Tré Burt was standing on a stage in Philadelphia in early 2023 when the latest bit of bad news arrived: His grandfather, a native of that very city, was dead. It wasn’t entirely unexpected. For years, Tommy Burt had struggled with early-onset dementia, slipping away a bit more each time Burt saw him. Burt even began recording his grandfather, letting his tape recorder roll as they had some of their final conversations. He wanted to preserve those moments, however repetitious or fragmented they might be, before the opportunity vanished forever. In fact, Traffic Fiction—Burt’s third album on Oh Boy Records and an unexpected musical reinvention rooted in his new and idiosyncratic version of classic soul—also preserves their relationship by committing another key piece of it to tape. The soul that animates so many of these 14 tracks? That was the music shared by grandfather and grandson.
Burt’s California childhood was not easy. His parents split when he was young, so he would often shuttle between their houses in Sacramento and the Bay Area. He was a bit of a wild child, too. From time to time, though, he would accompany his father to work at a plant nursery, riding shotgun in a 1975 Cadillac Seville as they listened to The Delfonics and Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye and The Temptations. Those drives were his sanctuary, that music their blessed score.
But as Burt became a musician himself, he was a peripatetic troubadour, tapping into American folk and blues partly as a matter of necessity—it’s not sensible to busk, after all, with some sophisticated band at your back. Bits of those other roots and compositional ambitions finally emerged on 2021’s You, Yeah, You, the vivid result of Burt’s first proper studio sessions. On Traffic Fiction, they are in full bloom, from the sweet country-soul surrealism of the title track to the skywriting rock of “2 For Tha Show,” Burt as urgent and commanding as he’s ever been. Traffic Fiction is the sound of Burt confidently bending a sentimental past to his present will.
To get to this new alchemy of soul, dub, and more than a little punk, Burt returned to the basics—self-recording in sequestered silence. During a Canadian tour, he set aside a few days to stay in a friend’s spare apartment and write, renting enough instruments from the affordable gear emporium Long & McQuade to build a makeshift studio for his GarageBand demos. The title track soon emerged, its effortless magnetism prompted by a poem he’d written about stupid city congestion and a piece by saxophonist and singer Gary Bartz.
Burt recognized he had found the sound of the next album, so he booked another rural cabin in Canada for 9 days and rented more guitars, basses, and the same keyboard he’d bought during the You, Yeah, You sessions. For the better part of a lifetime, Burt had told himself he didn’t have the chops to sing like those childhood heroes from the Cadillac days. But now, as he built his one-man-band demos before returning to Nashville’s The Bomb Shelter to work with a trusted band of pals and esteemed producer Andrija Tokic, his versions of those sounds poured out in circumspect love songs and joyous tunes of existential reckoning. His grandfather was dying. The world was struggling with a pandemic and the specter of a third world war. But Burt gave himself permission to have fun and be funny, to let these songs lift him and, eventually, maybe others, too.