Jill Scott and Adele—what first stands out about The Story is not the voice but the music. The title track kicks off the record with a Cuban vibe as a montuno piano playfully strikes before a band kicks in. The sound is massive; a rich musicality practically oozes off the record. It’s music you can only get from a group of musicians recording live and playing together in a room, and the band that played on Burson’s record is here tonight.
“I think people are craving real music. Live music. Not over produced,” Burson tells Behind the Setlist. “There is an audience out there and they’re yearning for it.” The sentiment is familiar to fans of any genre. Overproduced, synthetic music generally reigns supreme on mainstream radio, leaving the more musically mature fans behind. But as artists like John Mayer, who have embraced the trend of true and transparent, are recording and gigging with high-caliber live talent, the pendulum is shown to be shifting. It’s not just a niche audience craving better music, but a growing segment with sizable purchasing power (and the industry always responds to purchasing power). As an artist on a DIY level, Heidi Burson is at the forefront of this talent-first movement.
Raised in Kenton, Ohio, Burson began piano lessons at age three. “I started branching out and singing freshman year of high school,” Burson tells. “My parents bought me the piano book [to the film] The Bodyguard. It was one thing to sing along with the CD in my bedroom, it was another to play the piano while trying to sing like Whitney Houston. It just opened the floodgates. It was like, OK, I want more of this.”
Around 2002 Burson moved to Nashville, Tennessee to pursue music full time. She quickly networked and built connections, forming alliances with artists and other songwriters. But after debuting her first full-length album Every Shade of Blue in 2012, she struggled to gain traction, despite positive reviews. “Nashville is a huge music hub, but saturated,” Burson says. “It’s really hard for professional musicians to move forward if you don’t have an in.” For Burson, Nashville is a catch-22 city: professional artists looking for relevancy must dedicate their presence, but their presence adds to the noise. “I got tired of spinning my wheels,” she says. “I realized I had to take my music out to places other than just here.” This tension engendered one of the more memorable tracks on The Story—a break-up song with Nashville—a sultry, sexy tune with a ‘70s-era pop chorus called “Clean Break.”
“I got a chip on my shoulder. My dreams changed as I got older/I grew up when I got sober/I’d be catching the blade of my own mistakes if I didn’t chase what I was made to do.” – Lyrics from “Clean Break”
Nashville hasn’t been a complete bust for Burson. In the least it has served her needs as an effective home base for networking and expanding her reach. During a performance at Nashville’s Hard Rock Café, an intern from the Bobby Bones Show caught her singing “Purple Rain” and promptly invited her on the show. The appearance proved profitable. Burson’s career propelled from there into a small U.S. tour, followed by a European one. In Atlanta, Burson won the distinguished Eddie’s Attic Open Mic Shootout in 2015, an achievement she shares with former winners John Mayer and Jennifer Nettles.
Now, with a 12-piece band backing much of The Story, taking Burson’s show on the road is no easy task. With her music being piano-based Burson has the flexibility and freedom, however, to shape shift her songs as necessary. An alternative set-up she prefers is the trio of piano, bass and drums, though she also loves the jazzy atmosphere that comes from playing piano with only a saxophonist in accompaniment.
A move to London is in her sights (where she claims to have left her heart and literally her stuff), but for now Burson remains in Nashville planning out her year with the thorough, operationally focused mentality of a small business owner. “The business is at least 85 percent [of what I do],” Burson says. “Talent is the other 15 percent. You have to know how to network, you have to keep track of your contacts, you have to make spreadsheets. At the end of the day, I’m the CEO. And it can be hard. You have to set office hours and be disciplined.”
For Heidi Burson, it is apparent that the songwriting, the networking, the scheduling, and the spreadsheets are coming together and working in time. But time, as it always does, will tell. Burson has a long way to go. She is a small business owner in a new cycle of operation with a vision as wide as her vocal range. Can she sustain a big band operation on a DIY budget? If she leaves Nashville for London, will she lose more than she gains? Ask her point blank and she sounds uncertain, but not afraid. “It’s going to be quite an undertaking,” she says. “I wanted to show with this record what I’m capable of producing.”
Back at 3rd & Lindsley, the band is working through its set. After rousing the audience with “The Story” and grooving with “Clean Break,” Burson slows the tempo and connects to the audience with “Finding Myself,” a stripped down piano ballad that builds into full band, pulling on the heartstrings of even the most stoic of 3rd & Lindsley listeners. Her on-stage ability to control the room is evident by her captive audience. It’s one thing to be a songwriter and another to be a performer. Heidi Burson is both. And in these quiet, soul-stirring moments we forget about the business, the industry and the spreadsheets. We see an artist on stage shining bright and it gives us the glimpse of a star.