Solly Burton keeps a mandolin hanging on the wall near his computer. When the Indiana State University senior tires from working on a paper for his music business degree, he pulls down the instrument and begins to play. His calloused left fingers move deftly across the neck, holding chords, while his right fingers fly across the strings, combining to create the unmistakable Solly sound.
When Solly moves to the living room couch, he picks up a different mandolin and begins playing a tune from memory.
“I don’t call it practice,” he said. “Practice is like work. I just pick them up and play them. I’ve got them all over the house.”
Barney Burton calls the mandolin playing his son’s therapy, a friend for Solly to talk with when no one is around.
“It’s been an honor being his dad so that I can enjoy him relaxing. I wake up to music. I go to bed and he’s lulling me to sleep,” he said. “It’s a real sweet honor to have him in the house.”
For Susan Burton, hearing her son play throughout the day opens him like a book.
“You can tell the mood he’s in by what he’s playing,” she said.
In that house on a farm near Graysville, Ind., Solly has honed his award-winning sound. He has won the top prize at many festivals, including his first national championship when he was just 16 years old. When he won his second national mandolin championship in 2011, judges selected him because of the tone he produced. “It wasn’t tinny or clangy – a nice, fat, rich sound, I guess,” Solly said describing it.
Brent McPike, an Indiana State faculty guitarist and Solly’s playing partner at gigs around the country, quoted a graduate school guitar professor in saying a musician’s number one priority should be quality of sound.
“That’s what separates the sound of B.B. King from other blues guitar players. In three notes, you can tell it’s Willie Nelson singing because of the sound. Solly’s got a sound like nobody else,” McPike said. “At 5-foot-8 and 145 pounds, with all the engines he’s worked on and wrenches he’s turned, he’s a Popeye.” That arm strength allows Solly to control and play his instrument in a way different from other musicians to create a richer sound. “If Bill Monroe heard Solly Burton play, his jaw would drop. He never got the tone Solly does,” he said.
From wrangling hogs, when his father raised them, to farming corn and soybeans and repairing trucks and four wheelers to resell, Solly’s story has been one of working the land and following the adventure of where the mandolin has taken him. Flipping through the pages of Solly’s life, one finds that birds make a frequent appearance. He has caught wild birds while walking down the streets of Nashville and a wild duck in Washington D.C. He’s caught almost every species of wild bird that visits the farm. To each, he gives what he calls a “forced petting session” before releasing them.
“He’s kind of amazing,” Barney said. “He’s a bird guru. We were driving pigs one day and he came up with a cardinal. He just walked along and picked it up.”
Solly’s raised a quail that his mother, Susan, found on the side of the road. Now, he has a pet cowbird that lives in the house and mimics the cockatoo in the cage across from it. But Solly’s greatest love comes for the flock of about 50 chickens.
“You know how people carry their cats and love on them? That’s how Solly treats his chickens,” Barney said.
“I like dogs and cats, but chickens and birds are my favorite,” Solly said.
One chicken became immortalized on the CD “From Far Beyond the Pond,” released on St. Patrick’s Day in 2012. The CD features McPike and Burton playing with Nan McEntire, ISU emerita folklorist and whistle player. McEntire taught McPike and Burton some of the tunes she had learned during a Fulbright scholarship in Ireland. She couldn’t remember the name of one jig that lasts less than two minutes on the CD.
“Solly thought about it and said, ‘Let’s call it The Black Hen. Mrs. Black is a great hen’,” McEntire said.
McEntire described it as a joy listening to Solly play the mandolin.
“Solly is not a mechanical player,” she said. “He’s an artistic player. He’s got the speed and, as they say, ‘the chops.’ He plays with remarkable insight, really, beyond his years.”
She said Solly “absorbed” the Irish music. Solly learns music by ear, by listening to it and figuring out the notes that give each tune life.
“It goes into his consciousness,” she said. “He understands the structure of each tune. He can play and improvise.”
McPike said Burton’s gifts of patience and tenacity combine to help him in learning tunes by listening to them without the aid of sheet music.
“You have to love it enough to develop a system to get done what you need to get done,” he said. “He has the patience and tenacity and has cultivated the discipline, so to others, it’s a mystery.”
When Solly learns a tune, he does so note by note simply by listening. He prefers learning by ear for the challenge of it.
“Anybody can read the music to something,” he said. “I have to actually work it out. But, I can do that faster than I can read something anyway.”
When the director of a classical quintet in Rochester, N.Y., asked Solly to play with them, it became a challenge for all involved. To perform with the quintet, Solly needed to play the “Vivaldi Mandolin Concerto” from sheet music. He learned it in three weeks.
“My classical sheet music stuff is not that great,” Solly said. “They couldn’t play jazz or swing by ear or improvise, but by working together we made it happen. It was jazz on a page.”
“It was a learning experience for both of them,” Susan said.
McPike works with Solly on sight reading at the beginning of each weekly lesson and said his goal is to prepare Solly to pass auditions for pit bands or orchestras that require sight reading skills.
“Also, I want to plant seeds for him being able to write arrangements of his own some day,” McPike said. “While his sight reading ability is not a strong suit, it has improved. He always has a pretty humble and teachable attitude.”
Learning music by ear is like learning a language by listening and absorbing it. A child learns to speak a language first and then learns the alphabet and words. “To him, it’s basically a spoken language,” McPike said about Solly and music. “Here at school, he’s learning the syntax. We’re showing him what he knows with theory and reading.”
Solly was already taking fiddle lessons from Wabash Valley music legend Louie Popejoy when his family found a mandolin at a garage sale on U.S. 41. Solly learned the joy of musical language on that mandolin, but he learned to speak from Jethro Burns, Django Reinhardt and Dave Apollon – all jazz musicians from the 1920s and 30s.
“They’re all improvisers,” Solly said of his heroes.
While Solly’s favorite music comes from early jazz and Dixieland swing, he also plays bluegrass and is learning Brazilian choro music with McPike. He’s also been learning Russian folk tunes from a CD given to him by a family friend.
“There’s plenty for me to learn. There’s no reason to write. I’ve got a whole list of tunes I want to learn,” he said.
“His musical interest, it’s going in steps,” Susan said about Solly writing his own music in the future. “It’s getting there. It’s just not there yet.”
While McEntire said it will be interesting to see where Solly’s music takes him, Solly doesn’t know what will happen after he graduates in May. He knows he will continue playing gigs with McPike, giving mandolin lessons and recording CDs.
“We have a lot of fun playing together,” Solly said.
McPike grew up playing music from the 20s and 30s with his grandfather. It’s the same music he now plays with Solly. Soon after meeting, the two found that their musical backgrounds and styles fit together.
“Number one, we understood where each other is coming from musically. Number two, I could be my musical self with him,” McPike said about wanting to perform with Solly. “We’re really built to play with each other just by the design of life.”
McPike, an acclaimed guitarist, described his best attribute as his accompaniment ability. “When you have a great soloist like Solly, I can come and fill in and keep the baseline,” McPike said. “Playing with him has started a new chapter in my life, allowing me to work more efficiently with a higher quality of work than usual.”
The next chapter and the next remain waiting for the champion mandolin player to write them as he decides what he wants to do after graduation. Solly knows that music will grace those pages as he continues to learn and become a better player.
“Music is like a book that doesn’t run out of pages because there are always more tunes to learn,” he said.
Jennifer Sicking, GR ’11, is the editor of Indiana State University Magazine.