Lead singer for Soldier’s Heart, a Haywood County “honest porch-n-soul” band, Burress is gearing up to reintroduce the popular Southern Appalachian group as they prepare to enter the next phase of their melodic existence. Together for the better part of the last two years, it has already been a long road for the ensemble, who are eager, now more than ever, to claim their place on the stage, in the studio and out of the stereo.
“The fact we didn’t panic and ‘buy the first car we saw on the lot’ has proven that we’ve made the right decisions,” he said. “In other words, it only appears that we’ve been asleep to people on the outside, but we’ve been very busy all along — people just couldn’t see it.”
Porch to public
It was May 18, 2013. Soldier’s Heart made its public debut at Frog Level Brewing Company in Waynesville. Initially formed as a way for friends to play music and pass the time, the sextet quickly snowballed into a full-fledged band. They had enough originals and iconic covers to fill a performance, so why not? And though they still had a lot of kinks to iron out within the sound, they were antsy to take their behind-closed-doors project to the people. So, they did, and over 300 people showed up that spring night, an attendance number that would normally take groups years to achieve.
“You know, from day one, the amount of support we’ve been shown has been humbling,” Burress said. “Looking back on it now, we realize that in some ways being as busy as we were right out of the gates was a double-edged sword.”
The sword Burress spoke of refers to the idea that though they got the regional attention and social platform immediately, the band itself was still a moving target, in tone and intent. While they soon found themselves completely booked every weekend, the group was still figuring out its identity, which became a tug-of-war struggle between string and electric instruments.
At its core, Soldier’s Heart is part backwoods tradition, part southern swagger. It’s a crossroads, where banjo and fiddle meet kick drums and a Fender Stratocaster, where three part harmony ballads follow suit to straight up 70s AM radio rock — a blurred line of melodies that proved a mesmerizing cocktail for listeners.
“The word I use to describe it is ‘frenzied,’” Burress said. “We had to play so many shows, so fast, and with such frequency, that in hindsight most of our songs hadn’t been properly arranged, and there was this fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants attitude. But, it was just what we had to do at the time.”
Putting it down on tape
And as the performances got bigger and bigger, the show dates further and farther away from Haywood County, Soldier’s Heart knew it was time to hit the studio, to make an album that best represented the ideas and sounds they were trying to put across to their devoted audiences. In the spring of 2014, they entered Solomon Mines Studio in Fletcher. What resulted was their debut record, “Almanac.”
“Even if you’re not sitting down with your guitar and a pencil, you’re constantly writing — it has to be that way,” Burress said of the songwriting process. “And you have to be honest enough to tell yourself the truth. Your audience knows when you’re lying. You can’t tell anyone the truth if you’re lying to yourself, and I think that’s where you find your songs.”
With album in-hand, Soldier’s Heart headed into the summer of 2014 ready to seize any opportunity presented. They opened for Shonna Tucker & Eye Candy (formerly of the Drive-By Truckers) at The Grey Eagle, played in front of packed houses at Highland Brewing, Jack of the Wood and Nantahala Brewing, took the stage at Oskar Blues Brewing and Mantrabash, as well as an array of other venues around Western North Carolina and beyond. Things were holding steady, but that came to a halt with the birth of Burress’ daughter that fall.
“Being a dad has changed everything — and for the better,” Burress said. “I think about everything differently now, including music. I think now I’m more conscious of what I’ll be leaving her from a musical or lyrical standpoint. Now I view my work as another way for my daughter to one day understand things that I knew or experienced or thought about.”
Though the arrival of his daughter was planned, the time away from the band did put Burress’ project on a somewhat hiatus, or hibernation, depending on which way you look at it. Being apart from each other exposed many layers and differences within Soldier’s Heart. While some of the band wanted a more traditional, structured sound, others saw the writing on the wall, in terms of the listener, with a faster paced, more electric and free-flowing live set.
Thus, three members of the sextet exited coming into 2015. Going back to drawing board allowed Burress to see the big picture again. Just what is Soldier’s Heart? And what form could it take with this clean slate?
Cue Danielle Bishop and Billy McCracken.
A rapidly rising and renowned fiddler around Southern Appalachia, Bishop has spent most of her life performing in various bluegrass and Americana acts, most notably with the Darren Nicholson Band and Whitewater Bluegrass Company. While Bishop brings forth the chops of a seasoned pro, McCracken, a well-known area troubadour, adds in backup vocals and meticulous guitar pickin’ that ideally compliments the sonic purpose of Soldier’s Heart.
“Dani and Billy are fantastic players, easy to work with and as professional as they come — I’m learning so much for them,” Burress said. “They’ve added their own unique texture to the fabric of what we are as a band, and it’s completely different from anything we’ve experienced in the past. In rehearsals, we’re all paying acute attention to the space in each song and not allowing the space to become cluttered with unnecessary playing — what you don’t play can be just as important.”
With its two-year anniversary less than a month away, it seems Soldier’s Heart has once again found its footing. A follow-up record is in the works and soon the band will be taking the new lineup out for a spin. They’ve experienced a rollercoaster of triumph and change in such a short time, and yet, now, the wheels are in motion for a band whose potential can only be limited by their own vision and scope.
“As a band, neither the outlook nor the intent has changed, the difference is that now our goals are more attainable,” Burress said. “We’ve matured into a more cohesive, thoughtful group. There’s a confidence and a peace that comes with this kinds of understanding between people working together to achieve a common goal — it feels really good.”
Want to go?
Soldier’s Heart will present its new lineup with two performances on Saturday, April 25.
• At noon, they will play the “Music. Gear. Beer.” Celebration at Outdoor 76 in downtown Franklin. From 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. the gear swap event will feature live music, craft beer and an array of vendors. Free. 828.349.7676 or www.outdoor76.com.
• At 7:45 p.m. they will play at The Strand at 38 Main in downtown Waynesville. Tickets are $8 in advance, $10 day-of-show. 828.283.0079 or www.38main.com.