Jessie Burge lives near his family’s “old home place” in Lamar County; his father was a sharecropper there. He first handled a guitar when his father bought one for an older brother in 1955. Jesse started playing regularly at the age of ten, then played bass and bluegrass guitar during and after a four-year stint in the navy. Back home, he had a woodworking shop. His first guitar, completed in 1978, “turned out OK,” so he made about ten more. The family moved to Starkville in 1988; raising four kids and hard work as a cable splicer for the phone company interrupted his work with guitars for some time. In 2002, he and his wife were back in Lamar County, and he returned to building guitars. He has completed a total of about eighty of them and also does plenty of repair work and restoration, which pay better than making new instruments. After hurricane Katrina, calls for restoration went way up.
Jesse freely admits that he suffers from two disorders common to luthiers, W. A. S. (wood acquisition syndrome) and T. A. S. (tool acquisition syndrome; he has made many of his own specialty tools and jigs). In order to build with the absolute best examples of both common and rare woods he both keeps an eye on local fellings (for walnut and cherry) and also orders wood from far and wide. He often uses standard body woods such as Indian rosewood and mahogany, but usually employs Lutz spruce for the tops—spruce is customary, but this type is rare—and has also built bodies from woods as exotic as lacewood, purpleheart, and zebrawood. A majority of his guitars are dreadnoughts (the standard shape of guitar for the bluegrassers and performers of old-time Country music who constitute a majority of his customers), but he has explored several other shapes. He remembers how difficult it was to start building guided mostly by trial and error, and so is a remarkably generous teacher, both in-person and online. He has had students working with him who are sitting at computers in Australia, New Zealand, England, and Canada!
Jesse had a hand in the growth of the bluegrass jam that now takes place Fridays in Bellevue at Wayne Wilson Trucking, just a few miles away. The jam started in his shop, migrated to his daughter’s porch, then, as it grew and cold weather set in one winter, went indoors at the Trucking Company. It is no longer Jesse’s cup of tea, since, with audiences of several hundred people, it has become more like a show.
But many evenings find him jamming with students and customers in his shop. He says: “I’d just as soon sit around and pick for my own embarrassment.”
Jesse likes for his customers to come to his shop and choose the woods for their instruments themselves. The selection is actually generous enough to be confusing, but many pieces do have customers’ initials scrawled on them. Jesse notes: “I’ve never build one that didn’t have some redeeming quality to it.”