by Liza Mitchell
Michael Burks is coming home. The blues musician is not a Jacksonville native but he is reminded of the city whenever he thinks back to where he came from and ahead to where he has yet to go.
It was 1995 when the little-known Burks first took to the stage at the Springing the Blues festival in Jacksonville Beach. His musicianship was stellar – Burks was already a recipient of an Albert King Award – but, to most, he was still an unfamiliar player in the blues game.

Festival founder and blues aficionado Sam Veal knew he was witnessing magic as a member of the panel that judged Burks’ performance at the International Blues Talent Competition 25 years ago in Memphis, Tenn.

“I went up and introduced myself to Michael and invited him to the festival,” Veal said. “I knew he was going to be fantastic and he has certainly lived up to that.”

Some might say his destiny was predetermined by his lineage. Burks’ father and grandfather were both musicians and he grew up surrounded by music.

“It was a family thing. I grew up around music, in the juke joints, in the south. It was always there, you know?” he said. “But growing up, I got away from it for a long time, 10 or 11 years, away from the music business period before I made up my mind to try it again. It has always been a part of my life.”

Burks struck out on his own in the early 80‘s, walking away from a promising musical career. He got married, started a family and eventually got divorced – all the makings of great blues songs. When his career path hit a dead end, Burks found himself standing at a precipice.

“I was going through different parts of my life. One thing lead to another but it was a long process. Around 1993 or 1994, I started playing around with some guys in the neighborhood in the garage or in the bedroom, somewhere we could go and make some noise without disturbing anybody,” he said.

“My friends said ‘why don’t you start playing again?’ So we started jamming around, nothing serious. Touring was not even on my mind at the time. I had a stable job and being from a small town, there wasn’t much going on anyway with live music. One thing lead to another and here I am.”

It didn’t take long before Burks’ train gained some forward momentum. He steamed into Little Rock, earning a coveted spot in the International Blues Talent Competition in Memphis, TN. Burks doesn’t recall if he won second or third place but it was that contest that propelled him into the blues music scene once again, this time in front of thousands of fans on to an oceanfront stage in Jacksonville Beach.

“We got to play some festivals and one of them was Springing the Blues. That was the start of my career right there.”

Burks has gained a reputation as somewhat of a blues powerhouse. His technique is mighty. His showmanship, unstoppable. His ear is always to the ground, straining to hear a new note or a fresh sound. And his mind is always mapping out his next direction.

“I’ve heard so many players step outside the box and that’s okay as long as you don’t step too far outside. I’ve been playing for 50 years so I think I know a little something about it, but that’s just my opinion,” Burks said. “You got to keep it new and different. The listener’s got to enjoy it. Why would they want to hear the same tired old thing? It’s difficult to find that balance for those blues hounds out there. They know who they are. It’s can’t be too rockfish and it can’t be too jazzy. It’s got to be the blues.”

As it is tricky for Veal to assemble a diverse lineup of blues artists year after year for thousands of fans, Burks walks a perpetual tightrope to appeal both to the blues purists and the next generation of players and listeners alike.

“With my music, I basically try to do what Sam does [with the festival lineup]. I am a contemporary blues rocker but all of my records got everything from the back porch stuff to the R&B type of blues to the down home nasty blues. Something everyone is going to like ‘cause everyone don’t like the back porch blues or the down home funky stuff. You’ve got to mix it up instead of just one style. People get tired to the same taste.”

When asked how the blues have remained relevant as the tides of music continue to ebb and flow, Burks laughs, “Where do you think all of this different music comes from? It’s all the blues, it’s not just rock ‘n roll or country or jazz or zydeco. It’s still the blues no matter what you call it.”

There is no right or wrong way to listen to the blues and to Burks, there’s no singular way to play it as long as the artist respects the history and sticks close to the well-traveled road. He looks to his peers, from the old timers tapping out time on the dusty porches in the backwater bayou to the hungry up-and-comers hammering it out night after night in smoky dives, for inspiration to find a put a new spin on well-worn grooves.

Signing in 2001 to blues-based Alligator Records, Burks also has the unwavering support of the label’s founder Bruce Iglauer. That support allows Burks to grow as an artist without fighting against the currents of mainstream music.

“When I first signed, Bruce said to me ‘welcome to the blues. You are an official blues artist.’ And I said ‘what?’ I had to think about that for a while. I had been out there for years playing in clubs and wasn’t known on an international or even national level. I had never been recognized as a serious blues artist before. It finally made sense. I said ‘okay, here we go.’”

Said Veal, “To me, Michael is the torch-bearer of the blues. I hate to say that anyone is the next somebody but he is. Michael Burks is the personification of the blues man. He is an extraordinary talent, his power is unmatched. He plays the truth and sings the truth and is the truth of blues.”

Burks is looking forward to coming back to where it all began. He is working on new material that he hopes to release early next year and he is eager to try out a few of those songs on the crowds at the 20th annual George’s Music Springing the Blues festival.

“There is no better way to gauge your work than at Springing the Blues. A Sam Veal-party is always a good party,” he said. “I’m sharpening my horns and ready to put on a great show.”