Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with Arkansas-based blues guitarist Michael Burks about how he earned the nickname “Iron Man,” his father’s influence on his music and growing up playing in southern juke joints.
CP: You first held a guitar when you were 2. How old were you when you started playing it?
MB: Let's put it like this, I played my first little nightclub gig when I was six. I started playing when I was about two. I got my first time to play in front of a crowd with a 10-piece band when I was six years old.
CB: Which band?
The band was a local band in my hometown. It was actually a cousin of mine, a little guitar picker named William Pickett, but they called him William “Guitar” Pickett. He had a couple of hits out in the '60s. He had a 10- or 12-piece band with a horn section and all that. They played at this juke joint, and we played to 400-500 people.
CP: What attracted you to the blues to begin with?
MB: My father played and my grandfather played. It was kind of in the family. I have an older brother who plays, too. It's a family thing. That's how I learned how to play - my father taught me to play.
CB: Your father played bass and your grandfather played guitar. What did your brother play?
MB: My brother played multiple instruments, guitar, bass and saxophone.
CB: Did it feel like playing music was a foregone conclusion or was it something you wanted to do for your own sake?
MB: When I was younger, I saw everyone else doing it, so I wanted to do it, too. But as I got older, I really liked playing. That's what kept me interested music. I didn't play blues all the time. That was something I learned from my father, but as I grew older to be a teenager, I played other music.
He encouraged me to learn different styles, from country and bluegrass to rock and jazz, whatever, so I wouldn't be limited to one style or even one instrument. I played multiple instruments, too, and I learned how to read music. He wanted me not to limit myself. He used to tell me, “You might not get a job playing the blues. You might get a job playing country or jazz, or whatever is called for. If you're just a blues player, you limit yourself in what you have the ability to do.”
CB: Yet you're playing the blues now. What does your dad think of you making a career out of it? What brought you back to the blues?
MB: I went back to blues because after being away from the music for 10 or 11 years, I was playing mostly R&B and funk. After not playing at all for 11 years, I started back playing in the mid-'90s, just for the hell of it, not to be on the road touring or anything like I am now. I just wanted to have something to do on weekends with my friends who play a little bit.
When I started back, I was playing the blues. I would come up to Little Rock, Ark., where I live now, and they had a Tuesday night blues jam at one of the clubs. I would drive 100 miles up to Little Rock and play at this jam on Tuesday night. It started from there. One thing led to another, and I found myself out on the road over 200 nights a year.
CB: Has playing music as a job instead of a weekly pastime in any way diminished your enjoyment of it?
MB: I'm doing it as a job, as a career, because it's something I really know how to do - I think I do, anyway. (Laughs.) It's been great - a music dream, a music career, and actually making a living doing it, especially playing straight blues.
The last 10 years have been great. For me, it's been a building process. You have to get your name out there and build a fan base, get some music out there and get the people to know you and get to be known. The last 10 years have been pretty good for me.
I'm getting to be pretty well known. I play a lot of shows, and I play a lot of festivals. It's been great. I can see the progress as more and more people come out to the shows when we play. That's a lot of encouragement.
CB: When did you feel like you developed your own voice? When did you find it?
MB: It's hard to say. It don't happen overnight. I didn't have one particular guitar player or one particular organ player or bass player that I listened to [growing up]. I listened to a lot of guitar players, not just blues players but jazz players and guys like Carlos Santana and Jimi Henrix and T-Bone Walker and even Roy Clark.
There were so many great guitar players out there coming up when I was young that you could emulate from. There wasn't one bad guy; there were a whole bunch of bad guys out there who could play.
Over the years, you learn to put it together, like a puzzle. You learn something from one guitar player - a lick from this one and a chord from someone else. You take these bits and pieces and put them together like a puzzle. I call it like making a gumbo. You put all these ingredients in a pot and make a gumbo, and that's what you come up with. Most everybody I know likes a good gumbo. (Laughs.)
CP: Your father guided your early development in music, but what about your grandfather. Is he still around and what role did he play, if any?
MB: Neither one of them are around now, my father or my grandfather. My grandfather died back in the mid '70s, and my dad passed about eight years ago. They had a deep influence on me.
I never was around my grandfather much. He lived in California until he passed. Being with my father, my father would always take me to all these old different juke joints back out in the woods where all these guys were playing. At six, seven, eight, nine or 10 years old, most kids would be out playing marbles or riding bicycles or something, but I was in some rundown shack listening to some guy playing the blues.
It was an experience because I got to see a lot of the future players who are out there now who were trying to build a reputation in the music world back then. I got to see some of the guys like Little Milton and Bobby Blue Bland and Little Johnny Taylor and Freddie King - cats like that. It's a long list of guys who was making a name for themselves back, when I was just a kid. I got to see a lot of that stuff and be around them. I even got to play with them a few times.
CP: You earned your nickname through your “intensely physical performances.” What does physicality add to a show? Why walk away from a performance feeling physically drained?
MB: I wouldn't say “drained” because I put 120 percent in my performance, but growing up where I grew up in the South, playing in juke joints is not like the clubs in the city. You only play 2-3 hours, and that's the way it is in the city, but if you play a juke joint in the South, you started when before the sun went down, and you didn't stop until the sun came back up again. At juke joints, you've heard the phrase “all night long?” That was all night long. (Laughs.)
You might take a break after two or three hours, but you came back and played another 2-3 hours. You had to run people out at six in the morning. That's how it was. That's how I grew up, playing in those juke joints all night long.
I was used to it. It's kind of been imbedded in me. I played three hours, and they thought that was unheard of, but for me it wasn't. It's how I grew up playing. I did a show in New York down in Greenwich Village, and some people from Guitar Player Magazine - a couple of guys and a young lady - came to check the show out and interview me. After the show, the young lady said, “God, you played three hours. You must be Iron Man.”
When the article came out, the headline said, “Michael Burks: The Iron Man of Camden, Ark.” Everyone saw that and the name stuck.
My record label saw it and said, “We've been looking for a nickname for you. 'Iron Man' - that's it.” That's how that started. It's been several years ago when they started calling me that, but this latest album we did for Alligator they decided to call “Iron Man.”
CP: Given your background do you just shake your head when people say you played for “so long,” when a show lasted a couple of hours?
MB: A lot of people don't know. They don't know or understand how I grew up. That was a normal thing to me. When I grew up, playing 45 minutes or an hour in, I felt like I hadn't done anything.
CP: What does the blues mean to you? How do you personally define it?
MB: Blues, to me, is what each person experiences in a lifetime. That's what the blues is all about. Everybody is going to experience something in life, whether it's good, bad or wrong, left or right, in or out. You're going to have some kind of experience, some kind of up and down, in life. That's the blues.
It don't ever have to be sad. The blues isn't about being sad. The blues is about the experience you have in life. Every experience you have in life isn't going to be sad or bad. You'll have good times and bad times. You'll have sad times and you'll have happy times. That's the blues. That's life; life is the blues.
CP: Your latest CD, “Iron Man,” features a mix of originals and covers slightly favoring your own writing. Was that new for you, to have the majority be your own material?
MB: I have songs on all of my albums. My first album I did I wrote every song on the album - all 12 cuts were mine. I at least have three or four on each one. On “Iron Man,” I have six or seven.
I spent the whole day yesterday working on material for a new album we're getting ready to record pretty soon. I've got several songs we're working with, and then I've got 15 or 20 different songs written by other songwriters that I'm looking at. I've got it narrowed down to 23 or 24 songs, which I have to narrow down to 10 or 12 songs to actually go on the album.
It's a process, but I want to come out with a good album. I want to have a good record that's something that everyone can enjoy. The more I look at it, my aspect of it, everybody doesn't like the old-style blues or Chicago-type blues or the upbeat blues or the slow blues or the shuffle blues.
That's why, when you listen to all my records, I have different styles of the blues on there, from the slow blues to Muddy Waters-type blues to contemporary blues rock and R&B-type blues. I put something on there for everyone. If you've got a couple of songs from each style, that gives you a better chance to sell a record.
It's a tricky thing, but I've been lucky and fortunate so far. I have come out with some great records. I've been nominated for BMA [Blues Music Award] eight different times. That means I'm pretty well going in the right direction, I think.
CP: When will it be out?
MB: It'll be out by the first of the year. It won't be out this year, probably March or April of next year.
CP: Have you ever played in Chattanooga before?
MB: It'll be my first time. I'm looking forward to it. I hope the weather will be great. We'll come and put on a great show. We're coming to put on a great show. I'm looking forward to it. We're going to aim to please.
Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...