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January 27, 2012

Brent Burke: From humble beginnings to the Grand Ole Opry

Pell City — John O’Rear sits in his recliner, a CD player on the edge of the faded sofa next to him.

With a set of headphones pressed to his ears, John listens, the rhythmic sounds of bluegrass consuming him as he gazes at photographs of grandchildren that cover the living room wall.

“I put on the headphones and listen when Mama is watching TV,” John says.  “I could listen to his music all day long.”  John follows along, tapping his foot to the fast-paced beat of his grandson’s Dobro guitar.

Brent Burke, a Pell City native raised by his grandparents, John and Doris O’Rear, picked up his first guitar at age five.

“His feet didn’t touch the floor,” John said.  “We put the strap of the guitar on the chair and tightened it around him so he wouldn’t fall off.”  John raised the strings and tuned up a standard guitar like a Dobro for Brent and pulled a socket wrench from his toolbox to use for a bar.

Now the first person in the country to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in Bluegrass, Old Time and Country Music from East Tennessee State University (ETSU), Brent makes history, setting a new precedent for aspiring bluegrass and country music musicians.

Brent learned to play music by ear as a child, listening to cassette tapes of Josh Graves.  He received no professional training, only lessons taught by his grandfather.

“Once he started, he didn’t want to do anything else but play music,” John said.

John played guitar most of his life and shared his passion for music with his grandchildren.

“I started playing country music, but when the kids got old enough to play, I couldn’t take them to perform at the bars, so I had to move to bluegrass.  It was too fast for me, but the kids took right to it.”

Brent and his three siblings grew up playing music together in a family band, the Bluegrass Special Band, traveling around the Alabama region with their grandparents.

Brent says he developed musical skills by jamming with the family band.  “I’d get someone to show me something here and there, and over time I just kind of fell in love with it.  Now it’s a passion.”

“They were all interested in music,” Doris said. “You didn’t have to make them practice.  They made you practice.”

The family sold CDs of their music and put the money into savings accounts for all of the grandchildren.

Born with a natural talent ahead of his time, Brent amazed audiences as they traveled.  Bernard Pope recognized Brent’s musical gift.  Pope owned a Dobro but said he didn’t know how to play. Pope only picked up the instrument once or twice.  After watching Brent play, Pope offered the Dobro to Brent, knowing the child musician would get more use out of it.

“The Dobro was something new, and people couldn’t understand how a young kid could play so well,” John said.

Brent began his studies at ETSU in the fall of 2007.

Daniel Boner, director of ETSU’s Bluegrass, Old Time and Country Music Studies program, said Brent showed up out of nowhere.  “When you hold auditions at the beginning of the year, you never know what to expect.  The crowd’s response to Brent’s performance was amazing,” Boner said.  “Everyone was very interested in his musical talent.”

ETSU’s program began more than 30 years ago as an extracurricular activity.  Notable country music celebrities received training through the program including members of Alison Krauss’ band, and Kenney Chesney toured with bluegrass musician Jack Tottle during his time in the program.

The program developed as a minor in the early 1980s.  In 2006 ETSU started expanding the minor, then offered it as a major in 2010.  Brent declared the major in the spring of that year.

Brent says the program gave him the opportunity to learn about music theory, the history of bluegrass, participate in workshops and play a variety of musical instruments.

“Brent developed his skills quite a bit when he got here,” Boner said, “And he was very determined to finish his degree.”

To complete his degree, the program’s curriculum required Brent to create a four-song demo project.

Boner described Brent’s music as very complex and fast-paced.  “He was always a great showman.  He does his talking with his instrument.”

Outside of the classroom, Brent played in the band, Next Best Thing.

“I learned as much playing on the road with the band as I did inside the classroom,” Brent said.  “I learned a lot about professionalism and enjoyed getting to travel with the group.”

One week before graduating, Brent realized his childhood dream.  At 22 he stood on stage in the historical Ryman Auditorium picking the strings of his Dobro, knowing the moment would forever remain locked in his memory.  On Dec. 10, 2011, Brent performed at the Grand Ole Opry for the first time.

“I couldn’t help but soak it all up when I was on stage,” Brent said.  “It was unforgettable.  As a musician you’re always striving to do better, but I’d never thought I’d be where I am at 23.”

Brent’s grandparents gave him the gift of music decades ago. To express his appreciation for the love John devoted to his success, Brent surprised him with a unique keepsake for Christmas.  Locked inside a wooden framed shadow box, Brent preserved memorabilia from his first Grand Ole Opry performance.

“He took the strings off the Dobro he played during his first performance and gave them to me,” John said.  “I told Brent he couldn’t have given me a better gift.  It’s perfect.”  Brent included a photo of his performance and programs of the show’s lineup in the shadow box.

After graduation Brent began touring with Rhonda Vincent’s band, The Rage.   Brent hopes to start his own band in the future but says he is content with where he is in his career.

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