By Marsha Anderson
They call him a sideman.
On tambourines, cymbals, congas, shakers and sometimes the piano, he’s the percussionist behind the drummer, the guy no one notices until he comes in with his part.
He’s also the easygoing fellow everyone likes to be around on the tour bus.
It’s spring and Matthew Burgess ’90 is touring with country singer-songwriter Drake White, who is opening for Eric Church and Brantley Gilbert. Burgess hopes the trail of gigs will take him to California by the summer. The rough life of a musician means never quite knowing where the next gig will come from. He wouldn’t have it any other way.
The CLU philosophy major was living in Seattle before moving to Nashville in a “leap of faith” seven years ago.
“I saw myself 10 years down the road and knew I needed a change. So I took time out to look at different music centers in the U.S. – New York, Los Angeles, Austin and Nashville. Of all those places, Nashville seemed to open its arms to me.”
Much more than a capital for country music, Nashville is a Mecca for pop, rock and musicians from all over the country. Among other things, the city generates the background sounds for the nation’s TV shows, according to Burgess.
“Being a musician in Music City is not that different from working at a university, where you can have a conversation that might not be understood outside the walls of the institution. Conversations here are like that,” he said.
Nashville living is also like being under the Big Top in a circus, Burgess finds. Neighbors are bearded ladies – assorted musical freaks. “We all get that we’re part of the circus,” he chuckles. “Here, I’m a sideman.”
When he’s not part of a band on tour, Burgess sometimes works one-on-one with a songwriter. Now and then he’ll help on the background sounds for a video game. Three recording sessions and one gig or writing session fill up a day nicely.
“I have a soft spot in my heart for singer-songwriters,” he reflects. “I like to help them bring out what they have going on at the core of their song and ask myself, ‘How do you express that?’ If the song is better without the part you’re playing, then you’re probably playing the wrong thing.”
On the road, Burgess’ record (so far) is 430 shows in one year. He’s played with Willie Nelson, Cindy Morgan, Three Door Down and Brandi Carlile, and opened for ZZ Top and John Fogarty. Because of Nashville’s central geographical location, he usually makes it home by midweek from shows running Thursday through Saturday.
Majoring in philosophy, Burgess says, was great preparation for the life of a sideman. He can fit into different situations without getting in the way, seeking balance between having an ego and letting the ego go.
“In some ways [a philosophy major] is the least practical, in some ways the most practical. It’s helped me get through life as a struggling artist.”
Professor Bill Bersley, a mentor and friend, would host Philosophy Club meetings at home and talk about Jean Paul Sartre and existential freedom. Burgess learned that an artist has to choose every day to be an artist, to renew a relationship with the muse.
“Bersley challenged me and changed who I am as a human,” Burgess recalls. “He would probably say that he ‘unlocked the door.’”
Also at CLU, theatre arts professor Michael Arndt put Burgess in charge of sound design for two plays. The projects gave him confidence in his abilities.
“He was the first person to get me to think out of the box artistically, to think about the visual qualities of music,” Burgess says.
The longer Burgess is in the music industry, the more the stories and nuggets of wisdom embedded in music professor Dan Geeting’s lessons make sense.
“He taught me the art of listening first, playing second,” Burgess said. “One saying was ‘I’ll play music for free; you just have to pay me to load in all my instruments and set them up.’
“Another saying was, ‘The fleas may bite the camel, but the caravan moves on, baby.’ I can’t tell you how many times that makes sense in the life of an artist, when the van breaks down on tour or you’re late on the rent because you’ve been out of town. It’s all those stupid little things that if you let them pile up will make you want to quit music.”
To learn more about Burgess, visit percussionator.com. The website is named for an instrument that he built out of pipes and hubcaps just after graduating from CLU. The original percussionator is still on display at a theater in his hometown of Everett, Wash.