Wandering an old cemetery, Shirley Stewart Burns considers the stories that headstones tell. And it occurs to her that birth and death dates aren't as important as the days between—represented by a line drawn between the dates. And that becomes a song.
There's a line that's etched in granite
With two dates on either side.
It don't matter what the dates are.
All that matters is the line.
The stories of lives lived between those dates might be said to define her eclectic new collection, "Long Time on this Mountain," which she and producer Travis Stimeling consider, in many respects, a work of stories.
Dr. Stimeling, an associate professor at the West Virginia University School of Music, says Burns's songs are remarkably bound to the stories she tells, which is relatively rare these days.
"I think what sets this album apart from a lot of the music people might encounter elsewhere is the stories," he says.
"Shirley has a way of telling stories that pulls great detail into the confines of a song’s structure and that uses form to build twists and turns along the way."
Burns grew up on Coon Branch in rugged, densely forested Wyoming County and says her stories spring naturally from her youth spent in Appalachia.
"A lot of the songs are from stories I have heard over the years while growing up. I come from a very close-knit family, so they are stories about my grandparents, great-grandparents, and generations long-since past. Those people are as real to me as many of the living relatives I had.
"In other cases I see old photos, and a story comes to mind. And I don't know why, but in my own personal life, I know the issues I deal with as an adult, and often I'll think of the stories of the past and the people of the past and of how we are so much alike in many ways, and I wonder how they would respond to this situation. Thus, the seed is planted for the song.
"Other songs just simply come to me out of nowhere. Often I'll just start singing a line to a song, and the song will be finished shortly thereafter. I've been told that my writing process is a little different from others who get either the tune or the words first. When I start singing, the tune is already with the words. I write songs with both aspects converging at the same time."
Burns says the collection is otherwise difficult to define as a genre, though her songs and her her work as an author and academic is strongly associated with Appalachia. Not coincidentally, she holds a doctorate in Appalachian History.
Stimeling would agree, noting, "It’s hard to say what 'this kind of music' is, because the album itself is fairly eclectic. There’s rock, bluegrass, old-time, country, and gospel, so people are bound to find something they like among the tracks."
Burns says she's thrilled to hear her work being performed by a spectrum of talented West Virginia artists.
"It’s worth noting that virtually all the people involved in this project are West Virginia natives—from the recording engineer to the cover artist." The cover design was by fellow Wyoming Countian Jamie Lester, designer of the West Virginia Quarter.
"Long Time on This Mountain: The Songs of Shirley Stewart Burns," will soon be on sale at the West Virginia arts center, Tamarack, in Beckley, and is now available on Amazon and may also be ordered through its Facebook page at Long Time on this Mountain.