Arts & Culture

Corridor bluesman Kevin "B.F." Burt wins gold in Memphis

Opportunities come knocking after Burt slays in blues challenge

Kevin “B.F.” Burt of Coralville performs on opening day of the 2016 Cedar Rapids BBQ Roundup at McGrath Amphitheatre in Cedar Rapids. Performing for Eastern Iowa events is near and dear to the heart of the bluesman, who swept his categories to win the 2018 International Blues Challenge in January in Memphis. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Kevin “B.F.” Burt of Coralville performs on opening day of the 2016 Cedar Rapids BBQ Roundup at McGrath Amphitheatre in Cedar Rapids. Performing for Eastern Iowa events is near and dear to the heart of the bluesman, who swept his categories to win the 2018 International Blues Challenge in January in Memphis. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
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The Winter Olympics end today in South Korea, but half a world away, Kevin “B.F.” Burt is relishing his gold-medal performance on a different world stage.

“Technically, I just won the Music Olympics — it just wasn’t on TV,” the Coralville bluesman said.

Burt, 49, is one month into his yearlong reign as the world’s top unsigned blues player, after winning the 2018 International Blues Challenge in Memphis on Jan. 20.

“Every guitar I own sounds like a guitar. The one thing I've got that's unique is my voice...I've always had the mantra, 'If you're not going to be the best, be unique.' ”

- Kevin "B.F." Burt

“That (title) and $6 will get you a nice cup of coffee,” he said.

Even though he plays some killer guitar and harmonica, he thinks his vocals may have given him the edge.

“Vocal is my primary instrument,” he said. “Every guitar I own sounds like a guitar. The one thing I’ve got that’s unique is my voice. I’m not the best at any one thing I do, but when you put all three elements in one spot, it’s a unique presentation. I’ve always had the mantra, ‘If you’re not going to be the best, be unique.’ ”

On the way to the top of the podium, Burt swept all three of his categories, with a first-place finish for best solo/duo act, the Lee Oskar Award for best harmonica player and the Cigar Box Guitar Award for best solo/duo guitarist. He’s not only the first contestant to do that, he’s also the first solo artist to get a perfect score from a judge — “and I got two,” he said.

Manager needed

From the top of the podium, his life will never be the same.

Industry and interview requests and emails have been pouring in, record labels have come courting, and he realizes he needs to hire a manager to help him navigate the twists and turns of this giant slalom.

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“One of the things that I’ve learned ... is that I’m remarkably unprepared for now,” said Burt, a self-taught musician who didn’t pick up a guitar until he was 30.

“You go to contests like this with the mind-set of, ‘I would like to win.’ But I forgot to ask myself the question, ‘Well, what if you do?’ God bless my father-in-law, (reggae/world musician) Tony Brown. Tony told me, ‘Kev, you need to have this in place and this in place and this in place.’”

He heard that advice, but didn’t have time to get it all done, so he decided to just give it his best shot and be grateful for the opportunity, win or lose. The view from the pinnacle, however, is sweet.

“It’s fantastic to be here and to have all these accolades,” he said. “There’s a lot of cool things that are happening in a short window.”

College and football

Burt went to college at the now-closed Huron University in South Dakota, where he became an All-American center in football.

“There were a couple of times when I was in college that I would be really, really low on money. It was weird — I would walk into a store and see a sign that said, ‘Karaoke contest, top prize is X-hundred dollars, second place is X-hundred dollars, blah, blah, blah.’ I’d be like, ‘Ah, what the heck, I’ll give it a shot.’ I never won any of them because I went to school in South Dakota and I always sang an old soul or an old blues tune, so I wasn’t going to beat that cute girl that sang a country song,” he said with a hearty laugh.

“It’s one of those things, where going from no money to having some money made a difference. Music looked out for me in those times. ... I have found that thing that I’m supposed to do — not just what I can do, but what I’m supposed to be doing.”

The instigators

When he found his calling, he worked hard for the money.

A knee injury dashed his hopes for the NFL. When he got cut from a Canadian football team, he decided to go to graduate school at the University of Iowa, where his older brothers Shawn and Kerry played football.

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Instead, armed with degrees in human services and psychology and a minor in coaching, he applied for seven jobs in Iowa City. He was offered five and took them all.

One of those jobs was at an independent living center, which led to his full-time music career, by accident.

One of his co-workers, an older African-American woman who grew up in Memphis, heard him singing around the office and told him he had a nice voice. She invited him to her house for a family dinner, and instead sent him to the basement to audition for a band called The Instigators.

“We played music together for 12 solid years,” he said. “That’s where I got my start. I wouldn’t do most of the things the way I do them if not for the exposure I got hanging out with them.”

That’s also where he acquired the “B.F.” moniker. When people would ask the Instigators which one of them was the singer, they’d point and say, “The big fellow over there.”

Keep the lights on

Burt will never be too big for his hometown crowd, however, playing for fundraisers and helping in blues education programs.

“My intent is to still be able to do as much as I can to help raise funds for charitable organizations,” he said. “I don’t know what all this means yet — I just know where my heart is and always has been, and I don’t want that to change. I want to still be able to actually make a difference. I hope I don’t have to play the same number of shows to make life comfortable for my family.”

Burt has worked day and night to make it as a musician, playing as many as five gigs in a day.

“I worked like crazy, trying to do what I needed to do to take care of my family,” he said.

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He’s grateful to his wife of 23 years and his two teenage daughters, who, he said, are “remarkably supportive of their father.”

“I’m blessed with the support of family and community in that sense, but all of those kind words don’t keep the lights on.”

l Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

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