Gary Burton in Nashville: 1960’s Tennessee Firebird was a fusion album like no other

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Gary Burton plays an instrument rarely heard in Nashville recording studios — the vibraphone. In fact, the scarcity of this instrument is the reason Burton got his first break towards becoming a professional musician.

In 1960, session guitarist Hank Garland was preparing to record a jazz album. Garland wanted a vibes player for his group, but there were none in Nashville to be found. Boots Randolph had been impressed by a young man who played vibes at afternoon jam sessions in Evansville, Indiana, where the saxophonist often visited family.[ref]Saxophonist Boots Randolph was a well-respected session musician in Nashville in 1960, and this is three years before his Top 40 pop chart hit “Yakety Sax.”

When Garland put out the call for a vibes player, Boots remembered the kid from Indiana — 17-year-old Gary Burton. Randolph returned to Evansville, found Burton, and drove him to Nashville. There, in a studio with Owen Bradley overseeing, Burton played a few tunes with Hank Garland, who immediately encouraged this high school senior to move to town. Garland had his man.

Gary Burton had already made plans to attend Boston’s Berklee School of Music that fall, so his time in Nashville was limited to the summer of 1960. Burton went specifically for the Hank Garland sessions which produced the influential album Jazz Winds from a New Direction. But during his brief stay in Music City, Burton found himself becoming an increasingly welcome studio side man, playing on various sessions. Perhaps most notable was an invitation to participate on pianist Floyd Cramer’s first date as a leader. The request came from Cramer himself.

In addition to his studio work, Burton performed on weekly jazz dates with Garland at Nashville’s Carousel Lounge. The club was frequented by some big names, including Jim Reeves and Chet Atkins. After Atkins heard Burton play at the Carousel, he arranged a record contract for him with RCA.

Burton’s debut as a group leader was a 1961 jazz trio album titled New Vibe Man in Town. Recorded in New York City, the music held few hints of Gary Burton’s time spent in Nashville the previous year. This would be true of his next several records. Releasing albums under his own name while touring as a sideman for saxophonist Stan Getz, Burton now concentrated on his jazz career. His Nashville days were over; at least temporarily.


After spending the summer of 1960 working with Hank Garland, Chet Atkins, and the cream of Nashville’s session players, Gary Burton did depart to attend college in Boston. However, it seems clear that when he left, the young man who played the odd instrument left on good terms. Six years later, in the fall of 1966, Burton returned to record in RCA’s Nashville Sound studio with an idea for an album that would combine jazz and country music. He enlisted many of his former colleagues for the project.

The record that came out of these genre-crossing sessions would be titled Tennessee Firebird. But unlike Hank Garland’s earlier Jazz Winds from a New Direction, Burton used country players and chose numbers from the country music repertoire. In addition to his own vibes, Burton had Charlie McCoy on harmonica, fiddler Buddy Spicher, the Osborne Brothers on mandolin and banjo, Buddy Emmons on steel guitar and Chet Atkins himself, who also co-produced the record. The selections too were unmistakably country, including Bob Wills’ “Faded Love,” Leon McAuliffe’s “Panhandle Rag,” and two by Hank Williams — “I Can’t Help It If I’m Still in Love with You,” and the lesser known “Alone and Forsaken.”[ref]Perhaps Gary Burton felt that the public might accept this style amalgam because of Ray Charles’ success with Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music (1962). This groundbreaking and hugely popular album combines country songs with Charles’ soulful arrangements and vocals. Burton even used one number that Charles had successfully adapted, “Born to Lose.” Burton told Rich Kienzle in 1988 that he was “partly inspired” by Stan Getz’s blending of Brazilian music into his repertoire. Burton brought the idea for the album to Chet Atkins, who approved the project.

Burton had high hopes for the Tennessee Firebird album, and even travelled to country music radio stations to promote it.[ref]RCA Records did issue a 45 rpm single from the album in 1967, credited to Gary Burton and Friends. The A-side is an edited version of the album’s title track, “Tennessee Firebird.” The B-side, “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” is another truncated number from the album. Burton’s promotional visits to radio stations had little impact. The single failed to generate enough sales or radio airplay even to enter the Top 100 of Billboard’s Country Singles chart. To be fair, instrumental hits are rare in country music. Perhaps Burton thought his upbeat “Tennessee Firebird” single could replicate part of the success Buck Owens enjoyed in 1965 with his No. 1 instrumental hit “Buckaroo.” (The record number for Burton’s single is RCA 47-9133. The length of the A-side is 2:14; the B-side is 1:50. The songwriter’s credit for “Tennessee Firebird” misspells the artist’s name, listing him as Gary Burrton.)
[/ref] Burton thought the hybrid of styles would interest both jazz and country music audiences. It turned out that the record was embraced by neither. In fact, it sold poorly — even by jazz standards. In 1988, Burton told music journalist Rich Kienzle that he “probably did [the album] two years too early.”

Perhaps Burton is right, and Tennessee Firebird was ahead of its time. Maybe this album will belatedly spawn a jazz and country fusion movement. And maybe not. But I did find it interesting that, in 1966, Burton would so openly acknowledge the influence that Nashville had on him with the Tennessee Firebird release.[ref] Like the rest of Gary Burton’s RCA catalog from the 1960s, Tennessee Firebird has been long out of print. Bear Family Records re-issued this title on CD in 1989, but this too is now deleted. Burton’s next album after Tennessee Firebird was called Duster. This 1967 release used Burton’s working quartet at that time, including guitarist Larry Coryell, John Coltrane’s former drummer Roy Haynes, and longtime Burton collaborator Steve Swallow on bass. Duster has been cited as “one of the first jazz/rock” fusion records. In 1969, three years after the disappointing reception to Tennessee Firebird, Burton released an album called Country Roads and Other Places. In spite of the album’s title, this was not a second attempt at combining genres, including neither country songs nor Nashville players.
[/ref] And concerning influence: It may have run both ways. That is, I wonder if Chet Atkins was at all influenced by the memory of Burton’s vibraphone when he was working to smooth out the sound of country music.


In 2013, Burton published his autobiography, Learning to Listen: The Jazz Journey of Gary Burton. As the title suggests, it focuses on the artist’s life in the world of jazz. However, early in the book Burton discusses his time spent in Nashville. By the tone of the writing, it is clear that this era is still important to Burton and is fondly remembered.

Nashville helped break down Burton’s musical prejudices, making him open to new ideas. He admits that, before leaving Evansville, he “had become a jazz snob,” with little time for any other type of music. His summer in Nashville “opened [my] eyes to a world of truly talented people.”

In Learning to Listen, Burton outlines the similarities between country music and jazz. Both genres are “rhythmically powerful, both feature improvised solos and, in both, the musicians have an enormous respect for instrumental skill and creativity.” Having said this, Burton also is quick to indicate that the skills required for these different genres are not interchangeable. One hastily arranged recording session involved country musicians “doing their best to play jazz, although it wasn’t their usual thing.”[ref]Although this specific recording situation should be a paper unto itself, to summarize: Several country players found themselves involved in an impromptu jazz session after their performance was cancelled at the Newport, Rhode Island, Jazz Festival in 1960. The resulting album is called After the Riot at Newport.

After reading the autobiography I had some questions about a few of the topics Gary Burton briefly addressed, so I tried to contact the author for details. Since he does not hesitate to take colleagues to task in this book, especially if he believes them to be musically lacking, I thought that Burton would be honest with me. He was kind enough to reply by e-mail, and his answers to my questions were candid and illuminating throughout.[ref]Unless otherwise indicated, all of the quotes by Gary Burton are taken from e-mail exchanges between Mr. Burton and the author.

I first asked about the book’s repeated assertion that Nashville studio musicians were not readers of music when he was there. In his response, Burton stressed that people who could read music in Nashville at that time — even in the studio setting — were the exception. He didn’t say this in a critical or dismissive way, but this fact had clearly surprised him when he arrived there in the spring of 1960. Burton wrote, “There was a certain amount of more commercial studio work, jingles, etc., in Nashville, with arrangements written by Cliff Parmenter and others, and reading was required on those dates.The Anita Kerr Singers were often involved in those projects. They could read music, too.”

I followed-up with what I thought were potentially sensitive questions about specific musicians. I asked whether Hank Garland and Chet Atkins read music. Burton responded, “Yes, Hank Garland could read music, as could a few others of the studio regulars. Floyd Cramer could read music. [I’m] not sure about Chet’s ability to read music. I suspect the answer was no in Chet’s case.” Burton continued in more general terms: “For a lot of the guys, technically they could read the notes and chord symbols, but not very well, and such a skill was not really needed that much in their usual day-to-day calls.”

I also asked Burton if he saw the Nashville Number System used, in the studio or when he attended the Grand Ole Opry with Garland.[ref]The Nashville Number System consists of the group leader holding up fingers to indicate what chord was to be played, operating like a living Fake Book for the Opry house band. One veteran Opry performer told me that if the leader is calling out chord changes from the bandstand during a song, the word for a D chord could be confused with the sound of C for a C chord or B or G for those chords. Also, hand signals make less noise than shouting out the names of chords to your musical colleagues while a singer is performing. I have been told that this was needed if a singer called-up a tune that the band didn’t know during a live broadcast.
[/ref] While he did not comment directly on the Opry, Burton wrote, “I didn’t see anyone using alternate systems in the studio, including when I worked with some of the guys myself. I once saw a guitar player ask another what chord was being used at a certain part of a song, and the answer was ‘four hand holds down,’ meaning count four frets down on the fingerboard. That was at a Hank Snow session I witnessed. But as for a set of hand signals, I didn’t see any of that, though it’s easy to imagine that such a thing could have existed.” Burton recalled, “They did have some of their own descriptive terms for things: such as the term ‘drop beat’ instead of what most musicians would describe as an ‘off beat.’”

Because Hank Garland had been so important to Burton’s arrival in Nashville, I wanted his reaction to the movie Crazy — the 2007 bio-pic on Garland. I told Burton that I agreed with the brief, negative assessment he gave of Crazy in his autobiography. In his book, he had written that he was disappointed with the movie, which he called “distorted” and filled with “factual inaccuracies.”

Burton talks briefly in his book about the sad fate of Hank Garland, including a telephone conversation he had with the guitarist several years after a debilitating 1961 car accident. He recalls how Hank was very confused, but that he seemed aware of his own confusion. He said things to Burton like, “I spoke with Hank Williams yesterday. But he’s been dead for 20 years! How was that possible?!” Garland also spoke to Burton as if they had just recorded together the previous week.

Garland had been good to Burton. He took time off from his busy schedule as a first-call studio guitarist to find the young musician an apartment. He also introduced the newcomer to many of Nashville’s most prominent players. Gary Burton says he will always be grateful to Hank Garland, but found it very difficult to speak with him after the accident.

I asked Burton if he placed any credence in the movie’s conspiratorial elements concerning the car crash that ended Garland’s career. Burton sort of side-stepped a direct answer by saying that he had “heard about Hank’s accident and what happened from Boots Randolph, a year or so after” the wreck. Burton concludes, “I have no idea how accurate Boots’s version of events was. I always meant to ask Harold Bradley what he remembered of the incident, but never did.”

Strained race relations were among the themes of Crazy. One scene portrayed Nashville musicians telling Garland that he was costing white players jobs. Specific anger was focused on the use of bassist Joe Benjamin from New York City. I asked Burton, “Was Hank Garland criticized, and even physically threatened by area musicians for hiring African-American players, as the movie maintains?”

Burton’s pointed response made me wonder whether this question alone was the reason he responded to my e-mail — in order to go on the record about this specific topic. He replied, “Definitely not. That was a part of the movie that angered me. There was no racial attitude involved at all. In fact, there was already a prominent black musician — violinist Brenton Banks — who worked regularly in the [Nashville] studio scene. And, in the case of our record, that was the only time Joe Benjamin, the bass player, worked with Hank Garland. He came down to Nashville with drummer Joe Morello to make Jazz Winds From a New Direction, and returned to New York afterward. He was never in a [performing] band with Hank [or the others].”

Burton continued, “The only bassist locally who could have possibly been considered for the record, Bob Moore, wasn’t bothered in the least by having a famous guy from New York play on Hank’s record. Everyone knew Hank was making a jazz record, and there were no experienced jazz musicians in Nashville.” Burton concludes by saying that the lack of jazz players in Nashville at that time was the same reason that he became involved with the album.[ref]Jim Reeves regularly used a vibes player named Marvin H. Hughes on his sessions during the same time that Garland was looking for a player. However, as Burton notes, many Nashville musicians were unaccustomed to jazz charts. I assume that Hughes, although in Nashville, did not fit with the music style Garland wanted. It also appears that vibes was not Hughes’ primary instrument.

These references hark back to Burton’s earliest professional recording experiences. And from these Nashville beginnings, Gary Burton became a premier jazz artist. He is highly respected in his own right and has recorded albums with some of the biggest names in music, from pianist Chick Corea to violinist Stephane Grappelli. Even so, Gary Burton says he is always a bit humbled when recalling that the best selling record he has ever played on, by far, is Floyd Cramer’s instrumental hit “Last Date.” But if Burton is humbled, he is certainly never dismissive of his brief time spent in Nashville, or of country music as a genre.

Bieber, Rick, film director. Crazy. Screen Media Ventures, 2008.
Burton, Gary. E-mail correspondence with the author, August 2012-January 2014.
—. Learning to Listen: The Jazz Journey of Gary Burton. An Autobiography. Ed. by Neil Tesser. Boston: Berklee Press, 2013.
Cook, Richard and Brian Morton. The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD. 7th ed. London: Penguin, 2004.
Kienzle, Richard. E-mail correspondence with the author, June 2013
Myers, Marc. “Interview: Gary Burton.” Jazz Wax Magazine, July 26, 2010.
Whitburn, Joel. Joel Whitburn’s Top Country Singles, 1944-1993. Menomonee Falls, Wisc.: Record Research, 1994.
—. Joel Whitburn’s Top Pop Singles, 1955-2010. Menomonee Falls, Wisc.: Record Research, 2011.

Tom Wilmeth

Tom Wilmeth

Tom Wilmeth, an English faculty member at Concordia University-Wisconsin since 1991, has given presentations and published widely on the topics of literature and music. Author of 'Sound Bites: A Lifetime of Listening,' he earned a Ph.D. at Texas A&M in College Station. Contact Something Else! at
Tom Wilmeth
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