Todd Burge (photo: B&B Studios)

Todd Burge: Character Building Characters

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Todd Burge’s musical travels have included stops at the Kennedy Center, CBGB’s, the Country Music Hall of Fame and NPR’s Mountain Stage. However, home is where the heart is, and Burge’s latest project was inspired by people close to home — and his heart.

The Parkersburg, W.Va., native is recording two CDs: one for kids, one for grown-ups. Together, the discs will be titled Character Building Characters, and he’s getting help from some famous friends.

I caught up with Todd, fresh from his set at the Tamarack cultural center in Beckley, W.Va.

BG: How did you come up with the idea for these CDs?

TB: As a full-time performing songwriter, I must continue to release new music. This is simply how I pay the bills and take care of my family. I also happen to love writing and performing, so it’s perfect for me.

This time around, I was torn as I had some songs that were written for, with and inspired by my young children (Will, 7 and Sophia, 5). Grown-ups tend to like these tunes as well, which is important to me. I don’t like music that is “dumbed down” for kids.

On the other hand, I have been writing a batch of songs that are character driven and, well…not for kids. These songs deal with the darker side of life.

I’ve created some twisted characters; some fictional, some real, like Harold Camping, the man who predicted the end of the world in May and then again in October of this year. Or a woman who buried her husband in her own flower garden after being married to him for 35 years.

I also wrote a song from the perspective of Jesus’ father Joseph, and how insecure he might have felt when Mary told him about being “with Child” without his assistance. I played this song at the Athens Mountain Stage show (see above clip – BG).

The kids’ CD will be called Character Building and the grownup disc will be called Building Characters. Together, they’ll be called Character Building Characters.

BG: A portion of your CD profits will go to a charity. What prompted this?

TB: I wanted to build something that goes well beyond the music. Sophia, our five year-old, is severely allergic to peanuts and tree nuts along with various other allergies including eggs, cats and dogs. When I say “severe”, it literally means that her nut allergies are life-threatening.

The challenges involved with planning meals, going out to eat and going to birthday parties (most cakes are made with eggs) seemed overwhelming when we first found out about this three years ago. The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxsis Network (FAAN) helped us negotiate our way through these challenges, so each year we help raise money and awareness for them as a way of giving back. 25% of the Character Building profits will go towards FAAN.

BG: Tell me about the recording process. Who’s helping you in the studio?

TB: I’m recording the kids’ CD mostly in my own studio with my friend Joseph Hale, but possibly a few tracks with the Carpenter Ants in Charleston. If the time is right, I might even get Tim O’Brien on a couple of those songs.

The CD for grown-ups will be recorded next month. We’ll have Don Dixon on bass, Tim O’Brien playing mandolin, fiddle, electric guitar and maybe some piano, and Kenny Malone on drums and percussion, who’s played on many of Tim’s recordings and has performed with John Prine and Darrell Scott.

Many people know Don Dixon as the producer of R.E.M. and Marshall Crenshaw. Tim O’Brien is possibly best known as a solo artist, but he’s toured and recorded with people like Steve Earle and Joan Baez. Right now, he’s recording with Mark Knopfler. We will record this CD at Tim’s place in Nashville.

BG: How did you end up meeting and working with Tim O’Brien and Don Dixon?

TB: I met Tim about eight years ago when I was workshop coordinator for the Mountain Stage New Song Festival. I knew of him, but after that meeting and his workshop, I was hooked on his music and became a huge fan. I got his Traveler CD and wore it out like I used to wear out Stones records in junior high.

Within a year, I was invited back to perform on Mountain Stage and Tim was on too. I asked him to play along on my set and he agreed. Then we ran into each other and played gigs here and there with me as an opener, but he would always join me onstage, which was so kind.

Back in 2006 I was asked by the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame to record a song called “Telephone Girl.” They were releasing a CD called Always Lift Him Up: A Tribute to Blind Alfred Reed, which was produced by Tim O’Brien, Don Dixon and Michael Lipton, so I got to know Don through this. He later engineered a CD project that I produced for RJ Cowdery and we have since become good friends.

BG: You’re funding this project through a website called RocketHub. What is that?

TB: Tim O’Brien produced my 2008 release My Lost and Found. The recording got a lot more attention than my previous ones for obvious reasons. It even charted on the FOLK DJ chart and opened many new performance opportunities for me. Although the recording eventually turned a profit for me, it took a long time and the initial cost was a challenge. Paying for studio time, the musicians, travel cost and CD manufacturing was very pricey.

I decided to offset the initial cost of this project by “crowd funding” via RocketHub. RocketHub helps artists get their projects off the ground. So on this recording, I thought I’d ask my fans and friends if they’d simply purchase the CD in advance, but I have also set up a crowd funding campaign where they can get “rewards” that go beyond simply receiving a CD.

The rewards include getting a signed copy of the CD, or having me write a song just for them or a family member, then recording it with Tim O’Brien and posting it on YouTube. I’ll even come to your kid’s school and perform or conduct a songwriter workshop with them. It’s all fun stuff, I think. The goal is to have both projects released early next year.

For more information about Todd Burge and Character Building Characters, visit