Arts Performing Arts

On a Personal Note: Aaron Burdett

On a Personal Note: Aaron Burdett

Aaron Burdett. Photo by Sandlin Gaither

By Emma Castleberry

Most born-and-bred Southerners have heard the phrase, “We’re not the Rockefellers, you know,” more than once in reference to someone’s wealth—or lack thereof. The Rockefeller family owns one of the world’s largest fortunes, amassed through banking, politics and industry. It’s this phrase that inspired Aaron Burdett’s song “Rockefeller,” which has been named as a finalist in the Bluegrass category for MerleFest’s Chris Austin Songwriting Competition.

“Rockefeller” is written from the vantage point of someone in the Western North Carolina region in the 1930s or ‘40s, wishing for richness. The chorus sings, “I’d be content for sure/if I had a little bit more/I’ve been getting by with what is mine.” Burdett says he is always working on many songs at once, and each one is a long project. “I’ll have an idea for a song and go back to it and mess around with it over a long period of time before it starts to take shape,” he says. Burdett also does extensive research on his songs to add details appropriate to the era. At the end of “Rockefeller,” there are references to companies that were massive at the time, like Nabisco and Coca-Cola.

“Rockefeller” was originally written for electric guitar. “It had a sort of punk sound to it,” says Burdett. “Playing the same thing on an acoustic guitar sort of becomes bluegrass in the way that I play.” Most performances of the song feature an acoustic trio, with a mandolin, bass and guitar. “It leans into that folky, bluegrass, Americana feel just from presentation,” says Burdett, adding that the song is somewhat intersectional and crosses genres. “My song content leans a little more Americana, even though our presentation leans a little in the bluegrass direction,” says Burdett. “I’m between those two worlds.”

Burdett’s approach to content in songwriting is inspired by what he calls “the communicator types” of songwriters: John Prine, Bob Dylan, Tracy Chapman and Rickie Lee Jones. Burdett started playing guitar when he was in “a thirteen-year-old heavy metal phase,” he says. “Then I wound up in Boone, where I was exposed to all these bluegrass guys like Doc Watson. There is an energy in old-time music that reminds me very much of that controlled chaos of heavy metal that I liked when I first started playing guitar.”

Burdett has performed at MerleFest and was recognized as a finalist in the Chris Austin Songwriting Competition in 2012 for his song “Magpie.” While he’s disappointed that this year’s festival—along with all other live performances—is cancelled, Burdett continues to release new music and also plays Facebook live concerts every Saturday night. “Performances are gone for now,” he says, “but we’re adjusting to what it looks like to be a musician in 2020.”

To listen to “Rockefeller” and other music by Burdett, visit

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