It's been twenty years since Brody Buster's first round of glory days — when he was a 10-year-old blues harmonica phenomenon, fronting his own band, appearing on "The Tonight Show" and at the Montreux Jazz Festival with Quincy Jones.
Buster couldn't have remained a child prodigy forever, of course. So his journey back into the national spotlight is both "surreal" (that's his word) and an all-too ordinary coming-of-age story.
Earlier this year, Buster went to the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, where he won second place in the solo/duo category and first place in harmonica. This Friday, he has a slot at the Montreal Jazz Festival, among the likes of Bob Dylan, Buddy Guy, Diana Krall, Charlie Musselwhite and more than a hundred other names.
"It’s definitely the biggest festival I’ve ever played," Buster says of the Montreal fest, sounding a little surprised to be in such company.
"Before this I didn’t leave Kansas City," he says. "I played in Kansas City, maybe go up to Nebraska, go down to Arkansas. This summer, I’m going all the way to San Francisco and back, all over Texas. Playing stuff that pays in one night what I used to make in one week."
But "before this" is a relative term for Buster. In this case, he's not talking about his child-phenom days but rather the years before his International Blues Challenge wins in February.
"Really it’s just a big party," he says of the event. "You get assigned slots, and if you win a round, you make it to the next one. I kept making it and kept making it, all the way to the finals. When they announced it, I was like, 'Wow.' It was surreal. I knew I’d do OK down there, but didn’t know I’d make it all the way."
He had to beat hundreds of acts, because each act has to win in his or her own state before going to the Memphis competition.
"I didn’t know what it meant to win this thing and the opportunities it would open up," Buster admits. "I honestly thought I was going to win some money and some free harmonicas. But I got a booking agent out of the deal, all sorts of things."
For Buster, just making it to the International Blues Challenge was a comeback.
A couple of years ago he entered the competition's local rounds with a full band and didn’t even make it through the finals. So this year he decided to try with his one-man band, in which Buster sings, blows into a harmonica on a rack around his neck, plays guitar, and kicks a bass drum with one foot and a snare with the other, adding extra percussion with an egg shaker taped around one of his shoes.
After performing this way for about three years, Buster says, it doesn't feel as if he's playing harmonica, guitar and drums all at once — instead, he says, it all combines to feel like just one instrument.
"The whole one-man band came about because the Westport Saloon wanted an act on Monday nights," he says. "They only had a budget of a hundred bucks, and I thought, 'I can't bring a trio for that.'"
Distinguished by Buster's still-stellar harp playing, what started with a guitar, a harmonica and his foot tapping on a suitcase progressed to a solid niche.
"And thank God," Buster says, "because if it didn’t I probably wouldn’t be playing music full time. I would probably have to work a job."
Buster has actually clocked plenty of hours making pizza at Papa Keno's, and he's always played music in various bands. But his celebrity childhood led to predictable teen burn-out.
That first round of glory days started when he was a little kid and his mom, a musician named Janet Fitzgerald who played harmonica at the Levee with iconic Kansas City blues artists such as Cotton Candy and Sonny Kenner, gave him one of her instruments.
"The way she tells the story is she gave me one because I was bugging her, so she said, 'Go do this and sit outside.'"
She signed Buster up for guitar lessons with Paul Cormaci, but Cormaci decided he'd rather jam with Buster instead; they started a band called Brody and the Blues Busters ("or something like that," Buster says). His mother called Randy Miller’s radio show on Young Country Q-104 and Buster played the harmonica part to Garth Brooks' "Ain't Going Down (Til the Sun Comes Up)" over the phone; before long, he was a regular guest on Miller's show. The Kansas City Star and the Associated Press did profiles.
"It was all by chance, crazy like one-in-a-million," Buster remembers. "The next thing you know, clubs all over the country are calling a small little house in Paola, Kansas, trying to get me to play. And I did."
After Buster's mother got divorced and they moved to Memphis, Buster ended up playing on Beale Street for tips. B.B. King noticed, and invited him to join the house band at his club in Hollywood, which is where Branford Marsalis saw him playing and booked him on “The Tonight Show.”
Buster's trajectory ultimately veered toward cliché, however.
"Age 18 to 23, I was a mess," he says. "I did some drugs, partied too hard, dated women, got my heart broke. Probably didn’t take very good care of myself."
In that way, he says, he was like everybody.
"Most people, they don’t want to play baseball if they’ve been playing their whole life. How many star football players can you think of that, senior year of high school, they’re like, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore?’ Same thing, just a little bit different because I play music."
Playing the blues wasn’t fun anymore.
"When I was 20 and 21, I was a terrible person," he says. "I didn’t see myself doing anything, honestly."
But then, when he was 27, he had his son Ziggy; his daughter Jaycee was born three years later.
"I was like, 'Alright, you’ve got to figure this out," he says. "And I did see myself playing music. It’s the only thing I know how to do."
"It's not the best living, but we get by," says Buster. He and the mother of his children are not together, but they split custody and Buster tours on the weeks when Ziggy and Jaycee are with her; other family members also help out.
If Buster doesn't seem to have regrets about not holding on to his early celebrity, it might be because he doesn't remember much of it.
"It was such a blur," he says. He knows he had fun, and he knows he made some lasting relationships.
"There were definitely aspects of it that I did enjoy, but there were definitely aspects that I didn’t enjoy. But I guess it all worked out," he says.
And now, at 32, playing music is fun again.
"I’m kind of enjoying the one-man band more than I’ve ever enjoyed playing in full bands. I have complete and total control," he says.
"I can break songs down where I want, I can change keys in the middle of a song. Very rarely will you see me play a song exactly the same — I can't do it exactly the same. It’s different every time I play it, based on the room, based on the people, based on, 'Do I need to make it longer because these ladies just got up to dance?'"
Turns out one of the benefits of being an adult — being able to make your own choices — is also one of the benefits of being a one-man band.
C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.