Ya’acov “Rusty” Burns played his guitar until the very end. Sitting up in his hospital bed at a hospice in Denver, draped in a hospital gown, the 63-year-old Texas guitar slinger caressed the neck of his Martin one final time in a photo posted on Facebook. It was a love affair that began when he was five years old and lasted more than five decades. “I plan to be buried with it,” he’d often say.
Burns considered himself a “hired gun,” musically speaking, and he was a hitman who shared the stage with legends such as Johnny Winter, the Allman Brothers Band and ZZ Top. He played lead guitar in Point Blank, a Southern rock band that reformed in 2005 after 20 years apart. But now he’s gone to join his former bandmates Kim Davis, Phillip Petty and William “Wild Bill” Randolph on stage in the afterlife.
He died just before midnight on Friday, February 19, after a long battle with lung cancer.
Burns’ wife, Gavriela “Marsha” Fletcher Burns, shared the news on her Facebook page the next day. “My heart truly goes out to those of you who dearly loved him and are having to receive this information through a Facebook post instead of a personal phone call,” she wrote. “But ‘Rusty’ has so many ‘friends’ around the world and many who considered themselves family [that] I didn’t know where to begin.”
Fans, fellow musicians, friends and loved ones took to social media not long after receiving word about Burns’ passing to share their condolences and memories, some in the form of old photos and videos.
“He was a friend, a mentor and teacher,” posted a fellow Texas guitarist. “What I admired most about Rusty is he never stopped learning and progressing on his instrument.”
“I would not be the person or musician I am today if it wasn’t for this man,” Burns’ nephew and fellow guitarist posted. “He was the sole reason that made me want to pick up a guitar and to keep pushing no matter the trials of a hard-working musician.”
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Burns first learned to play the guitar in the late 1950s when he picked up his father’s old Martin D-28. “It was like the whole world stopped for a minute,” he wrote on his Facebook fanpage. He soon devoted his time to learning the instrument as he grew up in Cleburne, a small city south of Fort Worth, and Euless, a suburb in east Fort Worth. “The musical fire burning inside me was so hot that going to school was like going to prison because I was separated from the guitar,” he wrote. “I slept with it, watched The Three Stooges with it, did my homework on the back of it and generally dreamed of the day that I could play guitar as much as I wanted.”
Burns played in bands throughout his school years, jamming three or four days a week with bands who were booking, although he attributes much of what he learned to his father, who he described as a "tasty country player." After high school, he began playing at nightclubs, park festivals and an occasional battle of the bands. Then he moved to Houston and started playing The Cellar located on Market Square in downtown Houston.
A seasoned drug user at this time, he continued to play and focus on music despite living in a “fog bank” and being truly out of control. He was continuing his music education as a guitar technician for ZZ Top when he got sick with hepatitis.
“During those months of recovery, I was bedridden and very close to death,” he recalled. “But my mind was working overtime. Lying flat on my back, I wrote a number of songs and, for a change, surprisingly meant what I was saying. I had a lot of time to reflect and plan on what I was really going to do with the rest of my life ... if I lived.”
Burns nearly died but was saved by an experimental drug. He strapped on his guitar and took the next step: forming the band Southpaw with John O’Daniel (vocals) and Phillip Petty (bass). They picked up drummer Buzzy Gruen and exploded on the Dallas-Fort Worth music scene.
Playing in clubs across Dallas and Fort Worth, Burns ran into Kim Davis, a guitarist whom he’d known since he was 14 years old. By this point in time, he’d already been jamming with Stevie Ray and Jimmy Vaughan. He even went to Austin to jam with Stevie and his band the Nightcrawlers, whose lineup also included Doyle Bramhall on drums and vocals, bassist Keith Ferguson and organist Billy Ethridge.
“The only drawback was that all they wanted to play was the blues, and I wanted to rock,” he said. “When we came into contact with Kim Davis, we knew he was ready to rock too, so he was definitely the man for us.”
The band changed its name to Point Blank in 1974 and eventually released six albums, including Point Blank in 1976, The Hard Way in 1980 and their final album On a Roll in 1982, before calling it quits in 1984. They would reunite 20 years later at a benefit show in 2005 and release two more albums: 2006’s Reloaded, a live album, and 2009’s Fight On!, their first studio album in 27 years.
In the summer of 2015, Burns was diagnosed with inoperable squamous cell carcinoma with two small tumors in his right and left lung and on his trachea. According to his wife Marsha's Facebook post, the doctors gave him a possible survival time of six to 12 months if left untreated.
On January 11, they decided to leave their home in Fort Worth and move to Denver where he could receive medical treatment that was currently not legal in Texas. “We were climbing the cancer mountain,” Marsha wrote.
He was doing much better a couple of weeks prior to their move. It was New Year’s Day, and his wife posted that Burns had been in his home recording studio on and off all day creating what she called “beautiful new worship music to our Lord God Most High.”
A GoFundMe account soon appeared online with the goal of raising $20,000 to help with medical expenses: "As most of you know, Rusty Burns has played numerous benefits for all of his music brothers and sisters in need. He has a heart of gold, and you can always count on his help. This time he needs yours."
Like many self-employed musicians, Burns did not have health insurance and fighting cancer is a costly battle. To fight lung cancer costs anywhere between $60,000 to $92,000, according to data from the National Cancer Institute. It’s a price that most people can’t afford even with health insurance.
Sadly, it was a battle that he couldn’t win. He died nearly seven months after his initial diagnosis.
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"For a guy that played everything upside down and backwards, he did pretty good for himself," says Burns' friend and fellow musician Buddy Whittington. "Rusty had the gift of music — not just the guitar, but he had an innate understanding of music itself. "
In a 2009 interview, Burns was asked about the sorry state of the blues in Texas since most blues artists struggle to find the limelight and are relegated to playing small bars.
“There’s an old saying about record labels in America,” Burns said. “Labels are looking for 23-year-olds with a 28-inch waist. I’m 57 with a 30-inch waist so it doesn’t seem that I fit that criteria. So what do you do? You continue to play wherever you can for people who appreciate your music because it touches them."
“Point Blank was never fashionable but is definitely appreciated,” he added, “and I can live with that.”