Bruce Burch, the successful country music songwriter, didn’t offer much of a hint of his future career among classmates at Gainesville High School during the 1960s.
Charlie Strong, who was a senior when Burch was a junior, said he was the last person he would ever think would be a songwriter. “He was a big, tough, hard-nosed football player,” Strong recalls of Burch, who died March 12.
Burch told Strong that the music of singer-songwriter-actor Kris Kristofferson resonated with him, admitting that “I couldn’t sing a lick,” but that creating songs was what he wanted to do with his life.
Burch was primarily a defensive back on the Red Elephants’ successful teams in 1968-70. He played some as a running back.
The 1968 team, which included Tommy West, a star who later played for Tennessee and coached college football, won the North Georgia Class AA championship. Strong was quarterback on that team. The Elephants lost their first four games before winning nine straight. They lost 6-0 to St. Pius in the state championship game.
Burch’s 1969 team that went 11-2 also won the North Georgia AA championship before losing to North Springs in the state championship 28-21. Strong was co-captain of that team and remembers how Burch was so disappointed he couldn’t play because he had appendicitis and was in the hospital. Burch was sorely missed in the defensive backfield that game, Strong said.
Burch was co-captain and most valuable player of the 1970 team that went 11-1 and won the Northeast Georgia championship. Strong won the MVP honor the previous year.
Besides being a good football player and great songwriter, Strong said what he will remember most about Bruce Burch is that “he was the most beautiful soul, sweet and kindhearted person I ever knew.”
That sentiment was reflected in Burch’s activities outside of writing No. 1 hits for some of country music’s biggest stars. He helped found an annual concert in Gainesville in memory of his friend and Country Music Hall of Fame songwriting colleague, John Jarrard, also of Gainesville. That concert series has continued over two decades and has benefitted a number of local charities.
Allen Nivens, a Gainesville musician and businessman, recalls growing up watching The Times sports page, where updates were given on athletes who were making national news. He was more impressed, however, to see two Gainesville natives making it big and getting recognition in a field other than sports, Jarrard and Burch.
Nivens became friends with Burch when the late Mike Banks and other local citizens asked him to chair the John Jarrard Foundation.
Jarrard and Burch had been coming back from Nashville to Gainesville to hold fundraising concerts for the Gainesville High School Booster Club. It started at Henry O’s restaurant on West Washington Street, then moved to the Civic Center. After Jarrard died, Nivens said, Banks and others asked Burch to continue the concerts, bringing performers from Nashville and forming the foundation.
Nivens chaired the foundation for 14 years and got to know Burch better. Most aspiring musicians trying to make it in Nashville usually have to work two or three other jobs to support themselves and their families, Nivens said. Burch once told him about taking a job as a desk clerk at a hotel on the night shift when things weren’t as busy. When there was a lull, Burch would go into one of the hotel room’s bathrooms where the acoustics were good and play his guitar. Perhaps some of Burch’s best songs came out of a hotel room bathroom.
Burch was a very friendly person, open to helping anybody with their music or anything else he could, Nivens said. “He truly helped hundreds of people,” Nivens said.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; 770-532-2326; or firstname.lastname@example.org. His column publishes weekly.