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If that ain’t country: Brand New Opry’s Jeff Burger. Photo: Joe Putrock

Stand By Your Man
With his own band, Jackinany, his radio show on WRPI and his Brand New Opry series, area music advocate Jeff Burger spreads his alt-country message

By Erik Hage

Well, I woke up Sunday morning with no way to hold my head that didn’t hurt/And the beer I had for breakfast wasn’t bad, so I had one more for dessert . . ./On a Sunday morning sidewalk, I’m wishing, Lord, that I was stoned./’Cause there’s something in a Sunday that makes a body feel alone.” So goes “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” Kris Kristofferson’s ode to the proverbial soul-wrecked, emotionally hollow morning after, sung most memorably by Johnny Cash. And there’s no doubt that Sunday can have a certain ache about it, whether you’re simply waiting it out for Monday or piecing back together a psyche plundered by Saturday night.

Local radio host Jeff Burger has adopted the “Sunday Morning Coming Down” moniker for his weekly country-music show, which he’s been hosting for almost three years on WRPI in the ungodly 8-10 AM slot. “The first two weeks it was called ‘Garth-less Country,’ ” he admits a little regretfully.

Sunday has a history of providing a nice canvas for writers trying to evoke a certain quiet desperation—whether it be mope-song-king Morrissey’s “Every Day Is Like Sunday” or WASP laureate John Cheever’s story “The Swimmer.” (“It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying, ‘I drank too much last night.’ ”) And when defining the mix of country music he plays—i.e., traditional, Americana, underground and alt-country—Burger gets a bit writerly himself. “There’s no attempt at poetry,” he says of the stuff that moves him the most. “It’s just poetic on its own. Hank Williams is like, ‘Here’s life.’ ”

Burger talks about the music with the enthusiasm of a wine connoisseur addressing a favorite vintage, but don’t get him going on mainstream country. “It might as well be Celine Dion or Justin Timberlake; it’s just pop in a different mask,” he says. “I mean, you see people like Shania Twain, and the drummer has ski goggles on—I mean, what the hell is this?!”

Burger is working the local scene on other fronts besides radio: He has also taken it upon himself to bring country music to the Capital Region through the Brand New Opry concert series at Valentine’s and through a venture called Sunday Morning Coming Down Presents, which has brought to town acts like the Pernice Brothers and Songs: Ohia. (Neither pursuit is affiliated with WRPI, Burger says.) “My production company is a Commodore 64 and a telephone,” he jokes. “It’s been doing pretty well. I think that, since we started doing this, the crowds for this kind of music have gotten bigger.”

Things must be going well: Since the Opry debuted in February, Burger and Valentine’s owner Howard Glassman have changed it from a bimonthly to monthly event that usually showcases both out-of-town Americana acts and local talent. As for the crowd, Burger says, “The mixture is the radio show [listeners], devoted local ‘alt-country’ people and then the freak show where 120 people show up and you’re like, wow. You never know in this town.”

On any given night, the Opry includes a bunch of 30- to 40-year-old folks, a crowd you don’t typically see at a rock club. “I think people are intimidated by places like Valentine’s because it’s, like, a hipster crowd. But for these shows it really isn’t. Pretty much every [guy] looks like me: beginning to get a pot belly—well, I should say ‘beer belly’—and starting to lose their hair.”

He says the Opry is about bringing together a community of people drawn by both the lure of Americana music and a scene free of pretense. “I always meet the coolest people there. Everybody is just in a good state of mind . . . the crowd is as authentic as the music.”

As a kid growing up in the Buffalo area, Burger first fell in love with “authentic” country through his grandfather. “He was an incessant yodeler,” Burger remembers. “He worked in the steel plant in Buffalo; he was, like, the ‘man of steel,’ and I looked up to him. . . . The music is what kept him going. Well, that and Genesee!”

Burger further developed that love while living in Seattle during the ’90s. He remembers a huge, diverse Americana scene that included a mix of everyone from “the Hank Williams greaser crowd” to the hipsters to the old timers. This provided inspiration for the Opry. “I saw the possibility of a [diverse] crowd happening. So when I moved back to Troy, I hooked up with Howard and just said, ‘We’ve got to do this.’ “

Another pursuit is Burger’s own fun bar band, Jackinany, who have played many an Opry. The group will host a “Christmas Extravaganza” tomorrow (Friday) at the Garden Grill.

As for the radio show, despite his long hours as a public-school teacher, you can count on Burger to be on the dial every Sunday morning. “Even when my band plays,” he notes. “We’re basically up very late. . . . I use that energy in the radio show.” (You might occasionally detect a surplus of gravel in Burger’s radio voice, which dips a few octaves on certain Sunday mornings.)

Burger’s on-air presence is unassuming and charmingly unpolished; he comes off like an amiable buddy turning you on to new tunes in his den. And that unobtrusively mild demeanor is all part of the “coming down” experience. Another part is trying to find the right assemblage of tunes to provide emotional salve for another damn Sunday. “I wake up at, say, 7, and I go to my collection and I just sort of feel the show out,” Burger says. “I have two young children, so getting up for the show is . . . well, I get away for two hours and I get to listen to music. It’s sort of my Zen period.”

The next Brand New Opry is Dec. 27 at Valentine’s.

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