There won’t be any couches spread out across the sloping hillside leading down to the creek running through Springbrook Park tonight.
Nevertheless, when Jordan Burris and Aaron Freeman take the stage as Pale Root, along with fiddler Evie Andrus as a special guest, for the “Songs By the Brook” concert series, those in attendance will be treated to an intimate experience that’s every bit as welcoming as a living room in a home where there’s an acoustic instrument in every corner.
“When Aaron and I bring in people to play with us, it’s not like we’re hiring them to play — we’re bringing them into our little circle of love and friendship,” Burris told me this week. “We’re extending the little aura that Aaron and I have around ourselves, because we look at it more like friends coming over and experiencing friendship together. All the music that Aaron and I create, we extend it to them, too, and give them the freedom to lend their voice to it. We’re not very strict or stringent; we just make the palette, and we let them choose the colors.”
I first wrote about Pale Root almost six years ago, when the two guys were just getting started in the local music scene. At the time, they combined their various inspirations — “my older, more steeped-in-tradition background and older folk with his more modern touch and modern tendencies,” Burris told me at the time — and began making a name for themselves around Knoxville and in Blount County venues like Barley’s Maryville and Vienna Coffee House. All these years later, Burris stops short of qualifying himself and Freeman as elder statesmen of the local Americana scene, but they’ve certainly got age and experience on their younger peers.
“For us, I think we’re still pretty stringent, or at least I am,” he said. “I take my acoustic guitar, and that’s the only thing I play. I don’t deviate much from what I can create with my acoustic guitar and my voice, and 95% of the time, we don’t use drums. We’ve got two to three, maybe four, acoustic-based instruments.”
A native of Lenoir City who was a student of the bluegrass program at East Tennessee State University, Burris tried his hand in the Nashville songwriting community and as a solo artist before he met Freeman through a mutual friend. Back in 2013, I described their beautifully melancholy music as something “that conjures up ghostly memories of times long gone and loves once lost. It’s the whisper of wind through overhead trees while daydreaming in a hammock on a reflective summer day, the creak of boards in the floor of an empty house that was once filled with possibilities.”
It’s stood the test of time, and if anything, their most recent album, “Riding High” — released earlier this year — is more complex. Brilliantly understated, it combines everything from gentle piano to mournful fiddle runs in a way that allows each song to breathe.
“When we started, it was all new and exciting, and because it was really fun to play as a duo or a trio with all the interplay, I think we tended to play a little above our heads, or a little out of control, sometimes,” Burris said. “We let the emotive experience kind of take precedence over the actual musicality, but I think now, we’ve reined ourselves in. We approach it a little more clear-eyed and knowing what the purpose is. We have more dominion over what we create, because we know our strengths and how to push those.”
As a result, the newer songs are more open for interpretation. Riding in the pocket of an emotional experience, they become transcendent things that take on different meanings depending on how they’re absorbed by the individual listener. And when they play listening rooms and venues meant to showcase the artistry of the bands that take the stage, they also make for conversation fodder with those in attendance — an experience they appreciate whenever they come to Blount County, Burris said.
“Whenever we play Maryville, the crowds might be less as far as the numbers go, but the engagement is higher than it is in Knoxville,” he said. “Maybe it’s the type of venues we’re at — places like Vienna, where people will sit and listen and then engage you. People in Maryville seem to listen more, and they want to come up and converse with you about certain songs. We love playing in Knoxville, but Blount County has a really nice scene, and it’s really gratifying to play there.”