When Kevin Burt sings the blues you feel it as much as hear it. His voice is honed by thousands of live performances, all while living and raising a family in Coralville, not exactly your blues mecca. That made it even more wonderful when at age 50, this native Iowan swept the top awards at a coveted international blues showdown. After 26 years of hard work, Kevin earned the label overnight sensation.
Winning the 2018 Memphis International Blues Challenge lifted his career to a new plane -- until the pandemic grounded him. But Kevin knows a lot about perseverance. Even while staying close to home, his creativity’s on a hot streak. In the past year his second CD “Stone Crazy” debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard Rhythm and Blues Chart. He also gave several streaming concerts, and continues his commitment to “Blues in the Schools,” inspiring students by sharing his own life story and music.
But even hit recordings don’t rival Kevin Burt live. As friend and University of Iowa professor David Gould puts it, “Being in the room when he sings, it’s quite an experience.”
Kevin, 52, never gave a thought to a music career as the youngest of four kids growing up in Waterloo. Raised mostly by his mother when his parents separated, his home was always full of love and laughter even if money was short. “They were the original superheroes in my life,” says Kevin of his mother and siblings.
Back then, his dream was a pro football career, capitalizing on his size and athletic prowess. He started at a small Iowa college with hopes to lift his grades and become a Hawkeye. Things got complicated with his coach, the Iowa opportunity didn’t gel, and he transferred to another small college in South Dakota. In his senior year’s first game he dislocated his knee. He redshirted and returned for a 5th year, getting a brief tryout with a Canadian pro team. But he knew he was seen as damaged goods. He moved to Iowa City and planned to work, save money and get a master’s in social work. But when seven resumes brought five job offers, he took them all and shelved the master’s plan.
One day, his boss at one job overheard Kevin, stuck her head around the corner and said, “Damn, boy. You can sing!” She urged him to audition for her son’s blues band. She even tricked him, inviting him to a dinner that actually was a tryout. And like that, Kevin was the Blues Instigators’ front man.
For more than a decade the band was a regular at Iowa festivals and blues events, while members kept their day jobs. But the music kept pulling Kevin in deeper, and he told his bandmates he wanted to go all in. When they weren’t ready to take the leap, he went solo, buying his first guitar and harmonica and teaching himself to play.
His learn-as you-go approach often happens on stage, so fans witnessed his evolution. Even at a recent Cedar Rapids gig, he told the audience, “This is one I’ve been working on. Let me see if I can finish it right here in front of you.”
He’s a vocal storyteller, sharing stories both in and between songs. “Nobody comes to my shows to hear me play guitar,” he says. “The blessing I’ve been given is a big strong voice” or what friend Dave calls Kevin’s true instrument.
It’s what introduced the two. On a lunch break one day in downtown Iowa City, Dave overheard singing. “It was a remarkable voice. I thought it was a car stereo,” he remembers, but he followed it to “a large man sitting on a very small chair with a small amplifier, just singing. I’ll be honest, I never made it to lunch.”
The fact that Kevin’s run his music career out of Coralville raises eyebrows in the music industry. Iowa? Blues? The state actually has a rich blues history, as Kevin can tell you – and does when he speaks to classes. The area also happens to be where he met wife Nicole and together raised two daughters. So even in his solo years, he wanted to stay close. He booked gigs within a four-hour drive and played lots of small Iowa venues. “My daughters are kind of my world,” he admits.
Meanwhile, Nicole officially serves as his manager now but has been his inspiration all along. “Having somebody that loves you, that has that faith in you…shame on you if you step out there and prove them a liar. I need to do this,” he says about his career.
Musically, he calls himself a disciple of the three Kings – Frank King, B.B. King and Albert King - “and from a standpoint of a storyteller, honestly, Bill Withers is probably as big an influence on me as anybody.”
Know that your higher power wants you to be what it is you feel is calling you. There’s always something that you can do. There’s only that one thing that you’re supposed to do.
When he finally dared to consider Memphis, it felt high risk. It meant giving up days of income, as first he had to qualify and win the Iowa Blues Challenge. And when that win carried him to historic Beale Street in Memphis, he decided to just be himself. He knew others could outplay him technically, “but that connection with the audience, that’s the piece where my roots are dug in deep, and I try to make sure I do that every chance I get.” Being himself earned him the three top awards for solo/duo acts: best harmonica player, most promising acoustic guitarist and best artist. “Lo and behold, I won the Blues Challenge like nobody else had ever done,” he said.
Suddenly he found himself swarmed by the music industry. “It was almost like folks are throwing business cards,” he recalls. Some labels wanted him to change his style, but luckily his name reached the non-profit Little Village Foundation. Its mission: lift up diverse artists. The chosen receive recording time with top-name studio artists and come away with a professional CD and publicist, all free. And Little Village wanted Kevin to be Kevin. His “Heartland and Soul” CD finished in the top five that year for best recording by an emerging blues artist, and in Iowa, he was honored with a 2019 Iowa Blues Hall of Fame induction.
Bookings now were bigger venues, big audiences and big-named artists on the bill. He was halfway through a California tour last March when it shut down. Within days, he saw a year’s worth of bookings just vanish.
He’s philosophical about it all: "There’s an old blues song that says you can’t lose what you ain’t got. I just lost the opportunity.” The time at home allowed him to write, enough new material for a couple of future CDs plus a few musical scores for independent films. He’s resumed playing some live dates around eastern Iowa at venues that take COVID precautions, but he’s staying cautious.
And he’s taking the long view: “I work in a profession that started as my hobby, and it'll eventually probably go back to more of a hobby.” But as long as people want to hear him, he says he’ll keep performing.
“Kevin’s just getting warmed up,” says Dave. “ Yes, I would argue, he’s just getting warmed up.”
Photos courtesy of Kevin Burt