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An outsider comes full circle on Jeff Burkhart’s “Just A Kid”

The Madison singer-songwriter released his latest solo album this spring.
A photo shows Jeff Burkhart seated in front of a microphone. He is wearing a blue shirt and looking directly into the camera.
Photo by Hedi LaMarr / Hedi LaMarr Photography.

The Madison singer-songwriter released his latest solo album this spring.

Peru, Indiana was Cole Porter’s hometown, but might not offer much else in the way of sophistication. For Madison singer-songwriter Jeff Burkhart, Peru, about 40 miles north of Indianapolis, was the kind of place where you could dream big dreams, but to act on them one would have to climb out of bed and hitch a ride out of town. 

Today, a few more significant life changes later, Burkhart is in a reflective state of mind. Like many of us still sorting through the psychological backwash of the pandemic, he’s at a crossroads—a fertile one, but a crossroads nonetheless. Earlier this summer he released Just A Kid, an album of original folk-rock songs he wrote, recorded, and produced during the knocked down, lockdown days of COVID-19. Then, just before the album release show in July, Burkhart announced he was leaving his post as executive director of the Madison-based non-profit Literacy Network, a position he’s held since 2008. It was time. 

“I’m very happy with the work that we’ve done together over nearly 14 years and the organization is in a good place,” he says. “I’m not planning to move from Madison, so I’m still here and I’m still willing to help out.”

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Burkhart notes that the city is in some ways stuck in neutral in areas where Literacy Network seeks to improve lives the most. 

“Madison has been going through a lot of changes starting with the Race to Equity report back in 2013 that showed significant differences in life for people of color in this community,” he says. “We have a lot of work to do to open doors for opportunities for people of color in this community to thrive, and I hope to be a part of that work.”

But he plans to make differences in Madison in new ways. He’s looking into consulting opportunities with other non-profits. Not surprisingly, he’s also set to explore new corners of creativity with his music. That actually gets us back to Burkhart’s musical development in Peru, Indiana, on the banks of the Wabash River.

Despite Peru’s main musical claim to fame, Burkhart’s earliest memory of getting a pop music fix was listening to Kiss. His move from there to heavy metal was aided and abetted by a watery chimney leak. It destroyed his RadioShack stereo, which he replaced with a Jensen stereo with speakers that could more than handle his next obsessions: Slayer, Poison, and Suicidal Tendencies, to name a few of the more delicate ones. 

Hearing Burkhart’s songs now, you’d never know he’d disappear for days to Indianapolis to catch Slayer concerts. I call Jeff the Hoosier Enigma. Metal plus folk. Dokken Watson. 

Hoosiers are good at pivoting. And Burkhart pivoted hard out of Peru. First, at 15, to Auburn, Indiana, where his dad found work. Teens get locked down socially, and being new at a school when you’re 15 is like being the punchline of a practical joke. If you’re lucky. More often than not you’re simply ignored—which has its advantages, especially if you’re not that interested in riding around out in the country in trucks with classmates who’ve never heard of Dirty Rotten Imbeciles. 

In his late teens, Burkhart got his hands on an Ovation guitar. That’s the odd, round-back, plastic composition instrument, the guitar world’s equivalent of the first metal tennis racquet, the Wilson T-2000, deployed by equally quirky Jimmy Conners in those years. Maybe it’s because Crazy Horse invited heavy rock people into Neil Young’s world, maybe not, but once Burkhart got an acoustic in his hands Neil and Bob Dylan kicked heavy metal and hardcore to the curb. 

For sure the hardest thing at 15 was moving, but it also had its benefits. “I think that was really good for me because it kind of forced me to be an outsider, and you know if we hadn’t moved I never would have been in that sort of mindset,” Burkhart says. 

After high school Burkhart went to Indiana University and majored in journalism. The degree helped Burkhart organize his way with words. It also called upon him to work with others who struggled with words in a more fundamental way. Next stop: Durham, North Carolina and an Americorps position at the Durham Literacy Council. 

Words and music melded in North Carolina. “There was one guy I met through literacy training. He was living in a homeless shelter,” Burkhart remembers. “Jimmy had a lot of stories—sometimes I didn’t quite know which ones were true and which ones weren’t—but he had a story of playing in Bill Haley’s band and I was kind of dubious, but then I saw him play and he was amazing. He was a great player and with a guitar in his hand he was just the happiest person ever, so he and I became friends and he taught me a lot of things on the guitar.” 

“Jimmy” is one of Burkhart’s earliest original numbers and, like its subject, is a foot stomping boogie. He wrote it in Durham in 1999 and it’s on Two Dollar Turpentine, a 2010 album from Burkhart’s band The Dirty Shirts.

Perhaps thanks to Jimmy, Burkhart’s guitar playing nearly overshadows his songwriting. He’s intentional but at the same time freakishly gutsy. There’s that Hoosier pivot. Another original song, “C&O Line,” didn’t make the new album, “because I wasn’t confident enough to play slide guitar on the record,” he says. Too bad. I heard it live at Burkhart’s album release show in July at The Bur Oak (I was there to play an opening set), and it was a show stopper. Up and down the neck, he channeled the most feral side of Johnny Winter. 

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I first met Burkhart at the late, great Ken’s Bar on Butler Street in Madison. I played weekly Wednesday night shows there with the Cork N’ Bottle String Band during the late 1990s. Burkhart had just moved to Madison with his partner Eva Shiffrin, a bluegrass fanatic and great clawhammer banjo player. Shiffrin was in law school, Burkhart also in a graduate program. While he doesn’t suffer fools gladly, Burkhart has a quiet about him, a peacefulness and calm. These were traits rarely seen in Ken’s Bar on Wednesday nights. Me being from Kentucky, upon learning he was a Hoosier, well, we saw that as an immediate bond being surrounded by cheese-fed Wisconsinites. Ken’s Bar became a launchpad for our own musical friendship. 

Burkhart played the pilot episode of the PBS Wisconsin music show I produced, 30 Minute Music Hour. The studio production in Vilas Hall was meant as a tire kicker, a practice and technical run-through, just to see if the camera angles worked out. They did.

Collaborating with him as a musician has been as fulfilling as collaborating with him as a community member. In 2007 we created Busking for Books. It was a fundraiser for Porchlight, the emergency housing organization. We placed musicians on every corner of State Street—both sides of the street, from the bottom all the way to the Capitol. For the same two hours on a Farmer’s Market Saturday. Musicians’ cases filled with cash—and went to Porchlight. When Burkhart joined the Literacy Network the next year, we produced the event for three more summers. 

Along the way we both played in various bands, always bouncing music and community development ideas off one another. I kept with bluegrass and country, Burkhart leaned toward old-time, Cajun, classic country, and now, his own brand of Americana. The title track of the new album, Just A Kid, brings some of those ingredients together, under the banner of a blissfully normal childhood. It’s not a romanticized capture, it’s more a case of memory brought to life. 

Just A Kid is definitely about me growing up in small-town Indiana,” Burkhart says. His father and grandfather were both railroad men. His dad worked for Chesapeake and Ohio Railway and his grandfather for the Colorado and Wyoming line. “I remember the long train trellis that went over the Wabash and how scary it was to walk across it,” he says. “I used to bike all over the place on my blue Ross mountain bike. I think like most kids, I was just trying to figure out who I was and who I was going to be.  And I think that song is my attempt to capture that feeling, and how I still feel that way sometimes.”

Memory is the muse in Just A Kid. But musically, while Burkhart admits to borrowing from artists he admires, the songwriting process was nearly lab-like. He tried to let each song take shape without forcing the function of style; Cajun vs. old-time, etc. “I didn’t feel like I was writing a particular song in a genre,” he says. “I was just trying to figure out how the song should go and sometimes it just meant running it through my head for a day or two. And then they came together eventually.”

Burkhart says playing the songs with his band (Colin Bazsali on drums, Rob Garza on bass, Ted Weigl on lead guitar) provides feelings for him that are the opposite of the solitary days of composition and recording of the project. The making of the record was a literal act of isolation. Performing the songs with a group adds, he says, “some serious energy and groove to them and brings them to life.”

Still, creating the album helped keep Burkhart together during that long winter of 2021 and 2022.

“I have this great practice space that’s close to my house, and I would go over, turn the heat on for like an hour, and then go back and play music for as long as I could without freezing,” he says. “I made it a practice to go record a few times a week, and it was really just so that I’d have something productive to do, and I would just continue to do that until I had a song that I was reasonably happy with and I learned some techniques using the nice big openness of that space. I decided to take advantage of that. I’d step back away from the mic about 8 feet when I was recording and really use the natural reverb of the room,” says Burkhart.

Burkhart continues: “I didn’t think I was recording an album, I just thought I was doing something that felt productive to me. [Especially] in a time when we didn’t really have too many social outlets. There was something very solitary but also very satisfying about doing that project and just kind of digging in and learning a little bit about the songs and what would make them sound better. I’m happy to say that after recording that album and then playing those songs with other people, the songs really came to life at a live show, and having other people bring their energy to it made it so much better. My hope is that this is the only record that I have to do in the way that I did it, and I can play with other people and work on songs.”

What’s next for the kid from Peru? As mentioned, Burkhart is scouting out non-profit consulting avenues. He’ll continue to make music. And he’s anchored in Madison, a town he’s loved from the start. “It seemed like a magical playground,” he says about his first impression biking around the city over 20 years ago. He’ll build on the momentum of Just A Kid, with growth as both a songwriter and a person. “[It] was a great project for me because it gave me a lot of motivation to write more, to think deeply about what I want the songs to sound like, to consider how I want to convey the songs,” Burkhart says. “Having that touchstone in my life has been really great—I’m very lucky to have this as a creative outlet.”

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