Eric Burton vividly remembers the first time he heard "Wichita Lineman." Before the singer teamed up with guitarist Adrian Quesada to form Grammy-nominated Austin band Black Pumas, he sometimes played music on downtown streets. Occasionally he’d check out others who were doing the same.
"The first time that I heard that song. I was busking in Austin," he recalls. "There was a guy carrying a guitar, and he asked me to stop to listen to him play. He played the Glen Campbell version for me and I was really floored. It's been one of my favorite songs since the first day I heard it."
Written by legendary songwriter Jimmy Webb in 1968, "Wichita Lineman" became a top-5 pop hit for Campbell, spurring dozens of other artists to record it. Among them was New Orleans funk band the Meters, who included it on their 1970 album "Struttin’" with Art Neville singing. When Burton suggested to Quesada that Black Pumas should record "Wichita Lineman," the guitarist immediately thought of the Meters’ version.
"I’ve had that album, "Struttin’," for a long time," Quesada said. "But funnily enough, I didn't really know much about that song. When Eric sent it to me, I was like, ‘I’ve heard that,’ but I had no idea it was a Glen Campbell hit. I just remember that if you're listening to that Meters record, it just out of nowhere is a different song. A lot of the Meters’ songs came out of funk grooves that they would jam — but here you have this song that can be played on an acoustic guitar around the campfire."
Still sequestered from touring amid the coronavirus pandemic, Burton and Quesada spent some of the down time a few weeks ago taking their best shot at the Meters’ arrangement of "Wichita Lineman." It’s being released Thursday as part of a four-song Amazon Original EP titled "The Electric Deluxe Sessions," along with newly recorded alternate versions of the songs "Color," "Fire" and "Know You Better" from their 2019 debut album.
RELATED: With debut album, Black Pumas take flight
It’s the second time in as many months the band has released a creative interpretation of a classic pop song that traces back to Burton’s busking days. They appeared on "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert" in mid-June to perform "Fast Car," a top-10 hit for Tracy Chapman in 1988.
"When I first met Eric, he was playing that song on Sixth and Congress," Black Pumas manager Ryan Matteson recalled. As the band picked up steam on tour last year en route to a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist, Burton began playing "Fast Car" solo acoustic near the end of the set.
It quickly connected not only with audience members but with Burton’s bandmates. "It was like the last song, or an encore, and we’d all scatter to get a bathroom break or water or beer or whatever," Quesada recounts of Burton’s solo moment onstage. "But we'd all end up running back to watch it. The first few nights, we were just holding back tears."
"I remember doing it at a festival here in Austin, and the response was cool," Burton says. "I’ve lived a nomadic kind of life myself, so I can really relate to the stance against complacency in that song. It just keeps me fired up."
Beyond the two recent cover songs, Burton and Quesada also have been writing new material. "It’s been hard to work a lot during the pandemic, to fully complete a song," Quesada said. "But we have at least an album or two’s worth of new ideas, anywhere from a full song to ideas on Eric’s phone to a demo I have here. They’re all over the place."
Burton can’t wait to get the new stuff down. "Any time we get asked this, I try not to give too much away — but I am just really excited about finishing these songs," he said. "I feel like the biggest thing people will take away from this next album is that Adrian and I know each other a bit more, and that we’ve established a really nice rhythm with which we do work together. So, yeah, I’m super stoked."