Mike Burns: interview + tunes

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I grew up north of Charleston, West Virginia in the small community of Mink Shoals, located on the Elk River.  Most of my time was spent running around the woods or fishing and swimming in the river.  The only music I was exposed to was from the transistor radio and my grandmother, Lou Asbury, singing old church songs while working around her house. 

Not until I heard the Beatles, “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, did I have any interest in music.  Like many of my friends, I got my Dad to buy me a real nice Sears guitar. We were all going to be music stars. That lasted about a month until the abandoned guitars found their way into corners of rooms.

I rediscovered music as a freshman at the West Virginia University School of Forestry. The Forestry Club had a jug band, made up of anything that could make a musical sound.  I started out playing spoons but quickly graduated to guitar, because I knew more than three chords.   The old Sears guitar came out of the corner to begin its rise to jug band fame.   During the West Virginia Forest Festival, in Elkins WV, the Forestry Club had an exhibit at the old YMCA.  We talked to the public about WVU Forestry programs and, every so often, offered some jug band music.  The WV State Fiddle and Banjo contests were held at the festival and I decided to go listen.  I couldn’t believe the number of folks playing bluegrass banjos, fiddles and guitars. After multiple renditions of “Orange Blossom Special” and “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”, one of the contestants, Dwight Diller, played a different style of banjo.  That was the first time I had ever heard clawhammer banjo and I instantly knew that was what I wanted to play.  

The clawhammer sound would not leave my head.  With a little more begging, there was a banjo under the Christmas tree that year with a Mel Bay Bluegrass banjo book to boot. I was not quite sure how to make that clawhammer sound that had captured my attention. By chance, I was walking home after class one day when I heard this banjo noise coming from a house near mine.  The source turned out to be Ron Mullenex and Jack Ramsey. I asked if I could play some guitar with them and they said come on.  It was ”game on” from that point.  We played together for the rest of the year.  I immediately latched onto Jack as my banjo mentor.  He was the smoothest, cleanest clawhammer banjo player I ever heard.  I split the rest of my time with Jack and Ron playing guitar and banjo.  After they left Morgantown, I played banjo with a fiddler named Alvin Wooten until we graduated.

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Around 1974, I went to a Highwoods concert at WVU and could not believe what I was hearing; it was the best old-time sound I had ever heard.  Man, did I ever want to play that way! I still consider Highwoods, and especially Walt Koken as major influences in my music.

Travelling to many old-time festivals held throughout WV, afforded the opportunity to meet Melvin Wine, Glen and Delano Smith, Wilson Douglas, Woody Simmons, Carlos Dalton, Mose Coffman, and Sherman, Burl, Maggie, and Mr. Lee Hammons.  In following years, I visited these folks at their homes to learn what I could.  I couldn’t get enough of their music and their stories.  At a festival held at Pipestem State Park in WV, I heard Odell McGuire, Scott Nelson, Andy Williams, Brad Leftwich, Al Tharp, and David Winston playing some great, hard driving old time.  It reminded me of the Highwoods sound. I was now hooked on their brand of music.  I followed the music to Lexington Virginia for the 1975-76 Breaking up Christmas parties.  Odell McGuire invited me to stay and I did.   During my time in Lexington I met and became friends with Bruce Molsky, Chad Crum, James Leva, Steve Seal, and so many others.  I also started playing the fiddle after Odell told me there were too many banjo players in Lexington. The transition was not too hard since I already knew the tunes. I still play the fiddle like a banjo: less notes and lots of rhythm.  During the 1976-77 “Breaking up Christmas”, I met my wife, Mary Sue, when she was playing banjo in a session in which I was fiddling.  We were married in 1979 and still going strong today.  I moved back to central WV, got a real job as a forester for a timber company and again hooked up with Melvin Wine and Wilson Douglas. I played with them several more years until we moved to Lewisburg WV. From there we moved to Pocahontas County WV to teach.  Kids, jobs and school activities took our energy away from the music and caused an extended time when we only played every once in a while

A combination of encouragement from musician friends and an overwhelming desire to prove wrong my doctor’s hopeless pronouncement about the recovery of a broken finger propelled me back into the music. Our band, “Juanita Fireball and the Continental Drifters” debuted at the Pocahontas County Opera House in 2008 and has been playing ever since. 

I realize that I was very lucky to travel the path I did. I learned so much from the older folks about generosity and welcoming people into their homes.  Music got me there.  Their personalities kept me coming back.  I’ve been blessed.

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