Interview by Mark Thompson
In this day and age where celebrity status is often conveyed on people with little discernible skills or talent, it is refreshing when the spotlight finally lands on someone who has worked hard, paid their dues, and actually deserves recognition for their talent.
Such is the case with Kevin “B.F.” Burt,” the singer and multi-instrumentalist who created quite a buzz on Beale St. in Memphis during the first three days of this year’s International Blues Challenge, sponsored by the Blues Foundation. Performing on Saturday for the final round, Burt gave a stunning performance that left little doubt who would finish at the top in the Solo/Duo category. Before that announcement was made, Burt received the Lee Oskar Award as the best harmonica player in the competition and the Cigar Box Guitar Award recognizing him as the best guitar player in the Solo/Duo category.
Making a clean sweep of those awards was a shock to the intrepid musician, who had no intentions of participating in the Challenge. “My good friend, Ken Valdez, was selected with his band to represent the state of Minnesota. One night Ken called to say they had won, then asked me if I was entering the Iowa Challenge. I told him no, it took too much time, but after much hemming and hawing, he finally convinced me to give it a try. So I contacted the Central Iowa Blues Society to sign-up. As it turned out, that was the last day to register for the Challenge”.
The Iowa competition is unique in that the eight affiliated Blues societies in the state can host their own preliminary round, sending their representatives to the final, state-wide round. “That format certainly makes you want to sing the best that you can. That is an honest way to get to Memphis. It is not a popularity contest. In order to make the music strong and alive, I have to represent me and earn my way. After all was said & done, I was selected to represent Iowa. A former President of the Blues Society, Jeff Wagner, had been encouraging me to enter as as solo act forever. Honestly, as I look back, it wasn’t the time for this to happen. If this had happened to me at a younger age, I wouldn’t have been in a position to do what needs to be done in order to make the step into the world that is now possible, especially with my kids”.
Burt is no stranger to the spotlight. He went to Huron Collage in South Dakota on a football scholarship, earning All-American honors. But a dislocated knee his senior year brought an end to his dream of an NFL career. He tried out for the Hamilton Tigercats of the Canadian Football league but was soon released. Returning to Iowa, he decided to pursue graduate school at the University of Iowa. Needing a job to help with finances, he sent out seven resumes, received five job offers, and accepted all of them.
“I just decide to work and not go to school. One day I was sitting in an office singing, and my boss, Ethel Madison, came around the corner. She told me that I sure could sing, then encouraged me to audition for a blues band that her son was putting together. I really didn’t think that I could sing that well. After two weeks, she invited me to her house for dinner. When I got there, there was no dinner, just an audition! At the end, the fellas handed me a book full of song lyrics to learn. The band was called the Blues Instigators. Back in 1995, we represented Iowa in the Band category at the Blues Challenge, first band to play all original material. We stayed together for quite a few years after that.”
He kept singing with the band while the day jobs started dwindling, eventually getting down to a lone job. The situation called for a leap of faith not only for him, but his wife as well. “ I walked in the door one evening, told her that I was going to quit my day job to focus on music. She looked at me and said, it’s about time. She was pregnant with our first child. So I became a full-time musician. The problem was that I was a singer who didn’t play any instruments, so I needed a band to support me. I think the Instigators thought that I would learn soon enough how tough the business is and be right back to the day job. In short order, I had lined up three to four, and sometimes six, gigs a week within a four hour radius. The other band members were still working their day jobs”.
“One night we opened for Long John Hunter at Buddy Guy’s Legends club. We had done a few shows with the Brooks family. Lonnie Brooks walked into the Green room as I was getting myself together. Mr. Brooks looked at me, asking me when was I going to pick-up a guitar. I told him I didn’t need to play, the guys in the band are with me. He chuckled, turned to Mr. Hunter, and said, Long John, tell him how you got started. I didn’t realized until that moment that they had grown up together. Mr. Hunter said, I went to a juke joint on a Friday night and saw my girl react to the dude playing guitar on stage. I said I can do that! So, the next day he went out and bought a guitar. The following week, Long John was on the stage. Lonnie looked over at me, told me to keep that in mind. On the way home from that show, the guys told me that they couldn’t keep it up any more. They were tired of doing long runs for a gig, then having to go to work the next morning”.
Holding back on telling his wife that he was on his own, the singer found himself in a small bar in Iowa City that was called Baldy’s at that time. When the owner walked by the table, Burt asked him if he ever considered doing live music. The owner indicated the bar was too small for a band, but Burt asked if a solo act would work.
“ He said he would do a solo act if it was me, asked me if I was doing a solo act. I told him I was thinking about it. He came back with, how about next Friday? This was on Thursday. So I finished my drink and went over to the Guitar Foundation. They had a little guitar that had been hanging in the shop for about twelve years. It was a Danelectro Convertible. Nobody touched that thing, it had dust caked on it. I asked for a price. He wanted to check his records but I said no, just give me a price for this unwanted art. He asked for $150, so I said $125. He countered with $140, so I said how about $75? I told him I also needed some harmonicas. He explained to me how cross harp is supposed to be done. I walked out with the guitar and four harps for $125”.
For a week, once his wife went to bed, Burt went down in the basement to practice both instruments. When Friday came, he suddenly realized that he needed a rack for the harps so he could play one while playing guitar, necessitating another trip to the guitar store. “The guy at the store asked me if I knew how hard it was to play a harp and guitar at the same time. I said, nope!That was the start. I found 3-4 other places that that would allow me to come in, playing for whatever I could get. After three weeks or so, there was a little place in Cedar Rapids called Checkers Tavern. I went to ask the owner, P.J. Harrington, about doing something on an off night. Told him I would play on Wednesday night for two hours for $50. He said he couldn’t do that, would give me $125 a night. I played that house gig for five years, learning how to play harmonica and guitar on his stage”.
“From that point until now, it has always been my hustle to perform. It has never been perfect, but it is what I do. My goal is for the audience to walk out having had a unique experience. I don’t want to be the next anything. Never fancied myself as a fantastic guitarist or anything special with a harmonica. My gift is my strong voice. I have been blessed to cross paths with the artists I admire, like the three Kings – B.B., Freddie and Albert on guitar. They said so much without a lot of notes, making you feel every note. You can tell it’s them after three notes. When I think about the sound I want to make on a guitar, those three jump into my head. For the harp, it is everyone from Sonny Boy Williamson – Rice Miller – to Brownie McGhee, everybody on the Chicago scene. The harmonica’s sound is a lot more diverse than people realize. It is a simple instrument, but simple isn’t easy.
Vocally, the singer’s influences include Bobby “Blue” Bland, Little Milton, Luther Vandross to Teddy Pendergrass, and Aaron Neville for his remarkable range. Growing up in the soul and R&B era, he made sure that he never forgot that blues also had rhythm. Listeners can readily hear Bill Withers impact on Burt’s vocal style. So meaningful is the Withers’ influence that Burt was moved to thank his idol personally. “For the last fifteen years, I have made it a point to personally thank the people who have impacted my life, to do it face-to-face so they know they made a difference. So I made a pilgrimage to Los Angeles to meet with Mr. Withers. It was cool that he was willing to make the time for me. We ended up hitting it off and hanging out for a lot longer than planned. He gave me some insight into finding a deeper pool of emotion as a performer than I ever allowed myself to tread in”.
“I also learned a lot from the guys in the Instigators. Matt Panek was with me forever, and much of what I do on guitar are from the things he encouraged me to learn. Everybody plays lead but not everybody likes to play rhythm guitar. Matt encouraged me to embrace that component. And the drummer, Eric Madison, who I refer to as the greatest man alive. He is one of those righteous souls that made this all possible, the son of the woman who heard me singing at work. He showed me things that he did as a drummer that helped me develop good timing. For harmonica, Dan Laughlin really influenced my sound on that instrument. And Dave Moore, another solo musician, who plays whatever he wants to, very amazing player. He did things with a harp and the rack that no one else was doing. And since I saw him do it, I figured that was what you were supposed to do. Everybody was supposed to strive for what Dave was doing, but they just hadn’t got there yet.
Burt is a strong proponent of blues and musical educational workshops. His research in preparation broadened his understanding of blues history in the state of Iowa. He teaches students what he believes, then challenges them to go out and prove him wrong. “ And they do! Iowa has played a more significant role in the blues world than Iowa will ever be given credit for. It is dead center in our country. If you are traveling through the country, it is hard not to go through Iowa. Waterloo, Iowa became an extension of the chitlin’ circuit because African-Americans migrated there from the south for employment opportunities at John Deere Manufacturing and Rath Meatpacking. Rath had one of the first integrated unions in the country. The same was true for cities along the river or were railway hubs. There communities had plenty of places to play. A small town like Oelwein once had five dance halls. Places like the Mississippi Delta or Chicago have a geographical imprint that determines how the blues are supposed to sound. Because Iowa is halfway to everywhere, there is no geographic imperative on how the music is supposed to sound”.
“I had a clean slate because I don’t know what blues from Iowa is supposed to sound like. My canvas is wide open. There has been a bit of backlash from some folks because I won the IBC but I played the Beatles “Eleanor Rigby,” which is not a blues song. Why can’t an African-American artist take a rock-n-roll song, turn it around, and give it back with a blues influence. The world doesn’t always see things that way. That is what rock did with the blues roots. When I look at the words to a song, I have to find a way to connect them with my life in order to be able to give them back. It has already been done right, otherwise I wouldn’t like the song. I can’t do a Beatles song as well as the Beatles. But if I am taking their words and showing you how they read in my neighborhood, that’s when I am paying homage to their influences. And I think my evil plan worked! If I had done that song first, people would probably be saying that song sucks”.
Burt certainly isn’t letting his success at the IBC go to his head. “When I played the IBC rounds, my goal was to look up at some point and see if the venue staff was standing there, listening to my music. Those people hear music every night on Beale St., so if I could make them stop, it was because they were hearing something unique. And, again, my evil plan worked. I got a reaction from the staff at each of the rooms I played. When they called my name for the Lee Oskar Harmonica Award, I thought I was getting the consolation prize. I was hanging out backstage when they announced the Cigar Box Award. I went into shock, and had the thought that they must feel real bad, because they gave me the double consolation prize. I knew that there was no way I was winning that shit now. When my name was announced for Solo/Duo, I went into overload shock. All of the other artists really brought it, so that was a real honor”.
“Now I am seeking assistance for how to do things on a different level – booking festivals in the US and internationally, putting together cross country tours. I have always been successful booking myself locally. ”
Kevin signed on with Tom Gold at Concerted Efforts Agency for bookings following his IBC win.
“I have the opportunity to step into the room, and I want to prove that I deserve a seat at the table. I want to earn that. There are plans to get into the studio and create a product that is release-worthy. In the past, I have invested in my family rather than the studio time. Now I have to make that investment. Maybe I should have done that 6-8 months ago. The songs are there, so we need to line up a studio and possibly a producer. I have never been considered a recording artist. I am a performing artist. Typically, I have been doing over 300 shows a year, with the record being 420 in one calendar year. With a wife and two kids, if I am not playing, I am unemployed. That it is not ok. My family is behind me 100%, as are the righteous souls in the world who have been there for me over the years. I look forward to the opportunities, whatever they end up being.”
Interview by Mark Thompson
For more info on Kevin “B.F.” Burt visit his website: bfburt.com