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Peoria Bluesman Bret Bunton Learns By Listening

Mike McMillen
Front Row Perspective
The Bret Bunton Band performs.

Peoria’s Bret Bunton remembers listening to GLT Blues when he was 6 or 7 years old.

“My Dad was playing a lot of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Clapton, B.B. King, Buddy Guy … and we would listen to GLT,” said Bunton. “I would call in to (longtime GLT Blues host) Frank Black every weekend and request Stevie or Buddy Guy or something. I would always win CDs too,” laughed Bunton.

It was early indoctrination that hasn’t let up. Today the 20-something Bunton fronts his own blues band with obvious nods to Albert King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Jimi Hendrix. He’s champing at the bit to finish the vocals on a slew of already recorded songs headed for a soon to be released album. Until then, fans can get a hint of those influences on the music page of his website. First up is a cover of a more recent influence.

“I love how he incorporates different genres into what he does,” said Bunton while listening to his cover of Gary Clark Jr.’s “Healing.” “He’s a modern-day Stevie Ray or Jimi, in that he’s bringing new ideas. He’s incorporating hip-hop, rock, and soul music into blues and making a new sound. It’s something fresh for younger guys to listen to and get some new ideas from.”

Credit Mike McMillen / Front Row Perspective
Front Row Perspective

The blues and hip-hop doesn’t seem a natural marriage. Acoustic bluesman Guy Davis mashed the two when he enlisted his son to rap on “Uncle Tom Is Dead” from his 2006 album “Skunkmello.” Jazz pianist Robert Glasper occasionally dabbles; his “Black Radio” album being his most notable effort.

Bunton said he’s flirting with hip-hop on his soon to be released album, and pointed to “Bright Lights,” another Gary Clark Jr. song, as one that has a hip-hop feel.

“See how you get your head bobbin’ to the drums? It’s just got that laid-back feel, not pushing too hard,” said Bunton as his body swayed to the heavy groove of the song’s opening. “That’s what I mean by that hip-hop sound. Your head gets going.”

Bunton agreed it’s not exactly what Davis was doing in 2006, characterizing the Clark’s song as “stealing the feel” from hip-hop.

Stevie Ray Vaughan still captures Bunton's imagination. He said new ideas reveal themselves every time he listens to Vaughan’s recordings. He appreciates how the Texas blues legend stretched himself past traditional 12-bar blues.

“When I first started listening to him I was really stuck on his first album ‘Texas Flood,’ and those were 12-bar blues,” said Bunton. “But then you get into stuff like ‘Wall Of Denial’ or ‘Change It.” Those were not 12-bar blues. Those were straight-up songs. And he was actually going to get into producing,” Bunton said, alluding to the helicopter crash the killed Vaughan and some of Eric Clapton’s entourage in 1990 after a performance in Wisconsin.

During a listening session in the GLT studio, Bunton talked about some of his originals as well, including “Peace of Mind.” He said it was one of his first recordings, and the first song he ever wrote. Musically it’s more rock than blues, and lyrically about a relationship that soured, one Bunton chuckled a bit before saying he was glad it was over. He said intimate lyrics such as those on “Peace of Mind” are difficult for him to write, but that will change on his new album.

“It’s about the vulnerability,” said Bunton of the challenges of pouring his heart out lyrically. “When you write lyrics that really mean something to you, you’re putting something out there for everyone to see and judge. It’s been hard to write about real feelings, but I need to do that. My band mates have told me, ‘That’s how you’re going to connect with people.”

The Bret Bunton Band plays the 100th anniversary celebration of the Chillicothe library Saturday afternoon. The birthday bash includes balloon art, a magic show, bouncy house and card tricks, among other activities.

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Jon Norton is the program director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.