Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with local blues singer/songwriter Husky Burnette about why he can’t seem to find a drummer willing to stick around, his new endorsement deal and what makes a story song-worthy.
CP: How did you start playing music?
HB: My whole family, all my dad's side, all the Burnetts, played music - my dad, my uncle, all the way back to my grandpa's first cousin, Johnny Burnete Rock'n'roll Trio and all those cats out in Memphis at the height of the Sun Records days. I grew up around it, constantly. There was no way for me not to play. [Laughs.]
CP: When did you decide to pursue it for a living?
HB: I decided to play, on a serious level, when I started playing with Roger Alan Wade. Somewhere around in 2000, I played lead guitar for him for two years. That was my first gig as far as really making money - making enough money, rather. [Laughs.] That really got it going, as far as trying to make something of it and continuing on it. It's my only job now.
CP: How long has it been your only job?
HB: I took a few years break after I stopped playing with Roger. Since 2006, I guess. Now that I think back on it, it was a scary transition, but at the time, it wasn't. I didn't think of it that way.
I didn't have plans for a huge career. I was in college for a while and then got out of that. At the time, I was from job to job. I was between jobs anyway. I was just trying to do this like I did with Roger, only on my own. It just kept going and going and going.
It's great. It's the best job in the world, as far as I'm concerned.
CP: Do you treat music differently now that it's your livelihood?
HB: In a way, but you've got to find that fine line between business and the fun of it. You've gotta ride the fence and ride it right to not take the fun out of it. [Laughs.] You can't let the fun take control, but you can't let the business take control, either. You've got to ride that line and keep it between the ditches, so to speak.
I definitely treat it differently now; there's no way not to. I get in these spots every six months or so, where I think, “Let's do a bunch of door deal gigs, and let's do it for the fun of it.” It's not “I'm making this much this weekend.” We screw the budgeting for a minute on the power bill and the water bill. Let's let that go for one week and play one or two shows or however many shows that week. That's just to keep my head right, I guess.”
CP: What drew you to the blues and rockabilly to begin with?
HB: I can't really say. One of my uncles, my dad's brother, got me into a lot of music, exposed me to a lot of music I hadn't heard before. I always loved something with a groove to it and had some soul to it, whether it was soul or R&B or blues. I wanted something that made you scrunch of your face and jerk your shoulders back.
My uncle turned me onto Leon Russell, Junior Walker and The Allstars and Jimmy Smith, which is just straight organ jazz, and Lee Michaels, who was basically the same setup as The Black Diamond Heavies with organ and drums. There was a lot of soul in that. Those four records he turned me onto was the start of it.
I was listening to James Brown and Chuck Berry before that. It just struck me right away, I guess. There are rockabilly roots in the family, and I don't know if that had anything to do with it or not; I'm guessing it didn't. I've just always loved something that had a groove and could move you.
CP: Is getting that groove something you aim for in your own music?
HB: Yeah, and these days, it's not just all a groove. I'm big on boogie blues and stuff with that group, a slower groove. Even if it's not a slow groove, if it's got that bounce to it, that's what I'm a huge fan of these days, and I'm trying to get my music to be like that. That's a huge influence on the music I write these days.
CP: You list a lot of influences on your website. Was there one in particular that stands out as particularly strong influences?
HB: There's not one. That's why there are a ton of them listed. [Laughs.] That'd be really hard. I don't know if I could come up with just one. It's kind of broad, but let's go with post-war electric blues, mainly Muddy [Waters] and Howlin' Wolf.
CP: When you started playing with Roger in 2000, was that your first time playing out in public, or had you been playing shows before that?
HB: I had been playing out a bit before Roger in various small rock'n'roll bands or hard rock and heavy metal bands. Basically, when I started playing guitar and started playing out and joining or making bands, nobody liked the other things I liked, mainly blues and things like that. It was all hard rock and metal. I still like some of that stuff to this day, but nobody I knew, none of my buddies I ran around with in high school, were into that sort of thing. I always played in bands that were hard rock, just to be in a band and to stay playing.
CP: How did you get your fix for blues? Playing at home?
HB: Yeah, that was all the bedroom tunes, especially in high school. I would set up every Wednesday on 88.1 with the Blues Doctor on WUTC. The Blues Doctor had that show, and every Wednesday night, I was at the house with the radio and a guitar in my hand getting my fix.
CP: Do you have to live the blues to sing them?
HB: You know, I think it is a big help. Anybody can sing the blues, if they know the music or any one of the thousand styles of blues, but as far as the lyrical content goes, it is a huge help.
If you're a good fiction writer, then just make it all up, and OK that's fine - if it's a good tune, it's a good tune - but I'd say probably 85 percent of the tunes I write are based on something real in my life, things that have happened. I think living the blues is definitely a huge help to being able to play the blues.
CP: What kind of guitar do you play?
HB: I've got my two electrics for when I'm playing with a drummer, which is usually what I do. I have two hollow-body Ibanez guitars. I've recently acquired two new ones through an endorsement deal with Cigar City CDG cigar box guitars. They're a killer builder down in Tampa, Fla.
I made a deal with him and got an endorsement deal with him, and I'm playing one of his three-string cigar box guitars at every show. I also have gotten a custom-built resonator Dobro guitar from him that's made out of a vintage suitcase. The lid still goes on and everything. It's got breakaway hinges, so you just put the lid back on and carry it all home. I play those two at every show.
CP: When did you land that endorsement deal?
HB: That happened around April or May. My manager runs the record label we have a deal with and he made that connection through a friend of his. He set up the meeting while we were on tour in Florida in April and May. He set up the meeting, and I went through and played eight or nine of his cigar box guitars within a few hours. Finally, the one I took home, I plugged it into my amp, and it just blew me away, so I went home with that one. He custom-built the suitcase one, and it's very nice. [Laughs.]
CP: What has 2011 been like for you?
HB: We've been a little bit of everywhere. Basically, every year is pretty much the same. It's pretty much the eastern side of the U.S. We went up around July 4 and did a northeast tour all the way to Connecticut and back. We always do Florida two or three times. The state of Florida is a tour in itself, so it's three weeks to a month just in that state. We did the northeast run for the first time ever this year. We always do around Chicago and Indiana and Michigan at least once a year.
Then, you've got little four-day weekenders or two-week runs regionally semi-close to home. It's been pretty busy.
CP: How many dates did you play?
HB: I actually had to count up the dates, and it was 200-215.
CP: Is that the most you've ever done?
HB: That's about average for the last three years.
CP: Has anything else stood out about 2011?
HB: We made the deal with the indie record label Cracker Swamp Records out of Florida and put out the first full length, which is called “Face Down in the Dirt.” That was released Sept. 2.
Now, the album has been named by R/N/Z Magazine as their pick for album of the year. We'll find out if we're nominated - and I feel good about at least one of these two nominations - for the Independent Music Awards. They have the song “Black Snake Boogie” off the album for best song of the year and the album is up for best album of the year. We'll find out in a month if the nomination is 100 percent. Even a nomination would be great for the Independent Music Awards.
CP: How did you and your drummer, Burma Shave, start playing together?
HB: He's not playing with me anymore, but we knew each other from the scene, back in the days when The Attic was still around. I knew him from there and from him being in The Rounders. I met Peewee Moore when I was playing with Roger because Roger's girlfriend at the time was Peewee's mom. He had just joined The Rounders just a little while after I met him, and I knew Dave from knowing the band. Dave was also in Bathtub Gin. I don't know. [Laughs.] Once you've met somebody in the scene, you end up meeting them all.
CP: Who's drumming for you now?
HB: Now, I've got Tony Jones on drums. He actually formed Double Dick Slick and played with them for quite a while, as crazy as that may sound. When he was still in high school, he was playing in a blues band every Friday or Saturday. He was 16 or 17, playing steady gigs. He knows his stuff. He started with me last July.
CP: Why is it so tough to keep drummers around? You've been through a few of them.
HB: Man, tell me. [Laughs.] Let me ask you that question. [Laughs.] Not everyone can tour, and not everyone can go out of town and take that risk. You've got to find the right one - no wife, no life or something. [Laughs.]
That's not to say none of them have had the dedication or anything like that, but people have different priorities. Dave has a killer job in Dalton and a family with a wife and two kids and he's got insurance. That's a hard thing to let go.
In July 2010, Tony came in, and he seems to be sticking in there. He's actually the one I've had for the longest now. [Laughs.] His first run with me - his first show, period - was touring the Midwest. The last show of the tour was opening for Leon Russell. I got him in there in a good way.
CP: How many drummers have you had so far?
HB: Tony is the sixth. I had a couple that didn't stay around too long. When I started this solo thing, it was just me without a drummer. I did that for about a year. It was just me or me and a kick drum. Not everyone can take the risk and just drop it and got, but Tony can.
CP: When did you start writing music?
HB: I guess I always have. I was even writing bluesy stuff before I was as knowledgeable about blues as I kinda sorta am now. [Laughs.] Even in those rock bands and metal bands, I was still writing my own stuff that wasn't rock or metal; it was blues or blues-influenced. I've just always done it and hoped it was OK.
Roger was a huge influence on that, as well. He really got me into the whole singer/songwriter, folky country genre. That was the biggest influence, as far as lyrical writing. Some guys, like Guy Clark and Townes van Zandt and Kris Kristofferson, are way more of an influence on me than Howlin' Wolf. I'm big on lyrics, and the majority of the time, that's a much bigger influence, as far as writing.
CP: In your bio, you cop to being a storyteller rather than a singer. What kinds of stories do you find compelling enough to turn into songs?
HB: Lots of things that I have been through. There was a time in my life when it was just crap, looking for one word to describe it. I didn't care about anything and was just being a hoodlum and drinking and drugging. That's not everything, but it's just my life, stuff I've been through. There's always a good blues song or country folky something in that. [Laughs.]
CP: Does that encourage you to keep a little craziness in your life to make sure you have material for the future?
HB: [Laughs.] No, but thinking back on that stuff, I could write 1,000 songs about one thing that happened. Keeping it right now that I have a wife and three step kids and a house is the deal. But remembering and thinking back on all that, I could write 1,000 songs on one thing. I've done enough in the past that I'm good on content. [Laughs.]
CP: What kind of a vibe do you want to give out when you're on stage?
HB: The way my wife describes it sometimes is like a scene in “Black Snake Moan” when they're in a bar and the band is up there playing. It's a bunch of big black ladies in Mississippi with their asses just shaking. That get-down vibe, that whole groove thing I was talking about, just energy, period - that's it.
That's partly why I play the style of blues I do. It's electric and amped up. Maybe I get that from playing in rock bands because there's definitely a rock'n'roll part to what I do. Maybe that's where that comes from because I'm a huge fan of anything moving, especially MC5 and Stooges rock'n'roll, that Detroit rock sound. It's just energy, period.
CP: What are you working on now, recording wise? Any thoughts to your next album?
HB: I have two follow ups, actually. I had so much material to go through, older stuff people want to hear, so on this one, we did half and half old tunes and newer songs. There's still a bunch of older, but not too much older, songs and newer songs. We'll do the same thing on that.
Then, there's also a solo acoustic album of straight, traditional blues. I'm thinking both of those will be 2012 albums, but maybe just one. I'm actually working on the solo album now getting enough material for it. It's just me, the suitcase guitar and the cigar box guitar - that's it.
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 ...