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“New” Talent Is an Old Hand: Michael Burks, September 10 at Blueport Junction PDF Print E-mail
Music - Feature Stories
Tuesday, 05 September 2006 22:35

Michael BurksWhen Michael Burks was 12, he wrote a letter to his idol B.B. King, "telling him that, hopefully, one day I could meet him and show him I could play like him," he said in a recent interview.

That wish actually came true when Michael was 39. In 1996, King celebrated his 71st birthday at a show in Little Rock, Arkansas, and Michael played alongside the blues icon. "All my life I'd been loving this man, admiring this man!" he said. It was a defining moment, and just the start of well-deserved recognition for Michael's lifelong immersion in the blues.

In 1959, when Michael Burks was just two years old, his father got him a child-sized guitar and taught him how to play. By the time Michael was five, he was absorbed in his father's 45- and 33-RPM records, learning by ear songs by the blues guitar gods of the time: T-Bone Walker, Freddie King, Albert King, and Albert Collins. And at six years old, Michael played his first gig at a juke joint in Arkansas.

It wasn't until many years later, in 1994, that Michael won the Blues Foundation's coveted Albert King Award for best "new" guitarist, and six years after that he was nominated as the Blues Music Awards' best "new" artist.

In between being a child prodigy and being nationally recognized for his talent, he paid his dues - touring, performing in a series of juke joints, working in a factory, getting married and divorced, and touring again.

Burks will be featured at a September 10 show at Blueport Junction (at River Drive and I-280 in Davenport), specifically to honor the many people who volunteered at the 2006 IH Mississippi Valley Blues Festival. Burks will offer up his scorching blues from 5 until 9 p.m., and admission is $7 for the general public and free for Mississippi Valley Blues Society members and blues-festival volunteers.

Pamela Dow of Blues on Stage noted in a review of a Burks show tha t "watching his incredible fretwork, ... you could feel the pure intensity pouring right off the strings. He went somewhere deep inside himself, completely caught up in the music, playing purely from a place within, reflecting the fire in his soul."

Some of that energy comes from Michael's having been around churches all his life. The phrase "taking us to church" signifies the kind of transcendence that can happen in audience members when Michael plays guitar and sings. "You preachin' the gospel anyway," Michael said, because "the blues is a story - not good or bad, but about life." He explained that he writes songs from life experiences that are "true. That's what blues is about - life, telling a story about things that done happened.

"If I write it, it has to mean something to me," he continued, "so when I go in front of an audience and play that song, that's why it has such a feel to it - because I put my all into it." Just a sampling of Burks-penned titles from his first album, 1997's From the Inside Out, hints at his personal troubles before his divorce in 1998: "Find Me a New Love," "Lyin', Sneakin', & Cheatin'," "Lonely Heart," and "Too Hard to Please." Michael's guitar has lava-fluid phrasing and employs lightning attacks as a call-and-response to his vocals to enhance the stories told in the lyrics.

When he was a schoolboy, Michael studied jazz guitar and learned how to read music. This was in Milwaukee, where Michael moved and lived until he was 13 - "and I hated every minute of it," said the avowed "country" man who's fond of catfishing. His father suffered a factory accident and moved the family back home to Camden, Arkansas. There they built three different juke joints, where Michael backed blues and soul legends touring the "chitlin' circuit," including Rufus Thomas, Little Milton, Johnnie Taylor, and O.V. Wright. Besides fronting his own band, by his mid-teens Michael had toured with West Coast great T-Bone Walker and played with the gospel group Clouds of Joy.

By his early 20s, Michael and his band were the attraction at the final family juke joint, a "modern-day" venue seating up to 500 people. When that closed, Michael got a blue-collar job at Lockheed Martin to take care of his wife and child, "but I really missed playing." More than a decade later, after separation from his wife, he "picked the guitar back up. This was in 1993 or '94. Everybody was all excited - it seemed like more excited than me. Even my father was excited."

As he continued working at Lockheed, Michael would play for local events on the weekend. In 1994, Michael and his band won first place in a blues contest in Little Rock, and that qualified them to enter a forerunner of the International Blues Challenge in Memphis - where Michael won the Albert King award for best new guitarist. "That opened a lot of doors," Michael recalled, and they got so busy playing that "I got to the point: ‘Do I want to stay at Lockheed or play?' I picked the music!"

Burks produced his own album in 1997 and played the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival (among others) in 1998. By 2000 he was signed to prestigious Alligator Records, where he put out two acclaimed albums, the second of which, I Smell Smoke, was nominated in 2004 for the Blues Music Award's best contemporary blues album, with the title song nominated for best song. That same year, Michael won the Living Blues award for best guitarist.

This year - at the ripe old age of 49 - Michael Burks was a recipient of the State of Arkansas's lifetime-achievement award.


To listen to the Reader interview with Michael Burks, visit (

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