Q&A with soulful singer; guitarist; and songwriter Kevin Burt, Iowa-based musician pays tribute to the late great Bill Withers

" Bill Withers' songs give timeless, emotional, insightful commentary on being. Love, loss, family, community, friendship, politics, just being. That never goes out of style.  He has given the world anthems for celebration, heartbreak, unity, life. For sure he has for me."

Kevin Burt: Tribute to Brother, Bill Withers

Gulf Coast Records will be released on January 5, 2024, the album titled "Thank You, Brother Bill: A Tribute to Bill Withers" from soulful singer; guitarist; and songwriter Kevin Burt and his band, Big Medicine. This is Burt’s second album for Gulf Coast Records, which released his "Stone Crazy" in October, 2020. Thank You, Brother Bill: A Tribute to Bill Withers was recorded at The Sound Box Recording Studio, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, by engineers Richard Shultz and Jon Limmer, with assistant engineers Daren Barker, Antonio Chalmers and Isaiah Holtz. The mixing and mastering was done by David Ferrell at Dockside Studios in New Orleans. For nearly 30 years, Kevin Burt has been electrifying audiences throughout the Midwest, dispelling the myth that true blues has no roots in Iowa. His soul-inspired presentation is unique, which consistently gets him compared to a range of artists like Bill Withers and Aaron Neville, with the ability to build an audience rapport that has been compared to B.B. King.

(Kevin Burt / Photo © by Delaney Burt)

Kevin is a self-taught musician (vocals, harmonica, and guitar) whose smooth, warm vocal presentation sets a mood of relaxed exhilaration, with a welcome mixture of serious music and infectious humor that audiences of all ages seem to enjoy. His voice and presence are powerful. His unique delivery ranges from the sweetest, fullest, juiciest come-on to the most playful growl.  Most people have been introduced to him as a one-of-a-kind solo performer; however, he is a remarkable entertainer and frontman with his band, Kevin Burt & Big Medicine, with featured guitarist Ken Valdez, who is, himself, a masterful and revered musician in the Minneapolis music scene. The rhythm section of Eric Douglas (drums) and the incomparable Scot Sutherland (bass) provide a solid foundation for a soulful, funky, blues experience. When you have the Blues, Kevin Burt and Big Medicine might not cure you, but they will make you feel better!

Interview by Michael Limnios                      Archive: Kevin Burt, 2020 interview

Special Thanks: Kurt Burt & Mark Pucci Media / Photos © by Delaney Burt

How do you think that you have grown as an artist since you first started making music?

My career started with me as just a vocalist. Over the years, I picked up guitar, harmonica, mostly by watching other musicians. Realizing quickly that all of moving parts need to be more than just present, everything needs to flow with the emotion of the story being told within the song. For me, that piece of my personal growth continues to evolve.

What has remained the same about your music-making process?

I try to only perform songs that have a connection to my story, songs that I have a “why” to perform. It’s not just, oh that sounds cool or I could sing that song. Even the songs I write. Some never make it out of my practice space. I have always tried to make that a priority. It keeps performances meaningful to me.

Why do you think that Bill Withers music continues to generate such a devoted following?

His songs give timeless, emotional, insightful commentary on being. Love, loss, family, community, friendship, politics, just being. That never goes out of style.  He has given the world anthems for celebration, heartbreak, unity, life. For sure he has for me.

"I do a Blues in the Schools program to give students an exposure to the Roots of American Music. Marketing is the biggest obstacle for anything in my opinion. If people constantly say or ask if “Blues is Dying” we are marketing its demise, because it’s not dying it’s just not allowed to be viewed as the music you listen to and feel vs the music you look at." (Kevin Burt / Photo © by Delaney Burt)

Do you have any interesting stories with Bill Withers; and about the making of the new album Thank You, Brother Bill?

In 2005, pretty early in my career, I was asked in an interview “if I could meet any artist…” my response was a list, but at the top was Bill Withers. To my surprise the person who asked me that also was a documentary filmmaker and they created the opportunity for me to meet Mr. Withers. I just wanted to tell him “Thank you” for the influence and inspiration he gave me. I was told I’d have 20 minutes and we spoke for nearly 2 1/2 hours. In that time it was like a masterclass on songwriting and connection between the music and the audience.  The lyrics and the music. The story I believe I’m telling and the story individuals needed to hear. I may never write a song that is as uniquely universal as “Lean on Me” but Mr. Withers opened my mind to the concept of being genuine a sincere with my journey’s stories. 

What moment changed your music life the most? What´s been the highlights in your life and career so far?

Aside from the honest, but cliché moments of my marriage to my wife of 29 years Nicole, and the births of our daughters (Delaney and Phoebe), I’ve had a few “Game Changers” some on personal levels some professionally. 

1) My pregnant wife Nicole, saying “It’s about time” when I told her I was going to quit my day job and pursue music full time. I learned in that moment that you can’t let someone else believe in you more than you believe in yourself.

2) Getting the opportunities to open for and, or talk briefly with many of the legends of Blues, including Mr. Withers, and receiving little pieces of insight, advice, and encouragement to keep moving forward.

3) Hearing my 3 1/2 year old daughter respond to a question by a teacher at her daycare when asked “What does your daddy do for a living?” Without putting down her crayon or turning her head she replied “He sings”. I never wanted that answer to ever be different.  

4) Winning the International Blues Challenge in a way no one else ever had, sweeping all of the solo/duo categories (Lee Oskar- Best Harmonica, Cigar Box Most Promising Acoustic Guitarist, and the IBC Solo/Duo Category). There have been so very many more moments and I hope that list continues to grow.        (Kevin Burt / Photo © by Delaney Burt)

"I try to only perform songs that have a connection to my story, songs that I have a “why” to perform. It’s not just, oh that sounds cool or I could sing that song. Even the songs I write. Some never make it out of my practice space. I have always tried to make that a priority. It keeps performances meaningful to me."

What has been the hardest obstacle for you to overcome as a person and as artist and has this helped you become a better musician?

Dealing with loss and my mental health are my biggest challenges. Depression is remarkably powerful and debilitating. Asking for help is scary because as a man, you are taught it’s a sign of weakness. When you realize that without that help you’re not able to be there for anyone. Realizing that the struggle I’m having is one that others are having, sometimes the music is the first outside voice someone is willing to let in. Exposing my own challenges within the music it’s possible that I might be that one voice someone is willing to hear. 

Do you think there is an audience for soul/blues music in its current state or at least a potential for young people to become future audiences and fans?

I absolutely do. I do a Blues in the Schools program to give students an exposure to the Roots of American Music. Marketing is the biggest obstacle for anything in my opinion. If people constantly say or ask if “Blues is Dying” we are marketing its demise, because it’s not dying it’s just not allowed to be viewed as the music you listen to and feel vs the music you look at. Every state in the US hosts at least one Blues Festival. Many countries around the world host them as well. Advertising uses Blues music regularly. Television shows use the Blues as their theme music.

Blues is sampled in Hip Hop, Rap and covered constantly by Rock Bands. But the marketers of the industry constantly say the genre is dying? Blues is the seed/ root of all of popular music and culture. Every evolution of it gets a new name. Each time it’s renamed, we devalue marketing the original product (Blues, Soul, Rhythm & Blues, Rock-n-Roll, etc.). We don’t do that with other genres, in my opinion. When we decide to honestly allow music to be available and marketed equally to the masses, I believe people will see music is like any other mass marketed product. Sometimes it’s convenient to eat fast food, what seems popular. Sometimes you just want something comfortable, classic. But sometimes you really need to feed your body something that you really like but it also needs. Music should feed the soul. There’s a whole buffet out there. Enjoy the buffet!

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(Kevin Burt / Photo © by Delaney Burt)

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