Tiny Tim’s 1996 album Girl concludes with “Fourteen,” a song that declares, “I’m just an ordinary man.” The author of “Fourteen,” though, is anything but average. A lifelong resident of Dallas, Texas, James “Bucks” Burnett has written ad copy for Warner Bros., worked as a butler for Small Faces bassist Ronnie Lane, archived for Talking Heads couple Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth and managed and produced for Tiny. His most unconventional achievement, however, is opening the world’s first eight-track museum, a charming slice of weirdness that descended on Dallas’s Deep Ellum neighborhood in late 2010.
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On Saturday, the museum extends its reach by opening a permanent East Coast branch, at the Orphic Gallery in Roxbury, New York. When asked to explain why he created a pair of shrines to the eight-track, Burnett offers that he did it to make space in his garage. But the truth is more inspiring than spring cleaning.
Burnett’s love affair with the eight-track began at a garage sale in 1988. A chance encounter with a Fab Four tape sparked the fire. “I was digging through this box,” he says. “Just a box of various things. But there was a Beatles’ White Album eight-track, and I thought, ‘That would be kinda cool.’ Even by 1988, a Beatles eight-track looked kind of exotic. So I bought it. And then I got the perverse idea: ‘How long would it take to assemble a complete Beatles eight-track collection?'”
Two decades and 3,000 eight-tracks later–including the entire Beatles catalogue, which took five years to collect–Burnett hit on the idea of opening a museum dedicated to the eight-track specifically, but also to promoting “the history of all recorded sound formats, from the 1800s when Thomas Edison invented the wax cylinder on up through the iPod.”
In addition to walls lined with eight-tracks, eight-track players, and eight-track advertisements, the Dallas location features 78s, 45s, cassettes, paper vinyl, Hip Pocket records, and something called a folding eight-track. The New York branch will display similar artifacts, plus “the Sinatra,” a Frank Sinatra/Antonio Carlos Jobim collaboration considered to be the rarest eight-track. The tapes aren’t just for gawking at, though; they’re there to move people, and start dialogues.
“The interaction begins when I give a very brief tour, then open it up to questions, and then we typically have this random conversation about something on the wall that might have inspired them,” says Burnett. “But then people wander in who are strangers to me and the group that I’m hopefully entertaining, and they hear what we’re talking about, and then everybody’s talking! I end up with a room full of cool people, actually standing in a room full of cool stuff, talking about music. It could be a conversation about album covers, ticket stubs, conceiving children to pre-recorded music–it’s always different. But, it’s always about the same thing: People who love music getting together to talk about it and look at some of it.”
An exhibit at the Roxbury location, “Conceived in Cars,” will focus on “the central role of the automobile in the development of eight-track technology,” according to the Eight Track Museum website. In 1965, the eight-track emerged as the first way to listen to albums in cars.
“The first Beatles album released on eight-track was Rubber Soul,” explains Burnett. “Can you imagine being a teenager with your first car, in late ’65, early ’66. You buy this Mustang, and its got this weird player in it. And you go to a music store, and you buy the new Beatles album on eight-track. You’re driving around listening to the Beatles’ new album while almost every other car that you see is listening to whatever the DJ is playing. And that was a great feeling of choice, control, freedom.”
Ultimately, though, the Eight Track Museum is more than a place to connect with music history. It’s an ode to collecting, and the joys of discovery.
“My problem is, anything relating to pop culture that’s cool and vivid, I want it,” admits Burnett. “I can be just as excited about a brand new issue of Mojo magazine, if they get somebody cool on the cover, as I might be about, say, an old, 1967 issue of Rolling Stone. They’re both just cool things. A lot of people just get a certain amount of comfort out of [collecting]. They look at that stack of records or magazines or books and it takes them back to how they felt before life got more complicated.”
The Eight Track Museum’s New York branch opens this Saturday, October 13, at 4PM. Frantz and Weymouth will be on hand for a meet and greet from 6-8PM. For more information, visit eighttrackmuseum.com.