Tré Burt is no stranger to coincidence. Much of his music career has been marked by chance encounters and happy accidents, the kind of stuff you see in movies but rarely experience in real life. It'd be easy to chalk such happenstance up to luck, then, but for Burt, being in the right place at the right time is a phenomenon born from his lifelong passion for music and his unwavering adherence to living authentically as an artist.
In 2018, the Sacramento-based folk singer-songwriter self-released his debut album, Caught It From the Rye. The album, which showcases Burt's literary songwriting and lo-fi, rootsy aesthetic, landed him a handful tour dates and some positive press, but Burt had no idea just how far it would get him: to a spot on the roster at John Prine's Oh Boy Records.
"I had no press release; I didn’t have a manager or anything," he says. "I just put it up online. Some people responded to it and wrote some things, but I thought it would kind of stop there."
Oh Boy's Director of Operations Jody Whelan discovered Burt, who counts Prine among his "top three favorite artists of all time," while browsing new music online in early summer 2019. After a series of conversations and a few of those happenstance meetings, Whelan and Oh Boy agreed to re-release Burt's debut album, Caught It From the Rye. That decision made Burt one of only two new artists to sign to Oh Boy's roster in the past 15 years.
"I’m over the moon," Burt says. "John Prine is one of my top three favorite artists of all time and has been for a long time."
Burt was drawn to music from an early age. He was raised with his grandfather's passion for soul music, like the Temptations, Nina Simone, Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye. A school project on Woody Guthrie opened his eyes to the power of folk songwriting. And he discovered one of his songwriting heroes, Neil Young, through his older brother, Joey.
"Music was always important to whatever our family was doing," he says. "It was always the soundtrack. My brother played guitar originally. I didn't play guitar. I skateboarded and got into trouble a bunch. But he was always in a band or something like that... It was this world of cool that I had no idea about. It was an attractive thought. So I got into listening to modern singer-songwriters."
He was brought up in a religious household but eventually decided to step away from his family's beliefs, which, at the time, he thought of as fairy tales. He attributes his "curiosity for seeking out some sort of other truth" to the dissonance he felt between how he was raised and how he actually saw the world.
"Ever since I was small, I never bought into the stuff," he says. "It always seemed very fanciful, like the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus or something. That led to wanting to leave college and go somewhere else to find truth. That's what made me bury my nose into being introspective and hashing things out through song."
Burt spent some time at San Francisco State University but dropped out his first year after he realized he learned more busking on the street than he did sitting in a classroom. It was there he had one of those chance encounters, with a particularly generous stranger who dropped $1,000 into his guitar case while he was performing one afternoon. That act of kindness would send Burt's life in a wildly different direction.
"I had a meltdown and I planned to drop out," he says. "I used the money to book a tour up to Portland, OR. It was very small, playing in pizza shops and bars and whatnot. Nothing really went as planned at all. My final destination was Portland, OR. Right when I got there my car broke down. So I had to stay there and get a job to repair my car. Then I got a house and just started living there, which ended up being for about five years."
While living in Portland, Burt worked a handful of odd jobs, his favorite of which was as a maintenance technician for condo buildings around the city. Burt began work on what would become Caught It From the Rye during this particularly fruitful period of time.
"I had a lot of freedom doing that job," he says. "I had my own office. While I wasn’t doing anything I’d bring my guitar in and either write in the office or go on the roof. On one of those rooftops I wrote ‘Caught It from the Rye’ and ‘Moth’s Crossing.’"
After Portland, Burt headed to Australia. He made the move to follow a girlfriend, with whom he parted ways shortly after arriving in his new home. And while the relationship didn't work out, the new environment did wonders for his songwriting. Burt rented a small "dungeon" apartment behind a friend's house and songs began pouring out of him.
"I called it a dungeon because there were theater curtains hanging off the walls," he explains. "On the ceiling there were rats crawling. You could see the fabric moving. It was very small and cramped — not ideal living conditions. It turns out it was great writing conditions, though. I wrote another batch of songs that I made an EP of called Takes from the Dungeon."
Takes from the Dungeon hinted at what Caught It From the Rye would bring: DIY folk dripping with emotion and grounded in Burt's singular perspective. Two songs from that EP — "Franklin's Tunnel" and "Only Sorrow Remains" — would make it onto Caught It From the Rye.
Burt eventually moved back to the States with an album's worth of material. He called up Ben Burney, a pal from his San Francisco days who runs Primitive Ear Studios in Los Angeles, and booked time for the Caught It from the Rye sessions. As Burt explains it, he "took the best batch of songs from that period of time and made it a record."
2020's Caught It From the Rye is a natural successor to Takes from the Dungeon. Trading in his iPhone voice memo app for a recording studio, he was able to flesh out his lo-fi sound with harmony vocals and lush, acoustic instrumentation. Tracks like "Real You" and "What Good" bristle with hard-earned wisdom, while the title track shows Burt to be a masterful student of his songwriting heroes, who include Prine, Young, Townes Van Zandt, Bob Dylan and Nina Simone.
It's been a whirlwind year for Burt, who — in typically prolific fashion — is already thinking ahead (and writing ahead) to his future albums with Oh Boy. In the meantime, though, he's happy to have found an artistic home that suits his passion.
"Part of me is trying not to think about it at all," he says, laughing. "It’s the whole ‘if you look down, you’ll fall’ sensation. But on the other hand, I’m over the moon. I’m excited to add to the catalog with Oh Boy, more than anything."