Jeff Burkhart laughs when I ask him if the Dirty Shirts have ambitions to tour in 2010. Then he says "No," without pause or apology.
As Burkhart makes clear, the Dirty Shirts aren't trying to sell a million downloads or be the next big thing. They're content to be a honky-tonk happy-hour band in Madison, Wis. "We're just a bunch of friends who like to hang out and play songs," says the guitarist and songwriter.
Starting at 6:30 the first Tuesday of every month, at the High Noon Saloon, you can loosen your tie and cry in your beer at the Dirty Shirts' heartbreaking country songs.
This month, the band ventures beyond the classic covers they've been playing since they formed four years ago. They're releasing a debut album, Two Dollar Turpentine, composed of 11 original songs. The release show is Tuesday, May 18, at the High Noon.
The Dirty Shirts remind me of Madison's Cork n' Bottle String Band. Both bands play traditional roots styles and make entertaining live shows their focal point. The similarity is more than a coincidence. The two bands share two members - lap steel player Kurt Kellesvig and bassist Pat Logterman. "I got to know Kurt and Pat from going to the Cork n' Bottle shows at Ken's Bar after I moved to Madison," says Burkhart.
Dirty Shirts drummer Colin Bazsali plays in Burkhart's other band, the old-time country act Barley Brothers. Guitarist Ted Weigl is formerly of Cornelius Klein. The band takes its name from a line in the first verse of the Kris Kristofferson song "Sunday Morning Coming Down": "Then I fumbled through my closet for my clothes and found my cleanest dirty shirt."
Burkhart wrote all 11 songs on the new album (two songs were co-written with former Madisonian Owen Temple). He originally recorded solo demos of the songs, using an acoustic guitar.
"Most of the songs I wrote recently, but some I'd written years ago," says Burkhart. "The opening song, 'Jimmy,' I wrote more than 10 years ago."
The emotion Burkhart weaves into his music has matured. "Jimmy" doesn't lack for surface emotion. It brims with the busted-love tears of a "one-woman man": "Her name was Jess Magee/She was long, tall and pretty/Just as proud as she could be/But when she ran off with Willy/That good girl let him down." But the hard luck of the narrative isn't felt in the music.
The progress in Burkhart's songwriting is clear on "Love Is Just a Word." In that song, the bass, guitar and lap steel all march along with steady resignation. The instrumentation sounds nostalgic, exhausted, and supports the feeling of unrequited affection.
It's a vibe the Dirty Shirts maintain on "Open Road," one of the loneliest songs on the new album. The tune begins with 30 seconds of sad and wandering lap steel, and Burkhart matches the desolate feel with his vocals. The approach makes "Open Road" the disc's best song.
A fan of Bob Dylan and Hank Williams, Burkhart says he's always had an interest in writing roots music. "I've always written folkish, countryish stuff," he says. "I've gotten used to writing the kind of country songs that are focused on the hook."
The Dirty Shirts started playing on Burkhart's deck four years ago. "I just invited a bunch of friends over," he says. "From the very beginning, there was a good back and forth. We get together to practice once a week and have some beers. That's what it's all about for us."