Listening to the Southern rock-influenced blues of Brian "Husky" Burnette is like eating every bit of a big bucket of fried chicken. You're sorry to see it go but then the residue is still sticking to your fingers. That's when you figure out that finger lickin' good doesn't always have something to do with fried chicken.
Burnette is a next-generation child of the Blues. He was formed by the music of the Mississippi Delta and forcefully melds roots music, electric blues and rock 'n' roll together with hard-won skill, brute talent and an every-bit-natural presence on stage. He'll put you in a trance, then pull you right out of it, leaving you ready to hit repeat on that particular life moment like it's a favorite YouTube video.
Tales From East End Blvd. Is Here
First off, he's settling into his new label, Rusty Knuckles, and recorded his to-be-released-this-month album, "Tales From East End Blvd.," at Rebel Roots Studio with J.B. Beverly and Buck Thraikill. "I'm loving it," he says. "J.B. put bass down on all the songs except one and I did that one." Since--maybe as a result--Burnette has added a bass player to his live shows, which have traditionally consisted of a drummer and Burnette. "It's nice to change things up," he says. "I have two local Chattanooga guys playing for me: Jody Hatfield on bass and one of my old drummers, Rasheen Isacc, are with me right now."
Far as the album, it's split pretty evenly between songs Burnette's had in the can, the rest recently written. "I had some new tunes worked up and some old tunes that either didn't make it onto Facedown In The Dirt (his first full-length album, released 2011). It'd been too long since I recorded and I was ready to make a full album with a full band." There's one track ("Come On Carolina") on the album Burnette wrote right before the week-long recording session at Rebel Roots Studio. "We had Billy Don Burns (rhythm guitar), his producer/guitarist Aaron Rodgers (rhythm guitar, back-up vocals), Shooter Jennings (back-up vocals), J.B. Beverly (snare drum, back-up vocals), and Buck Thraikill (banjo, back-up vocals)," remembers Burnette. "We all sat around a microphone, drinking moonshine all night, and at two in the morning we hit record." The result will likely be an outtake or bonus track kind of thing, surely an enjoyable one.
"It was just a fun experience, sitting around with my buddies late at night, having some drinks, pressing a record for the hell out of it and out comes a cool tune and a cool experience," says Burnette, who had the title track, "East End Blvd.," written for a long time and just never had the chance to record it. "It's a bad part of town and a bad part of my life," says Burnette. "It's just the slang I gave to East Chattanooga, not a great part of town. There's really 35 different stories behind that song."
"Tales From East End Blvd." is slated to be released this month. It's available for pre-order and the record release party will be in Chattanooga on Aug. 24 with Burnette touring before and after in support of his latest effort. He'll be at the Muddy Roots Music Festival, of course, and you'll likely find him hanging out around the sweet new vendor tend Rusty Knuckles is hosting this year.
Where He's From: Geographically & Musically
Some people hew to a certain genre and enjoy treading well-worn walking paths, even if their own; others gotta search for a long time, maybe never reaching that attractive-seeming final objective--and maybe being all the better for it. "I'm always interested, the more I know about it the happier I am," says Husky. "Where'd this come from, where'd that come from? There's a local NPR station in Chattanooga that had a blues show on Wednesdays when I was growing up and we'd sit around the house and listen to that for two or three hours, getting some knowledge--taking it way back, to Robert Johnson and guys like that."
Born and raised in Chattanooga, Tenn., everyone on the Burnette side of the family "I ever came in contact with does, or has done, something musically," says Husky, whose family tree includes rockabilly kings and brothers, John Joseph "Johnny" and Dorsey Burnette--who incidentally grew up in the same public housing project in Memphis as one Elvis Presley. Music was and is literally in their blood. "Grandad played boogie-woogie on piano, good old 1950s rock ‘n’ roll. I’d be at his house staying the night and we’d stay up with him playing all this old stuff, Jerry Lee-style. He was an awesome piano player and I guess that’s where my Uncle Richard got that. My great-grandfather and my grandfather would load a piano in the back of a pickup truck and ride around town playing boogie-woogie and rock 'n' roll in Chattanooga. They'd stop and keep playing, usually for tips.
"My dad taught me how to play guitar and started me out on rock 'n' roll: Zeppelin, the Stones, Sabbath, Hendrix [etc.]. Then, my uncle turned me on to the blues and blues guitar, starting with Stevie Ray Vaughn and B.B. King, and I went backwards from there," the forthcoming yet guarded Burnette continues, noting yet another uncle tuned him into "a lot of good R&B and soul-influenced music like Jimmy Smith, James Brown, Lee Michaels, Junior Walker and the All Stars, and Leon Russell. "They are a big influence on me to this day, the groove and the feeling of it struck a chord, you know? It wasn't just soul or blues or rock'n'roll, it was the combination of all three and that's huge.
How's this all come out in Husky's music? "It's like this: take original-style hill country, plantation-style blues and mix it with a groove, like old school R&B which has to have that pop, that groove, and that's how my songs come out.
"They were all heavy into music. Period," Burnette says, going back to his family. "Dad and his brothers grew up in Chattanooga, too. They were all three musicians and so was my Grandpa and every Burnette on up were musicians. My dad never really played live, but plays guitar and piano. My uncle Richard always played and was a sheet metal worker just like my Grandpa but nighttime he was at the bars playing keyboard and organ," says Burnette. "I'm probably most like my uncle Tim, wanting to know and learn any and everything possible about anything and everything, always searching down something new. Uncle Tim passed away when I was in eleventh grade and so a couple years later, my uncle Richard was living down the road from me and we started hanging out. He was just excited to see I was into it as much as they were and that’s when he started turning me onto all the soul music. He was a big Beatles and Stones fan. Lee Michaels, check that out. It’s kinda that Black Diamond Heavies set-up: just organ and drums."
That's his family. Most of his peers, and even Husky himself, ended up in metal and hard rock bands, but "I finally eased my way over towards what I'm doing now," which took it all right back to where it began.
Starting Out, Then BIG Steps: Roger Alan Wade & The Polecat Boogie Revival & Going It Alone
Burnette started playing out in high school, doing covers of Metallica and Slayer, and never stopped. After high school, he left that band and was picked up to play lead guitar for Roger Alan Wade "and that was the start of something," he says. "At that point, I'd never played out playing the stuff I played in my bedroom, blues and whatever. Nobody that I hung around played out except for cover bands. When I got with Roger (I call him my Music Daddy), he really showed me the way and the more I got into roots music and singer-songwriters like Guy Clark, I started to write that way.
Burnette was with Wade from 2001 to 2004, and confirmed his calling to play music almost immediately. "Soon as I started playing with Roger, playing lead, that was my first real gig doing it for money and doing that as my job, and I was like 'This works and I'd much rather be doing this than working in a warehouse.' If there was one defining moment far as me playing music, that was it."
Following his stint in Wade's band, he joined The Polecat Boogie Revival, consisting of members of the by-then-broken-up Hellstomper and Southern Trash Rock'n'Roll. "Right after Roger, I started writing that way and when I got with Polecat Boogie Revival, I was writing bluesy again: amped-up blues distilled to Southern rock, crank-the-distortion-and-ride-a-blues-riff-a-little-bit-faster. "That’s where my experience with Roger, playing that style of music out and then learning it and knowing it, allowed me to branch off into my own thing. I really don’t even know how it happened but it’s taking that old school blues riff and making it pop."
It wasn't easy to explain what he was doing and get gigs at first, he says: "A lot of places wouldn't book that stuff because they only want classic rock and Top 40 cover bands, but I kept noticing that more and more bar owners and talent buyers were getting into it. I feel very lucky because there are certain bars [in Chattanooga] that, when I’m not on the road, I’m playing them every single week and two or three times a week and I’m playing in bars that only have cover bands come through but somehow I get to play those bars and make decent money. I don’t know if that’s because it’s coming around more and more, acceptance of this new thing, or is it because the style of music I play personally is a familiar sound there? Maybe what I write is somewhat in the same vein as George Thoroughgood, so it’s familiar to their ears."
In 2005, he decided to forge his own path and his one man band show has distilled down to Husky and a drummer, when possible. He's backed up on percussion by a range of people: Bryan Gross locally, and then Matt Snow of The Scissormen, Dave Dowda and Tony Jones have all held down the fort on the percussive side of things. "Bryan does most of it now," says Husky. "When I'm touring, I'll pick up a different drummer in each city, but I miss Bryan when he's not there."
As to how he evolved into his current musical output, "I started doing it after Roger and right before the Polecats. The guys in Hellstomper and Polecat Revival turned me on to Hank 3 stuff I didn't know about, his heavier stuff, and I'd known about him because of playing with Roger. Mine and Roger's songwriting buddy, Randy Howard, wrote a song on 'Straight To Hell' called "I Don't Know." Hank 3 did open up a lot of things. That's how I got turned on at first, but it was like opening up a can of worms after that, getting turned on to the heavier stuff," says Husky. "I did a tour with Hank 3 for a couple months in 2005 with the Polecats and those were big, packed shows and were definitely defining moments as in, 'I'm supposed to be here kind of thing, playing music.' From there, it's about bigger and better venues, having people approach you. It's not one particular moment, but a few different ones, and they still happen now and then.
Far as touring, he likes to tour further afield for about a month at a time, though they have stretched as long as four months. "Last summer, I covered the Northeast, all of Georgia and Florida--you could do a whole month in Florida. Then, the Midwest in July and back to the Northeast in August," says Burnette. "The last two or three years, I play Chattanooga every single weekend when not on tour, so this is my job," says Husky. "Bands can burn themselves [and their audience] out if they play the same songs over and over, but my locals keep coming to every show. It's another thing that tells you, 'I got this, I'm doing it right and now how can I make it better again?' As long as those moments keep happening, you figure you're doing something right."
Stories From The Road & Long Live Music With Roots
Frustration, wretched tiredness and the sheerest of boredoms are all acidly present together on the road, and then comes the sublime, the heightened experience and the mind-gasping release that comes with baring your soul to the world on stage and then retreating into the relative safety provided by getting the hell back on the road. Burnette's seen it all at this point.
"The first time I met Bob [Wayne], he was Shelton's (Hank 3) roadie and guitar tech for that whole tour we did," says Burnette. "A year or two later, I'm hearing about Bob Wayne and was like, 'I didn't even know he played.' All along, it's just been finding other people doing this and seeing the whole alt-punk-blues thing happen. Yeah, I listened to R.L. Burnside, but had no idea about Left Lane Cruiser.
"I knew about the Black Diamond Heavies because Mark 'Porkchop' Holder is out of Chattanooga as well," he continues, noting Holder actually played a key role in his own musical evolution. "I'm in this little place in Chattanooga called The Attic and I believe it was open mic night. Porkchop is playing a steel body and people are digging it and I'm like, 'Wait a minute, I can listen to these songs outside of my bedroom?' I didn't know there was a huge, strong thing going on and how many bands have been influenced by the blues.
"Now, I can't help but think Muddy Roots is pulling a lot of us together and the Deep Blues Festival, too, which is more strictly blues with some variations," says Burnette. "Jason [Galaz] took it further and said, 'Let's take this whole roots scene and keep going with it.' That first Muddy Roots was all bands and it was instant family. It's a really cool thing to see how much roots music is growing and has grown, it's awesome.
"There are a lot of radio listeners in this world who would like to hear something that's deep, not superficial," he continues. "This new pop country is not what sounds good to me even though they're saying, 'I'm an outlaw. I'm this. I'm that.' But, yeah, you're recording with Sony and they're making you sound like hip hop country." Well put, Husky.
In The Studio: Stripped To The Bone
Burnette put out a five-song EP earlier this year, 'The Stripped.' "It's basically a five-song EP with strictly no electric, no drums, no amps. It's just me and a steel body resonator and a harmonica on two of the tracks and that's it, man, just five songs I don't get to play live all that much and were stuck in my head," says Burnette, who relishes the chance to slow things down when he's not powering the vibe at a bar into the wee hours with music that's louder and more aggressive. "I play a lot of different types of venues and most of them are about keeping it going with that drive and I play electrified all night long. You can break it down and do some slow tunes, but not every place is happy to see that happen. In those situations, I play with the full band," which actually just means playing electric.
All the songs on the EP are original. "They all have true stories behind them--it's all real life. I don't know if this connects in any way, but when I'm reading, I really like autobiographies, something real and true versus fiction and maybe that has something to do with the way I write. It's more personal when you write that way. It depends, but a lot of them don't get worked on for too very long, they're usually done in a couple of days," Burnette says of his songs. "I find if I take too much time on the lyrics on one particular song, I lose momentum. I try and get them done as quick as possible but without rushing them I take time on them to get them right and sounding right, but when it's real life, true story stuff, especially something real personal, they just kind of flow out anyway. I guess I've always done it this way.
"Usually I'll come up with the music or a riff first, then match the lyrics up with that. If it's a real swampy, Southern kind of thing, your lyrics are going to flow that way with certain words or slang. I guess that part is easier, but for the most part, it's just pretty much the same as I've always done it and it worked for me," he says, noting there is another full-length in the same vein as his debut offering, 'Face Down In The Dirt.' That's about all he can say for now, but it'll be recorded with J.B. Beverly and Buck Thraikill at Rebel Roots Studio. It won't be 'The Stripped' EP re-worked. "I'll leave that EP as an EP. For the new album, I'm going to record a couple of old tunes and I've got some new material written," says Burnette.
A Good-Hearted Woman
Like any self-respecting good timing man, Burnette did his own thing unit he found a woman who could match his steam. He found her in Kari Bundy Fowler. "Kari is on the road with me about half the time, depending on lots of different things," says Burnette. "One of the songs on the new EP is inspired by her, 'Baby.' It's pretty self-explanatory: I found myself in a good spot where I was at and then I had a killer little traditional blues riff going on, so that's how it came out."
What Up Next? & To Hell With Selling Out!
"My goal for this year and next year is to play a ton of festivals," says Burnette. "I just started working with a booking agent again, been doing it by myself so long. I wanna hit it all, hit all the jam band festivals, the blues festivals. If they want me, cool. Or, I'm happy to play at a cool local bar or a warehouse. I've got a lot of material, so I'll play all night."
Goals aside, it's really about having a good time or it's going to be a rough ride. "There's a line between business and fun, and if you teeter too far to either side, you're kind of messing up," says Burnette. "You need to keep that balance if you want to do this for a living, which means making some money but keeping it fun, too. As soon as it stops being fun, then it's about the money and nothing else. Who knows what happens then? You don't want to sell out," he says, using Hellbound Glory as an example. "I’m so excited for them because they got that gig, but does it mean that they are going to have to change their sound, their appearance, their everything? Kid Rock got them on that tour and he obviously liked the way they sounded, so why would anyone in control of them want them to play something different? It happens, though. You have to fight it tooth and nail."
Change does happen and it's being accelerated in the music world by social media, obviously. Fads come and they go, but music with weight that's strong enough to haul freight through the ages builds long-lasting communities and, yea, changes lives. Pandering demeans the music. Disingenuous and even mindless storytelling dilutes the power of the genre and the earning power of it's most true-hearted practitioners. Husky's take on it? "If somebody offers me millions of dollars to change, they can keep the money. I’m in it because I like what I do.
"One thing that is really weird to me is, I heard this tune, my buddy was playing it, and said it sounded like Hendrix/Band of Gypsies era. He’s playing it and all the sudden I'm like, 'That’s John Mayer, isn’t it?' This dude, I don’t dig his voice, but my buddy was playing me this three-piece electric blues band album he put out. This dude had to go sell out first and play whatever by whoever wrote the songs for him and all these little teenage girls get wet and then he can go do his thing. If his roots were blues, why not play blues, man? Why sell out and do all this stuff beforehand? I was so overwhelmed when I heard him singing, that’s fucking John Mayer. Motherfucker. I felt weird and guilty for liking what I had just heard."
Not sure about you, but weird and guilty are not things I like to feel from my music, so I'll stick to slow-banging my head to some Husky Burnette and leave John Mayer to the teenage girls. I'll listen to some some of Owen Mays's uncompromising country; a bit of Banjer Dan's from-the-heart-with-all-his-skill-and-soul banjo picking; cast an ear to Jayke Orvis and the Broken Band as they consistently scale new heights of creativity and musicianship; and I'll be sure to see Mr. Burnette doing his thing come Muddy Roots Festival 2013 and maybe sidle into one of his Chattanooga haunts. Because the moral is, good music is hard to find. Don't let it slip your grasp. Life's too short. If you feel it, it's real. That's why it works. You know this.