A performance at the Grand Ole Opry could be expected of a seasoned bluegrass or country musician, but East Tennessee State University student Brent Burke got the chance before graduating college.
Burke, who will be the first person to receive ETSU’s bachelor’s of arts degree in bluegrass, old time and country music studies when he graduates today, actually played the dobro this past Saturday with Rhonda Vincent & The Rage on the coveted Opry stage.
He’ll begin playing dobro regularly for The Rage in January.
“It was a shock, you know, when I got that job,” Burke said in a recent interview. “But I couldn’t ask for a better job as far as music.”
Daniel Boner, director of the ETSU bluegrass, old time and country music studies program, said Burke is modest.
“Everyone knows that’s kind of the equivalent of Broadway or Hollywood to the actor,” Boner said of playing the Opry. “For country and bluegrass artists, the Grand Ole Opry is a highlight in their careers, and so I’m really, really proud of Brent.”
Burke, from Pell City, Ala., will be the first person in the country to have a major in bluegrass. Other schools may offer a music degree with a concentration in bluegrass but not an actual program of study such as Burke received.
“It’s amazing,” Burke said of being the first person in the world to major in bluegrass. “It’s mind-boggling, I guess, at times. But I’m really excited, really excited about it. I hope that there’s a lot of other students that follow and pursue this same degree and get engulfed with all this music knowledge that’s here at ETSU.”
There are currently more than 60 students majoring in bluegrass, old time and country music and more than 70 students minoring in the program, Boner said.
ETSU began expanding on the curriculum of the minor that already existed for the program in 2006, offering it as a major finally in 2010.
“It feels very good to have our first graduate,” Boner said. “It gives prestige to the music. It shows that it’s valuable to the greater musical community. It always has been. And it’s been time to have this degree for a while now.”
Burke went to ETSU specifically to get a minor in bluegrass in 2007. He tried broadcasting and sociology as majors, but when the bluegrass major was offered, he immediately changed to that.
“When I came here I knew how to play, but I played strictly by ear,” Burke said. “When I came here I had played for about 13 or 14 years, and they introduced me to theory and the history, all kinds of the history that follows bluegrass. So that really expanded my mind on the whole concept of bluegrass music.”
Burke came from a musical family. His grandad taught him and his siblings to play the guitar. When Burke was five, his grandad taught him to play the dobro using an old guitar. He raised the strings with a pencil just enough so Burke could slide a socket from his toolbox across them.
“I knew that’s what I wanted to do, play bluegrass music,” Burke said. “And the more I got into it, the more I knew that and the more I grew to love the music. That’s what made me happy. That was my passion.”
Three years ago he began playing in a band called Next Best Thing, a traditional bluegrass band formed by Rhonda Vincent’s daughters. Burke toured with them and recorded with them.
“I’ve always enjoyed that, getting to the next show and getting on stage and playing,” he said.
Burke said he has grown enough as a musician to start writing some original instrumental tunes. He plans to hopefully release a solo album in the next couple years.
“As far as the long term future goes, I just want to keep striving to keep playing and always improve,” Burke said. “I always feel that no matter who you are, you can always improve as a musician, or with anything for that matter.”
ETSU will hold commencement ceremonies today in the ETSU/Mountain States Health Alliance Athletic Center at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. More than 1,300 students are expected to graduate.