Article on Prairieton Sessions, June 21, 2015
30-year road Spirit in the music keeps foursome together, creating new material
By Mark Bennett/Tribune-Star |
For Paul Bertsch, music began to matter once he found its source.
A college student, he started writing songs and formed an acoustic guitar duo with a dorm buddy, playing coffeehouses and pubs around the University of Evansville campus as the 1970s gave way to the ‘80s. “I was really shaped by the singer-songwriters of the time — the [Bob] Dylans, the Neil Youngs, the Paul Simons, the Harry Chapins,” Bertsch said. “That’s who I wanted to be.”
A deeper motivation, though, soon took root in Bertsch.
“The time I really got serious about music is when I had one of those fork-in-the-road moments with my faith and God,” Bertsch said. He chose the spiritual path, joining the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship campus ministry after earning degrees from Evansville and Ball State University in clinical psychology. Music followed along with him.
More than three decades later, the 54-year-old still creates songs, including a newly released CD, “Prairieton Sessions,” with the same three guys he formed a band with back in 1987. The 10 tunes — nine written by Bertsch and another by fellow guitarist and singer Dave Tyra — reveal their back stories. Bertsch wrestles with the presence of evil in the world in “I Wonder Why,” thanks God for “Every Good Gift,” and keeps life’s busyness in perspective in a love song to his wife of 26 years, Roxy, in “Beautiful,” while Tyra anticipates heaven in “Lay My Burdens Down.”
The music reveals something to listeners, even Neal Wagner, longtime bassist for the Paul Bertsch Band. “Every time they bring a song in, really, I get to know them a little bit better through that,” Wagner said.
The songs blend stories, spirituality and personality in subtle doses.
“I feel like I’m on a 30-year journey as a writer and artist that doesn’t do exclusively Christian music, but does write from a Christian world view,” Bertsch said.
Occasionally, that journey leads Bertsch to perform in venues, such as popular night spots, that might seem ironic to some. Bertsch sees it differently. “I’ve always felt that I’ve been given the opportunity to bring the message to people who may have never had any interest in it,” he said.
Wherever the band plays, and whether the song list includes covers of ‘70s classics by The Eagles and Neil Young or Bertsch’s originals, the lineup of musicians reads much the same as it did years ago. Bertsch handles acoustic and electric guitars, vocals, harmonica and keyboards. Tyra plays acoustic and electric guitars, and mandolin. Wagner adds bass and vocals. John Dufek plays drums.
“Everybody knows their role, and we don’t overplay,” Bertsch said. “And they really make me sound better than I am.”
‘They work as a band’
Their paths crossed somewhat accidentally.
Wagner, a Terre Haute native, attended an InterVarsity camp in 1984 in northern Michigan, and spotted Bertsch — his sailing instructor — picking a guitar on the porch of a store. They talked music. A year later, a position with InterVarsity brought Bertsch to Terre Haute and the Indiana State University campus. It was the first taste of this community for Bertsch, who grew up in Greenfield, a town of 21,000 people east of Indianapolis. He and Wagner reconnected, and Bertsch nudged Wagner back into music.
“I’d been in a couple of bad band experiences, and it took him about a year to convince me to break out the bass and go public again,” Wagner said, chuckling.
Meanwhile, Tyra was living in Coal City, but his wife worked at ISU, heard Bertsch play guitar, and told her husband, “You need to meet him.” He did. Soon, Bertsch, Wagner and Tyra began rehearsing. Dufek joined a year later. They named their band Adam’s Brother and kept that label for almost 20 years. “There was so much confusion about what that name meant,” Bertsch said, laughing, “so we just dropped it.” Today, they’re simply the Paul Bertsch Band, emphasis on the word “band.”
“There’s so much give and take,” said Don Arney, producer of “Prairieton Sessions.” “They work as a band, which is pretty cool to see.”
The band built the album over an 18-month span in Quantum Music Productions, the southern Vigo County studio operated by Arney. The studio actually sits in rural Pimento, but Bertsch had to drive Prairieton Road to get there and ultimately named the album “Prairieton Sessions” because “it sounds better than ‘Pimento Sessions.’” Wagner trekked from Terre Haute after work as the administrative assistant at the ISU Recycle Center, Dufek from Indianapolis, where he’s a civil engineer, and Tyra from Linton, where he’s a pastor.
Together, they clicked with Arney, renowned for judiciously shepherding artists from many genres.
“I love working with Don,” Bertsch said. “He’s just the right measure of honest critique and appropriate suggestions.” The musicianship of Bertsch and the band eased that process. “[Paul] is pretty much a perfectionist, and that’s a good thing,” Arney said. “He’d play a solo, and I’d say, ‘Wow, that was great.’ And he’d say, “I think I can do it better,’ and then he would.”
The resulting “Prairieton Sessions” marks the band’s third album. With “The Traveller” in 1998 and “Red Dirt Road” in 2011, Bertsch composed the music during work overseas in Austria and Mozambique. The new collection culls songs “sitting on a shelf for years,” along with a trio of new tunes. “There isn’t a throw-away in the bunch,” Arney said, emphatically.
Their musical influences shine through. Folk and rock converge in Crazy Horse style on “I Wonder Why.” The lush harmonies and guitars on “Every Good Gift” unabashedly mirror sonic nature of The Beatles’ “Abbey Road.” There’s jazz, cool and classy on “Feel Like I’m Driving (On the Wrong Side of the Road),” and gentle and intricate with “On the Shoreline.” Hints of Marshall Tucker show up in “Lay My Burdens Down.”
“There will be some genres that everyone will hate, and some that everyone loves. Yeah, there’s lots of textures in there,” Bertsch said, talking in a Terre Haute coffeehouse this month.
Share the music
When asked what keeps this area director of a campus ministry, husband and father of two crafting music, Bertsch pulled off his black-rim glasses, propped them on his light short-cropped hair and pondered. “The desire to write and create just doesn’t go away in me,” he finally said. “So, it really is restorative for me.”
His band mates are grateful to share the experience. Tyra recalled the studio work on “Every Good Gift,” preparing to add his guitar work while listening to Bertsch and Wagner sing the tight harmonies. “They hit a section of vocals [so good] that I forgot what I played next,” Tyra said. “It’s moments like that, that are just wonderful.”
The 59-year-old Greenwood native started playing guitar in 1966, inspired by The Monkees’ Mike Nesmith. He bought a Gretsch guitar, a Vox amp and a wool hat. (Tyra still has the latter, a Nesmith trademark.) “I just wanted to play guitar,” Tyra recalled. “But I wanted to play guitar in a band. And now, I still get to do that.” A few years ago, when Tyra pondered hanging up his guitar, a different musician inspired him to continue — a woman in his church who kept playing bass in the praise band into her 70s until arthritis forced her to retire.
“Some people ask me, ‘What’s the point of what you’re going for?’” Tyra said of their fifty-something foursome. “We gave up a long time ago on being ‘discovered.’ Now,it’s just, don’t die with music still in you.”
The gigs and recordings serve as their outlet. As Bertsch sings on the band’s new album, “I’m not too old for rock and roll, but I’ve become an older soul, arms ‘round the one that I love, and suddenly it’s clear that every good gift comes from above.”
January 14, 2011
TERRE HAUTE — Dust and gravel never seemed so smooth.
The new album by Terre Haute musician and songwriter Paul Bertsch, “Red Dirt Road,” rolls gracefully through 58 minutes of deft guitar work, introspective lyrics and pleasant melody lines. There isn’t a pothole on the disc, just 12 likable songs by a guy with savvy classic-rock chops. It’s a momentary stop at life’s halfway point to look in all directions and recalculate the internal GPS.
Musically, some of its style reflects inspiration from Neil Young, Bob Dylan and Jimmy Buffett. Still, the hints of those icons in a handful of songs aren’t a detour from the rest of the CD. Each tune blends neatly into the next, with Bertsch leading the way, vocally and instrumentally.
Ultimately, “Red Dirt Road” leads to Mozambique. Bertsch spent part of last spring in that nation in southeastern Africa on the Indian Ocean coast. The title track — the strongest in the collection — opens with an Easter-morning recording of the women’s choir at Foursquare Church in Milange, Mozambique, before kicking into an infectious guitar hook and anthem-like chorus that Young would be proud to claim. The only disappointment is that the choir recording sounds a bit too distant; otherwise, it’s a clever gem.
Lyrically, the fourth track, “Change of Pace,” stands out, with Bertsch adroitly assessing midlife. He sings, “Some folks can bless you just by bein’ in their space; some make you long for a change of pace.” Besides its ponderous theme, “Change of Pace” is just plain catchy.
The album doesn’t lose steam toward the end of its path. Its spiritual high point comes at Track 10, a brave submission to love, “What Can I Do For You?” With a taste of Dylan-esque imagery and a snazzy harmonica intro, Bertsch declares, “I don’t jump from airplanes, or go grabbin’ tigers’ tails; I’m too scared of heights, and those cats don’t clip their nails; I don’t play the horses, or believe in horoscopes; I guess I don’t take many chances, I’d rather have a surer hope, like the love that you have given me.”
He gets solid backing from Dan Lampton (who also recorded the disc) on mandolin, Neal Wagner on bass, David Tyra on electric guitar and John Dufek on drums. Bertsch handles lead vocals, electric and acoustic guitars, piano, plugged-in keyboards and the blues harp. Together, they get plenty of opportunities to flex their skills, especially on “Prevailing Winds,” which clocks in at a hefty 6 minutes and 56 seconds, and “Soul Combine,” the 5-minute, 57-second penultimate cut.
By the end of “Red Dirt Road,” Bertsch has worked through any fortysomething restlessness and finishes with a gentle, glowing, romantic celebration of contentment in “A Life.” Over shimmering chord changes, he looks ahead and behind and then concludes, “Alone no more, since I found you; if we’re still here tomorrow, you and I will see it through.”