Kevin Burt
Photo: Delaney Burt

Kevin Burt and Big Medicine Lean on Bill Withers for New LP

Bluesman Kevin Burt may be reverent towards Bill Withers, but he isn’t afraid to mess with Withers’ songs. He offers interpretations rather than recreations.

Thank You, Brother Bill: A Tribute to Bill Withers
Kevin Burt and Big Medicine
Gulf Coast Records
5 January 2024

The late Bill Withers wrote some of the most beloved popular tunes of the 1970s. Songs such as “Lean on Me”, “Use Me”, “Ain’t No Sunshine”, and “Lovely Day” have not only been hits for him but have been successfully covered numerous times by everyone from Monday night open mike singers at a local clubs and coffeeshops to recorded by famous luminaries like Mick Jagger, Michael Jackson, and Liza Minnelli. While Withers’ renditions of his self-penned classics are treasured, there’s a simple honesty to his works that makes them tempting for others to sing.

In addition, Withers’ songs have been used in countless commercials for everything from insurance to orange juice to extreme sports. His music has been so efficaciously inserted into the larger culture that many people know Withers’ music even if they don’t know who he was.     

For midwestern bluesman Kevin Burt, the reasons for covering Withers are more personal. The award-winning artist cites Withers as his primary musical inspiration. Burt said important moments in his life match up well with the contents of Withers’ material. This is why, after 30 years, the blues musician released an album of just Withers’ songs (with an original tribute tune, “Thank You, Brother Bill”). Burt recorded Thank You, Brother Bill: A Tribute to Bill Withers with his band Big Medicine, which features guitarist Ken Valdez, drummer Eric Douglas, and bass player Scot Sutherland.

As expected, Burt’s versions of Withers are more bluesy than the originals. They share a similar vocal timbre. But these songs aren’t karaoke covers as much as blues interpretations of Wither’s more soulful pop tunes. Withers would often growl and grunt when the songs demanded them, but his voice always had a sweet undertone. Burt captures this same melodiousness to a point; however, these new renditions have a deeper emotional resonance, especially on the sadder tracks such as “World Keep Going Round and Round” and “The Same Love That Made Me Laugh”.

Even the happier cuts, such as the effervescent “Kissing My Love” and the bittersweet “Kissing My Love” have a rougher vocal quality more akin to the blues than pop. This allows the players to get into a deeper groove to express the material’s emotionalism. The instrumentation and arrangements suggest a nightclub vibe more than AM radio play—and several of these songs were AM hits for Withers.

Burt may be reverent towards Withers, but the living artist is not afraid to mess with Withers’ songs. He and his band offer interpretations of the more famous tracks such as “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Lean on Me” rather than recreations. The differences between them can, at times, be subtle. However, despite the similar vocal styles of the two musicians, one would never mix up one with the other. Burt’s versions are wilder and less controlled, as if the pain of separation and the intensity of his feelings are overwhelming in “Sunshine”, and the expressions of help and need in “Lean” are more powerful than in Withers’ original. For example, about two and a half minutes into “Lean”, Burt breaks into an acoustic staccato vocal solo that would feel right at home at a gospel church. Withers uses repetition to express the same point, that we are not alone, in a much more sedate manner.

For the past three decades, Burt has made his bones as a troubadour best known for his live performances more than his recordings. He’s played everywhere, from elementary school parties to large blues festivals to much acclaim. Burt is known for his generous performances no matter the size of his audience. These songs sound as if they are meant to be executed live. There is plenty of sonic room for jamming and personalization. Burt’s known for his energy and empathy on stage. These songs will give him plenty to lean on.

RATING 8 / 10