Cover photo © 2022 Bob Kieser
You might assume that the man who once held two full-time and three part-time jobs at the same time, used to play college football, acted in university plays (and an off-Broadway play), composed a musical soundtrack, landed a role in a short silent film, and won three different awards in the same year at the International Blues Challenge is an exceptionally skilled multi-tasker, and you would be correct. Iowa born Kevin Burt won the Best Solo/Duo Act Award, the Best Solo/Duo Guitarist Award, and the Lee Oskar Award for Best Harmonica Player playing as a one-man band at the 34th Annual International Blues Challenge in 2018. And, if there had been an award for most beautiful singing voice, he would likely have captured that honor as well. Not being one to rest on his laurels, Burt has been making good use of his multiple talents since that victory, and Blues Blast Magazine was lucky enough to catch up with him recently to hear about his many ongoing projects.
Burt was recognized by the Governor of Iowa as one of the Midwest’s top blues heritage educators and is a registered artist and artist educator with the State of Iowa Arts Council. He frequently uses his talents as both a musician and an educator to introduce children to the blues through the Blues in the Schools program.
“The Iowa folk life commission was asked by the Smithsonian to put together live performances to be shown on the National Mall in Washington DC, and they asked me to put together a program about the history of the blues in the State of Iowa. I had to do my research and do interviews, but I put together a program which was vetted and approved by the Smithsonian, and I was a living exhibit on the National Mall for Iowa’s Sesquicentennial. Then I thought this would be cool to present in schools, so I started working with the local blues societies and their Blues in the Schools programs. I started in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, and it has grown and expanded to include the Mississippi Valley Blues Society, the Plattsburg (New York) Blues and Jazz Society, and blues societies in Illinois and Seattle.”
Burt also conducted week-long residencies, working with students to learn to play blues harmonica. He’s worked with a variety of grade levels, with the youngest being children in the third grade.
“It helps kids with ear training and improvisation, which are two components that are difficult for teachers to explain to kids. Teachers are taught to teach from paper, but music is not just what is written on paper. It is also being able to find that release. Nobody is supposed to feel like they are working music. There is a reason we say, ‘I play music’ and not ‘I work music’.”
Burt has also authored and published a book on how he taught himself to play harmonica which will help extend his reach to a broader audience of students. The book, which is put together as a classroom method, is entitled Just Play It, and received an endorsement by Hohner. Burt has also been reaching out to youth through his shows. Many blues fans have noted that it seems difficult at times to get younger audiences to appreciate the blues, but Burt seems to be making progress toward that goal.
“One of the things I’ve been working on is creating opportunities to do collaborative shows with local hip-hop and rap artists, like Benny the Jet, who has some national online presence and is connected with internationally touring acts. Working with someone that has a much younger demographic is a cool and frightening beast for me as an artist because it is a brand-new exposure for many of these folks. They just know they are coming to a hip hop show, then they get exposed to this other sound. For me, I get to use it as an educational moment and remind them that hip-hop doesn’t exist without the blues. It’s just another evolutionary step of the blues.
“You know the black music experience is the only one where when you change the music composition, you change the name, and we have a new genre. If you rap half a song in a country song, it’s still a country song, but if you do that in a blues song, it’s now a rap song. If you change the beat a little bit and make the bass more the lead instrument it now becomes funk. We don’t just call it blues. And the Southern Rock Category has never included anybody black. Every blues band that played up-tempo blues and is guitar driven and from the south could have been placed in that category, but it is surprisingly color-coded. But I am expanding my personal fan base with this younger audience. I hear from them all the time that they never really listened to the blues before, but they love what I’m doing. And then they see not only me, but they also see people who influenced me, because I don’t just make the music, I am a fan as well.”
Burt has needed to learn more about technology to stay connected with his newly expanding fan base who rely primarily on social media. Luckily, however, he has two daughters who can offer advice in that area.
“I have to understand how to be present on social media to maintain that connection with the younger audience. Instagram, Tik Tok, Reels, they are all necessary tools in order to access a different generation, and it’s not going to deter any of my longstanding fans. They are still going to see my schedule and find out where I’m playing and show up. My younger daughter, Phoebe, is in college currently and is trying to create opportunities for me to perform at her university. My oldest daughter, Delaney, is 23 and is going to serve as my social media expert. She’s going to be the person to help me gain an understanding on how to use and modify social media because it’s just becoming more and more a necessary piece.”
While Burt continues to play as a one-man band, he is also collaborating with musician Ken Valdez, to put together a full band.
“My intent is to put myself in a position to get myself off the side stages. People have a tendency to not want a solo act on the mainstage because not all solo acts have a command of a big stage, and we all pay for the sins of the past. I’ve got festivals turning their heads, but they are waiting for me to have a band in the picture, so I’m teaming up with Ken Valdez. He’s a powerhouse on guitar and a hell of a songwriter, and we’re trying to put together a nice rhythm section to go with us.”
Although he has been performing as a one-man band for nearly twenty years, Burt was actually a front man in a band before he was a solo artist. He was asked how those two experiences differ from each other.
“The biggest thing is with a full band you need to have rehearsal time to create transitions. My transition when I’m solo is usually telling stories. When I have a band, we can make musical transitions, and that is different for me. It’s powerful too, when it’s done right. Working with Ken (Valdez) helps with that because he is incredibly knowledgeable about how instruments play with each other, so having the opportunity to work with him on that level is awesome. It’s an education for me for sure.”
Like nearly every artist, the pandemic created some huge challenges for Burt’s career, which was just starting to skyrocket after his award sweep at the International Blues Challenge.
“Everything for my career was on a huge uptick and then the entire world shut down and I was told that what I do is not an essential function. And you can’t socially distance at a concert, so I was the complete opposite of what needed to happen. To know that can happen is more than humbling, but it also puts me in a position where now I know, from this point forward, every opportunity I get to hit a stage might be the last time I get to hit the stage—I’m not guaranteed a next time. Something can come along and take it away.
“Thankfully the good folks at Gulf Coast Records, Mike Zito and Guy Hale, did what they could do to keep all their artists afloat. I was able to record an album which debuted at number three on the billboard charts, and I was nominated for a blues music award. But I know I don’t have control over the industry or the awards. What I do have control over is the performance. Every time I perform it is the last time, unless I’m blessed with the next opportunity, and so if you put me out there, I’m giving you everything I got. That is what COVID taught me.”
While Burt is an excellent songwriter, he may be best known for his extremely creative interpretations of well-known cover songs, such as his incredibly moving, bluesified version of Eleanor Rigby, which he played during the finals at the International Blues Challenge.
“For me, with cover songs, the reason I choose to do them is that they have already been done right, so I play a game. Do you remember the old telephone game where you whisper something, and it goes through several people and when it comes back to you it’s totally different? Well, when I sit down to learn a song, I listen to it enough that I learn the basic shape of the song and the lyrics of the song and then I won’t listen to it again. I play it like I think I remember it, and it naturally forms its own shape that is a little bit different than the original. When I’m performing it, it becomes my story. I have to think about how it relates to my reality, my emotions, in order to connect that story to my life. The cover songs I do are surprisingly personal. There is a story deeper than the story I’m comfortable telling on stage sometimes.”
Burt is on track to have a new album released this coming May which he will record with a full band. He noted that the new album will be a bit more cover driven. He will also be touring with the same band that backs him on the album. And, while he is excited about that upcoming release, he noted that he has another goal he hopes to achieve soon.
“Both my daughters sing and one of the things I would love most is to incorporate them into my world. My wife, Nicole, also has a beautiful voice and I’m trying to convince her to sing in public, but her anxiety level keeps her from stepping out on the stage. But ultimately, I would love the opportunity to do one or two songs with them. One of the things I try to do on my stage is to get people to see visions, parts of my soul and my world. My family is a big part of that, so trying to incorporate that into some of the shows is a big deal for me. My wife and I are getting ready to celebrate our 28th year of marriage and while it hasn’t always been butterflies and rainbows, at the end of the days we wake up most of the time and see each other and smile, and that’s a blessing. And I have two daughters who don’t think I’m a complete nerd and if I say ‘I love you’ they will say ‘I love you’ back no matter with whom they are standing, and that is a blessing too. My family is my whole world.”
You can keep up with this sensational artist’s many projects, see details about his tour, and purchase his albums at https://kevinburtmusic.bigcartel.com. And you can find out more about Kevin Burt’s instructional book, Just Play It, at www.westmusic.com