about The Burnells
Past to future bound...
That’s the refrain of “Train Town,” the drivingly evocative first single from Room Enough, the new album by The Burnells. It’s also an apt description of the band itself — its history, its present, its collective outlook — and of the music they make, sounds at once familiar and new, standing alone and containing multitudes. Songs of love and reverence and joy. Meditations on the meter and movements of the universe. Anthems for uneasy times.
A lot of ground, that. But The Burnells cover it with sharpness to spare, weaving in a host of influences and inspirations along the way. Rock, blues, country-western, Irish, Appalachian, folk, a helping of surf — it’s all there, all acknowledged and accounted for and amalgamated, all elements of a whole that is greater and groovier than the sum of its parts.
As for the band’s history, most of its members have been together before. Through the late 1990s and a few years into the current century, five of them were in The Happy Burnells, alt-country rockers with a steady following in their hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. Reunited in 2019, with a couple of new members added to the mix, the group set eagerly to honing a deeper, more richly textured sound, leavened by experience and reflective of an intentional embrace of who they are and what they want from the music they make.
That intent is also reflected in the band’s “new” name, one that looks back and aims forward at the same time. It’s not that The Burnells are no longer happy; it’s just that they’ve learned too much to take that — or anything — for granted.
Kat Beckham (vocals) Growing up in Camp Hill, Alabama, Kat was following notes in the Baptist Hymnal on Sunday mornings before she could read. She taught herself to sing alto, and even after taking up piano and flute, always considered her voice to be her instrument. At 18, she ran off to the big city of Birmingham, where she pawned her flute to get the last few dollars for the deposit on her first apartment. She sang with a couple of local bands for a while, but had drifted away from music when she went to work for a Birmingham television station in the mid-1990s. Soon enough, she was singing the station’s promotional jingles, which made her miss being in a band. When she mentioned that to a colleague one day in 1997, the response was, “I have a friend who’s starting a band, and they're looking for a girl singer.” The friend was Mark Kelly, the match was made, and the band became The Happy Burnells. Kat left the group in 2002 to become a mother. Eighteen years later, her daughter's getting ready for college — and Kat and her Camp Hill Baptist alto are back at home with The Burnells. "It really is like coming back home," Kat says. "Musically and the way we relate to each other personally, it's like we've never been apart, just picking up where we left off."
Mike Fields (electric and acoustic guitars, lap steel) Born and raised in the Birmingham suburb of Homewood, Mike started playing guitar at age 12 after hearing The Beatles. Soon his repertoire included songs by Otis Redding and his Stax label mates, as well as any number of other ‘60s rock and soul acts. Later on, Mike’s life changed forever the day he heard the opening riff of The Clash’s “Brand New Cadillac.” Not long after that, he recalls, “The universe expanded exponentially when I discovered the joys of Texas” — most particularly Waylon Jennings, Robert Earl Keen and Rhett Miller. Still, he managed to avoid joining a band until becoming a founding member of The Happy Burnells in 1997. Another highlight of that time was The Space Heaters, a one-off lineup that included Mike and fellow Burnells Gary Hyche and Mark Kelly, along with guitarist Craig Izard — of Jim Bob and the Leisure Suits, The Mystic Knights of the C and The Cosmic Snakehandlers — and drummer Mike Jones; formed in 2001 when The Happy Burnells had to cancel a scheduled gig at Anniston, Alabama’s historic Peerless Saloon, the group learned 30 cover songs and wrote a Space Heaters theme song in the space of two weeks, then showed up and rocked the house. "We've always come from different angles musically," Mike says of The Burnells. "But when we start playing, it all comes together — we find a groove and get into it pretty quickly."
Gary Hyche (lead guitar; slide, electric 12-string and short-scale guitar) A native of Hueytown, Alabama, Gary grew up on AM radio, a steady mix of early rock n’ roll, blues, the British Invasion, folk, pop and soul. He decided to take up the bass after zeroing in on Noel Redding, of the Jimi Hendrix Experience. He was in a couple of well-regarded Birmingham bands of the 1970s, The Vulcan Sweat Band and Heartbreak on Wheels, then after moving to Houston in the early 1980s was in a band called The Fantastics. Back in Birmingham in the early 1990s, he concentrated on carpentry and art while also playing with guitarist Craig Izard and drummer Mark Reynolds in The Whip Ass Men. He met Mark Kelly in 1994 and, after writing some songs together, they started Teflon Don Juan the next year with guitarist Mike Krischke and drummer Carey Jacks. Gary and Mark left TDJ in 1997 to start The Happy Burnells — a band that, in addition to five current members of The Burnells, included the esteemed Birmingham guitarist Ed Reynolds, also of The Ticks — partly because they were inspired by the guitar work and vocal harmonies on X’s live record “Unclogged,” and partly so Gary could switch to guitar, where he’s been ever since, including in Menewa, which he and Mark started in 2005 (he did play bass for several years in an early 2000s side project with Izard, The Mystic Knights of the C). From 1993 until 2008, Gary was also the proprietor of The Bomb Shelter, a quasi-underground music venue that was a precursor to today's thriving downtown Birmingham scene, hosting local and occasional national acts in addition to doubling as rehearsal space for The Happy Burnells, Menewa, and numerous other bands. Today, he's looking forward to what he and The Burnells come up with next. “We're creating some new and exciting sounds,” he says. “At first, I thought I was just getting together to have some fun with old friends — but it’s turning out to be a lot more than that.”
Jubal John (bass, vocals, cello, guitars, dulcimer, organ). Texas-born and Nashville-bred, Jubal has been playing music all his life. He started on piano and violin and soon was taking guitar lessons from his songwriting father. Later, he studied cello and music theory at Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music and also began learning saxophone and mandolin. Jubal learned the basics of songwriting as a member of numerous bands in Nashville, Memphis and his adopted hometown of Birmingham. Along the way, he has worked with acclaimed musicians, sharing and the stage with some of his musical heroes. He co-produced Kendra Sutton’s 2007 Sun Sessions at Memphis’s legendary Sun Studio, has played with singer/songwriter Buzz Cason (of “Everlasting Love” fame) and has opened for artists as diverse as Rufus Thomas and Drive-By Truckers. In 2016, Jubal’s solo album Mr. Right Now earned praise for its skillfully crafted tunes and, in the words of one critic, its “flurry of mid-20th century vibes...celebration of baroque pop and British Invasion rock a la The Beatles and Herman’s Hermits [and] casual dashes into the singer/songwriter terrain.” Asked to produce Room Enough for The Burnells, he not only jumped joyfully at the chance, but wound up bringing his multi-instrumental expertise into the band. "Playing with them stretches me creatively," says Jubal. "But more than anything else, it's fun. I dig these cats."
Mark Kelly (vocals, acoustic guitar, harmonica) During his childhood in two northwest Alabama towns — Haleyville, where he was born, and Russellville, where he did most of his growing up — Mark took in a little of everything, from The Louvin Brothers, Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn to Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Ray Charles and CCR. After moving to Birmingham to go to college, he fell under the spell of Elvis Costello, REM, Los Lobos and X; later still, an overdue introduction to the music of Townes Van Zandt served as the equivalent of post-grad work in songwriting. He didn’t start singing and playing regularly until he was in his early 30s, when he met Gary Hyche in a pick-up band thrown together for a gig on New Year’s Eve 1994. The two began writing songs and went on to co-found Teflon Don Juan (1995), The Happy Burnells (1997) and Menewa (2005), all tailored to manifest the vibe they were feeling at the time. In 2015, Mark and Gary joined the renowned free-improvisation guitar pioneer Davey Williams and singer/songwriter/guitarist Adrienne Applegate — of Dear August, Perilous Cole and her current, North Carolina-based duo, Chuck Vegas — to form The Wrong Cousins, which they believe is the best group to never actually put out a record or play a gig (rumor has it that surviving recordings of their sessions confirm this claim). They’ve also shared the stage with R&B/gospel greats Roscoe Robinson and The Controllers’ LeNard Brown and David Camon. Of relaunching The Burnells, Mark says, “Outside of becoming a father twice, it might be the best thing I’ve ever done — and I’ve done some pretty interesting things.”
Stuart Oates (banjo, button accordions, vocals) Born in Arizona, Stuart spent most of his childhood and much of his adulthood in Northern California. There, he came up on a steady diet of cowboy chords, Appalachian music and sea shanties, also picking up healthy doses of conjunto and blues along the way. In his early teens, influenced by James Cotton and John Mayall, Stuart taught himself to play harmonica, and in high school sang and played harp in a garage band that played regular Saturday gigs in a nearby park — until the cops showed up one day with dogs and batons, dispersing the crowd and making off with a top hat full of the band’s tips. In 1982, having picked up concertina, banjo and melodeon, he and two friends formed Fly in the Honey, a traditional Irish trio that played on college campuses and in bars and coffee houses around the Sacramento area. He later spent two years in Mexico, deepening his love of — and feel for — that country's musical traditions. In the late 1990s, he played in a Persian music ensemble. Since moving to Birmingham in 2000, he has focused mostly on traditional folk music, and organizes the monthly "Double-Wide Sunday Jam" of fellow enthusiasts. He also guests occasionally with the rock-pop group The Amazing Live Sea Monkeys and participates regularly in jams and open mics around town. Of becoming part of a creative dynamic that goes back nearly a quarter-century with The Burnells, Stuart says, “I like the challenge of mixing my folkish roux into the gumbo.”
Jason Ruha (drums and percussion) Jason came into the world in Encino, California, and was raised in Aurora, Colorado. His formal percussion training began in the third grade and continued until he graduated from the University of Alabama in 1992, including playing in concert, symphonic, marching and jazz bands. His informal training started in a high school rock band called 5150, a three-piece outfit that was heavily influenced by '80s rock and heavy metal. While in college, Jason was in a succession of bands that gigged regularly in the clubs along “The Strip,” then Tuscaloosa’s famed and fabled epicenter of entertainment and off-campus nightlife. While having himself a fine old time, he also became devoted to the idea of playing original music. That led him to Bentley Tock, which is still remembered among the very best of the numerous Tuscaloosa acts of the time that built strong regional followings. During his time with Bentley Tock, the band recorded a highly-regarded six-song EP and toured the Southeast. “That ‘on the road’ experience was important,” Jason recalls. “It enabled me — a kid brought up on west coast rock — to learn firsthand the culture and historic heritage of the Deep South.” He stayed in the South, settling in Birmingham, where he became a founding member of The Happy Burnells. Later, he joined Gary Hyche and Mark Kelly in Menewa, playing on their 2007 album, Fairlane. Today, he says being back with The Burnells, creating and recording original music, is “where I’m supposed to be — apparently, where we're all supposed to be."