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The numbers, at first glance, don't add up. Three albums after playing for more than 30 years may not sound right, but nobody said the climb to the top of the blues world, especially for Michael Burks, would be easy.
In the late 1970s, Burks led a house band in an Arkansas club. Although his heart was in the blues, the job called for playing Top 40 funk, R&B covers, and the occasional original. But a representative of a Motown records subsidiary saw something in Burks when he was in his late teens and offered him a contract. There was a hitch, though -- the company wanted to cut out his father, who had helped him with music matters.
Burks was offended. "My father was the one who helped us all these years, and they just wanted to kick him to the side, not give him any kind of recognition for what he had done," he says. "And that kind of ticked me off."
Burks claims the label offered him $100,000, upped the figure to more than $1 million, then finally gave up. Burks thought he had done the right thing.
Later, he was surprised to hear of his father's reaction. "I think my dad was crying, 'Man, have you lost your mind?'"
He wouldn't be offered another record deal for nearly 20 years.
Perhaps it was the hard times during that period, including 11 years in which he didn't even pick up a guitar, that helped mold Burks' playing style, which is often compared to that of Albert King. On his Gibson Flying V (King's favorite guitar), Burks goes from Delta grit to contemporary, from full-on purism to accessible blues. The unifying factors: Burks' articulate fretwork and scruffy vocals.
Burks comes from a long line of musicians, including his father, who played bass alongside blues harmonica veteran Sonny Boy Williamson. The younger Burks was born in Milwaukee in 1957 and started playing a Roy Rogers guitar before the age of 5; he began as a leftie, but his father pushed him to play righthanded. When he was 6, his dad bought him a scaled-down Stratocaster, and he made his live debut, playing in front of friends and acquaintances at a cousin's gig. "They all was amazed at how good I played even at 6 years old," he recalls. "That was the first time playing I was nervous. I think that was also the last time. From then on, it was natural, like I belonged [on-stage]."
That's exactly where he spent the next several years after his family moved to Arkansas and opened the Bradley Ferry Country Club. He played mostly nonblues material. "After it got later in the night and everyone had a few drinks," he remembers, "we'd lay a little blues on them."
Then he married, and family responsibilities shifted his priorities. He worked as a plumber and later as a technician at defense goliath Lockheed Martin for 13 years. The guitar was often untouched.
But while going through a divorce, the instrument reemerged in his life. During the early 1990s, Burks visited his brother in Atlanta and saw a performance by Georgia bluesman Chick Willis, who invited Burks on-stage to play a couple of songs. "I ain't played in 11 years," he cautioned Willis. But by the end of their jam, Burks was overwhelmed with the crowd's response. "Them people were hollerin' and screamin,'" he recalls. "Then I thought, 'I'm going back to Arkansas and starting my own thing.'"
After dusting off the Gibson that he'd neglected for so long, he slowly reemerged on the Arkansas circuit and was eventually invited to play festivals, including the King Biscuit in Helena, Arkansas, and Springing the Blues in Jacksonville, Florida. "In my area, everybody was like, 'Yeah, Michael playin' again,' but getting out there on the road then, nobody know who you were," he says. "It was like starting all over again."
In 1999, he recorded From the Inside Out, financing the self-released effort with his income tax refund. Burks initially released the album as part of promotional packages to clubs and festival promoters. But fans at shows wound up buying most of them. The album earned Burks a spot on the nominee list for the 2000 W.C. Handy Award.
By 2000, he quit his day job at Lockheed Martin and took on music full-time. "It was either stay here [in Arkansas] and work this day gig or take a chance on Michael and play my music," he says. "Even the general manager wanted me to do it, telling me I had too much going on to stay at the plant. So that's what I did."
From the Inside Out, as well as Burks' reputation as an emerging blues virtuoso on the live music circuit, caught the attention of Alligator Records founder Bruce Iglauer, who signed him after months of following the bluesman from show to show. Burks' Alligator 2001 debut, Make It Rain, was praised by critics and fans who took note of the album's seasoned-veteran quality mixed with the drive of a young artist. This year's I Smell Smoke is evidence that older dogs can learn new tricks. "It's like going to another level," he says. "I gotta start all over again, but so far, it's working out great. I still feel like I got a lot of years left. You can't never worry about what done happened in the past. You got to concentrate on what you're gonna do in the future."