Billy Don is wise beyond his years
A leader in all walks of life
The best man to have on your side
No matter how dangerous the situation"
- Billy Joe Shaver
"Every now and then... in this day of cookie cutter auto-tuned singers... every now and then I get to hear a voice singing songs that remind me of why I fell in love with music... Billy Don Burns with Nights When I'm Sober - A Portrait of a Honky Tonk Singer did that for me this morning... It's late afternoon now and I'm still being reminded... Thank you Billy Don."
- Chuck Cannon
Billy Don Burns is a true Country Music Warrior. He wears his battle scars with honor, depicting the stories of his life in his songs with brutal and beautiful honesty. He’s respected far and wide for his long career in songwriting and performing, and he’s still out there. He’s lived it and breathed it through lifetimes of country music passion and pain. Carrying the guitar like a sword on his back, he battles for the Poet. He battles for the Artist. He battles for the souls who defy modern convention. And every time he strikes a chord in some smoke-filled Honky Tonk, he wins. Billy Don Burns started out in this business working with legends, and somewhere along the way he became one himself.
interview with Andrea Fennel
AF: It is obvious you live your music with fierce determination and passion, Billy Don. When did you first realize music was the life for you?
BDB: I entered this talent contest when I was in the Army, mostly to get out of all the hell in basic training. There were several acts and the whole post was there on the big night. Don Grady, TV star of My Three Sons, presented the winner with a big trophy. When I won that, I thought maybe I do have something going on for me. It was a pretty big deal. When I got out of the Army, I knew for sure this is what I was going to do.
AF: Who were your influences growing up?
BDB: I grew up in Stone County Arkansas, in Mountain View. I was into Johnny Cash and Hank Williams. Jimmy Driftwood, who won a Grammy and wrote some great songs, was my mother’s school teacher. Jimmy always encouraged me. Those guys would be my first influences. There were many more before I figured out who I was.
AF: Tell me about when you received your first Publishing deals…
BDB: When I got out of the Army, Merle Haggard was becoming the hottest country act on the planet. It was 1971 and I had a band living in the Palm Springs area of California. I told the guys that I was going to go to Bakersfield and meet Merle. They said “you ain’t gonna meet him.” I had read that Merle had a Publishing company called Shade Tree. He couldn’t write for it at the time because he was under contract to write for Buck Owens. So, I go to Bakersfield and look in the phone book and there was Shade Tree listed on Niles Avenue. I went there and said I was a songwriter and would like to play them some songs. The lady running the office said I needed to see Roy Nichols as he was in charge of that. Roy was a star to me. He was a big part of Merle’s sound, playing lead guitar in his band. I met Roy and played him a couple of songs. He said “yeah, man, we will publish those.” Then he asked me if I wanted to meet Merle who was in an office with Bill Woods. I said Yes. He called Merle and and we went in his office. Roy introduced me to Merle. It was so great. He autographed two of his albums for me. Then, he said to Bill Woods “why don’t you get him on Jimmy’s TV show this afternoon, Bill?” Bill Woods was a piano player on the show that was on Channel 28 there in Bakersfield. That was my first time to do a TV show. It was all so great. Then some 18 years later, I got to produce Merle on one of the Johnny Paycheck albums. The great Harlan Howard signed me first as a staff writer in 1972 in Nashville.
AF: Who was the first artist besides yourself that cut one of your songs?
BDB: Connie Smith was on Columbia Records and she recorded my first song the year 1973. Of course, she is now Mrs. Marty Stewart.
AF: What was it like working with Johnny Paycheck and tell me how all of that came about…
BDB: I liked Johnny Paycheck. He was not easy to work with in 1988 – the cocaine and the booze pretty much had him a lot then. However, I am not saying anything bad about Johnny. Hell, it has whooped the hell out of my ass a bunch of times, too. When it was good- it was good. But, it was not an easy gig. When Johnny’s manager went to federal prison in 1988, I became his producer and manager and, hell yeah, it was a pretty rough ride, but I loved him.
AF: Any good road stories you want to share?
BDB: I think I will pass on the road stories. Most of mine are either X-rated or incriminating, so I better pass on that for now.
AF: What has been one of your favorite moments in your career?
BDB: My biggest moment in the business would be when Johnny Cash sent me a one page letter. That was the biggest thing that has ever happened to me. I gave it to the Stone County Museum in Mountain View, my hometown in Arkansas.
AF: On your CD Heroes, Friends and Other Troubled Souls, you have several guest stars. Who would be your dream person to cover one of your songs?
BDB: I guess I wanted a Willie Nelson record more than anyone else. He has always been such a great writer. So when that happened, it was so good. My first one he did was on his Sony Records Born for TroubleCD. My song was “I Don’t Have A Reason To Go To California Anymore.” I would have loved to have had a Johnny Cash cut and I think if he would have lived longer that may have happened. He had just found out who I was not too long before he died.
AF: What has been happening with you lately?
BDB: I've had a song on Cody Jink's last two albums. My song, "Gaylor Creek Church" is on his album, "I'm Not the Devil", and my song, "Stranger" is on his album, "Lifers". and I have a song, "Wild Dogs" pn Colter Wall's new album, "Songs of the Plains", Bands and recording artists are recording my songs everywhere I go. That's pretty neat.
AF: What about Music means the most to you?
BDB: What I love about this business the most is expressing myself and then have people write all these great things about what my songs mean to them. That makes me feel like a success. That is the best and it humbles me when I hear the nice things that people say about my music.
It is not easy being Billy Don Burns, but that is who I am and the only part that I know how to play.
~ Andrea Fennel
Until I reached him by phone the other day, I’d never spoken to Billy Don Burns.
But it didn’t take long into the conversation for me to feel as if I were chatting with an old friend.
Burns, who performs Saturday at Southern Culture Kitchen and Bar in Greenville, is somewhat of a cult figure in outlaw country circles with credentials that include hanging out with such internationally recognized superstars as Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Johnny Paycheck.
Billy Don Burns performs Saturday at Southern Culture Kitchen and Bar in Greenville.
All of that is cool, for sure, but the thing that got my attention was when I asked him to tell me a little about his childhood and how he initially got interested in music.
“I was born in a little community called Fifty-Six, Arkansas. It’s in Stone County,” Burns said. “And my mother – her schoolteacher was Jimmy Driftwood. He wrote ‘The Battle of New Orleans’ and ‘Tennessee Stud.’”
I didn’t need to be informed of Driftwood’s legacy, as I’ve been a fan of the folk icon for quite some time. But I had totally forgotten that Driftwood had been a schoolteacher. I wowed over the fact that Burns’ mother had been taught by Driftwood, who died in 1998 at age 101.
“Yeah, he was my mama’s schoolteacher,” Burns reiterated. “And his wife, Cleda, was a schoolteacher. I had her one year.”
I told Burns that I own a Jimmy Driftwood box set that was released by the Germany-based Bear Family label.
“That’s pretty wild that you have his box set,” Burns replied, his voice seeming to reflect an extra degree of respect for me.
“He was pretty awesome,” Burns continued. “I remember Jimmy had a couple of Grammy Awards on his mantle. It’s been a long time since I was in his house. Of course, Jimmy’s dead now.
“I actually went to his funeral, and it was the largest funeral I’ve ever been to. Bill Clinton didn’t make it, but he sent a message. He was president at the time. Yeah, Jimmy was a very unique character and a very nice person.
“Jimmy was from a little community called Timbo, and I was from a little community called Fifty-Six. It’s in Stone County. I remember the last time I talked with Jimmy, I was in Nashville. He came to Nashville, and he called my mother and got my phone number.
“This would have been the late ’80s or early ’90s. But he called me, and he said, ‘you know, we’re related.’ And I said, ‘I didn’t know that Jimmy.’ And he said, ‘well, not really, but my people and your people on your mama’s side came from Cleveland, Tenn., together to the Ozarks, so we’re kind of related.’ He was in town to play for the Governor at that time.”
Eventually, Burns got back to mentioning how he’d gotten into music.
“Well, I had a couple of little bands,” Burns said. “When I was in the Army in 1968 for basic training, they had a talent contest and I mostly entered into it to get out of KP (duty). … Well, Don Grady, who was a star on (the television sitcom) ‘My Three Sons,’ was in the National Guard and he was one of the judges.”
I interrupted, “Oh, I know who Don Grady he is. He actually cut some cool pop records in the ’60s with a band called Yellow Balloon.”
I got the impression that even Burns didn’t know that since he simply continued his thought.
“Anyway, I won the talent show, and I thought, ‘maybe I might have something.’ So, when I got out of the Army, I started playing clubs and moved to California. It’s hard to believe that that’s been over 40 years ago, and I’m still doing it.”
We next talked about how Burns got to meet Haggard in the early 1970s.
“It was when he was, like, the hottest thing on the planet,” Burns said. “I turned into a big Merle Haggard fan and read all I could about him. And I read how he was under contract to write for Buck Owens’ (publishing) company, Blue Book Music, in Bakersfield, but that he had started his own company called Shade Tree Music.
“And I thought, ‘well, since Merle can’t write for it, he’s probably looking for songs for his own company.’ So, I told my band that I was going to go up there and try to meet Merle, and they all laughed at me and said, ‘there ain’t no way in hell that you’re going to meet Merle Haggard.’ And I said, ‘Well, I might not, but I’m going up there.’
“So, I went up there and got to Bakersfield and didn’t know nobody there. I went to a phone booth, and I found Shade Tree Music (listed) in the yellow pages, and I went to the address. The receptionist introduced me to the lady who ran the company, and she said, ‘you need to meet with Roy Nichols. He listens to songs.’
“Well, Roy was almost as big as Merle, in my mind. He was a big part of Merle’s deal; he played lead guitar for him and helped make that sound. So, if I’d only have met Roy, it would have been a big deal.
“Anyway, Roy published a couple of my tunes, and he said, ‘do you want to meet Merle? He’s here.’ I said, ‘sure.’ And he said, ‘let me call him.’ So, he called him and Merle said to come on back.
“Roy introduced him to me, and he was just so nice. Merle was with a guy named Bill Woods; I knew that name because one of the songs on an album that he had out at the time on Capitol was called ‘Bill Woods From Bakersfield.’ So, Merle told Bill Woods, ‘why don’t you call Jimmy and get him on the TV show this afternoon?’
“It was called the ‘Jimmy Thomason Show’ (and it aired) on Channel 23 in Bakersfield. So, about an hour-and-a-half after I met Merle, I’m on TV. And Merle’s back at his office watching me and listening to me.”
Burns mentioned that, about 20 years later, he took Haggard along with him to record Paycheck at Chillichothe Prison, where Paycheck was an inmate.
“I produced some sides on Merle, too, but that stuff got tied up in a legal deal and never came out,” Burns said.
At this point, I asked Burns to describe what Paycheck was like.
“Johnny was a good guy,” Burns said. “He didn’t have much raising, I guess. He’s from a little town in Ohio called Greenfield, and one time Johnny and I went up there together.
“You know, Johnny did hard time (in prison) three times. … The first time he went to jail, he was 17 – grand theft auto. The second time, he was in the military and beat up an officer and went to Leavenworth. And the third time was when I was with him and he shot a guy in the bar and went down for about 3 ½ years.
“But he was a great (musical) act. We packed some big ole clubs, and most club owners made money on him.”
I couldn’t help but ask Burns if he was drawn to characters who, like Paycheck, lived on what some might perceive as the fringes of society.
“I don’t know. I’m not a real outlaw, but I’ll fight a buzzsaw if I have to,” Burns said. “And that’s how Johnny and me got close. Two days after I started working with Johnny, we were in the studio, and this engineer was not treating Johnny with respect.
“So, I went in there, and I kicked his (tail) right there in the studio. And Johnny come running in there, and this guy was on the floor, bleeding. Johnny dug in there and faced him and said, ‘I saw everything, and you started it.’
“And, then, Johnny grabbed me and hugged me. Johnny loved me at that moment, and that’s how I kind of got in good with him.”
Burns continued, “I never kicked a man who didn’t deserve it. I’ve got asphalt in my face right now where I’ve had people kick me in the streets. When you’ve played honky-tonks for 40 years, you’ve seen some action. But I’m a peace lover, trust me. I’d rather get along with everybody, but I will fight if I have to.”
Burns chuckled a little. “I don’t know how we got into this, but I don’t want you to think I’m a troublemaker, because I ain’t.”
Eventually, we steered the conversation back to music, and Burns spoke glowingly of contemporary honky-tonk outfit Whitey Morgan & the 78s, who recorded one of Burns’ compositions called “Memories Cost a Lot When You Don’t Make Them.”
Next, I asked Burns to tell me about his arrival in Nashville, Tenn., in the early ’70s.
“It was really neat, man. I just hung out,” Burns said. “Back then, down on Broadway was where the honky-tonks were. They’re still there, but they’re a lot nicer now than they were then. Anyway, a guy named Lynn Owsley took me in. He played steel guitar in Ernest Tubb’s band.”
Burns then mentioned that he got to play alongside such country legends as Tubb and Porter Wagoner a few times during those days.
“Boy, he was something else,” Burns said of Tubb. “… He didn’t know me, but I told him I was from Arkansas. And when he’d introduce me, he’d introduce me for, like, five minutes. He’d say, ‘This is a good boy. He’s got a good future ahead of him. He’s from over in Arkansas. He’s got a lot of talent.’ And he’d just go on and on and on.
“And Porter Wagoner was the same way. They don’t introduce you like that anymore. But Porter and Ernest would just go on and on about how great you were, and they hadn’t really heard you. They were just so nice about it.”
Noting that he once had a publishing deal with a company owned by songwriting giant Harlan Howard and that he’d done a lot of work with songwriting giant Hank Cochran, I asked Burns what it was like to have the respect of guys like that.
“I’ll tell you, to me, that’s success,” Burns responded. “A lot of people would think that I’ve haven’t had much success, but if I died tonight, I’d feel like I did great. Having the respect of those writers, what more could you ask for?”
I mentioned to Burns that one of my songwriting heroes is Country Music Hall of Fame member Tom T. Hall.
“I remember when ‘(The Year) Clayton Delaney (Died)’ was out; it must have been around 1973,” Burns said. “I was playing a honky-tonk down on Broadway and in walks Tom T. Hall, so I got to sing that song in front of him.”
Burns then shared an anecdote about his only other interaction with Hall.
“Harlan had a party one night, and he wanted me to come,” Burns said. “And I got out there, and there wasn’t but about 10 people, but every one of them was a star – Tex Ritter, Connie Smith, Tom T. Hall, Bobby Bare. And we had what they call a guitar pull.
“I couldn’t write back then, and I don’t have no idea what I sang, but I remember I was between Tom T. Hall and Bobby Bare. And Tom T. handed me the guitar, and it seemed like it took forever for me to get through whatever I played. I know I was so happy when I handed Bobby the guitar. I was the only person there that wasn’t a star. … But Harlan didn’t tell me that. He just said, ‘we’re having a little party.’”
At some point, I asked Burns about his experiences playing the Grand Ole Opry. He said he’d done it three times.
“Porter put me on the first time. The second time, me and Hank (Cochran) did it when ‘Desperate Men’ went to No. 1,” Burns said, referring to his album which topped the Americana chart in 1997.
“And, then, just out of the blue, only about three or four months ago, I got a call from Shooter (Jennings). I knew Waylon and his other three kids, but I didn’t know Shooter. I had never met him.
“Well, he calls me and asks if I’d like to open for him over in North Carolina, and, of course, I said yes. … Shooter was really nice, and he told me that he was a fan and that he’d heard of me all of his life, but that it was his wife who turned him on to my music. She had heard my song, ‘Haggard and Hank.’
“So, about a week after the North Carolina gig, Shooter calls me and says, ‘hey, I’ve got three spots on the Grand Ole Opry this weekend, and I thought I’d let you do one. I told mama (Jessi Colter), she was going to do one, you can do one and I’ll close it.’ And I said, ‘yeah, man.’”
Burns said that he was impressed that Shooter offered the unsolicited opportunity.
“Most people wouldn’t give up their spots on the Opry like that, and you can’t blame them,” Burns said. “He could have been out there promoting his own stuff.”
As the conversation began to wind down, I asked Burns how important it was for him to stay true to his ideals as a songwriter, even if it meant fewer chances for financial reward.
“I’ve got a good buddy whose name is Jerry Laseter,” Burns said. “He wrote the Song of the Year for Billy Ray Cyrus, and he had a No. 1 song for Tim McGraw called ‘Down on the Farm.’
“Well, Jerry called me one time, and he said, ‘hey, man, if you’ll take me to the airport Thursday and pick me up on Monday, you can keep my new Jag while I’m gone.’ He had a brand new Jaguar that he had just bought – hadn’t had it two weeks. And I said, ‘yeah, I’ll do that Jerry.’”
Note that Willie Nelson recorded the Burns-penned “(I Don’t Have a Reason) To Go to California Anymore” on his 1990 album, “Born For Trouble.”
Burns continued, “So, we’re on our way to the airport, and Jerry said, ‘what’s it like to have a Willie cut?’ I said, ‘it’s good, Jerry. But, damn, what’s it like to have the No. 1 song in the world right now?’ And he said, ‘yeah, it’s great, but it ain’t no Willie cut.’ I thought that was cool.”
By this point, I thought it pretty cool that I was talking to Burns, whose newest album, “Nights When I’m Sober,” was released last year on a Raleigh, N.C.-based label called Rusty Knuckles.
I hated to say goodbye, but I knew the deadline for my print story was fast approaching.
Then, Burns, startled me by offering me one of the kindest compliments I’ve ever received.
“I’m damn impressed with you,” Burns said as we were wrapping up the phone call. “I don’t have to wonder why you’re the entertainment writer. You’re more knowledgeable about this stuff than I am.”
I can’t begin to tell how much it meant to hear something like that from a man who’s accomplished a heck of a lot more than I have. Did I mention he’s had a Willie cut?
a night in room 8
Songwriter and artist Billy Don Burns is well-known and well-respected among some of country music's biggest legends: Throughout the past several decades, Burns has collaborated with iconic names such as Waylon Jennings, Harlan Howard, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson and Wanda Jackson on a variety of projects, while also spending time in and out of rehab and jail, battling the demons of addiction.
In a moment of sobriety, Burns and Shooter Jennings came up with an inspired and ambitious album: A Night in Room 8, recorded in Room No. 8 at the Joshua Tree Inn in Joshua Tree, Calif. -- the very same room where Gram Parsons died in 1973. Jennings signed on as the producer of the project, which was first released as part of Record Store Day 2016's special offerings.
Burns and Jennings sat down with The Boot to discuss A Night in Room 8 (available on vinyl at Amazon and for download on iTunes), their recording process for the record and the permanent bond the creation of the disc forged between the two men.
How did A Night in Room 8 begin?
Billy Don Burns: I like things like that. I like Joshua Tree; I’d been there several times before.
Shooter Jennings: It starts a long time ago: We met at a mutual friend of ours' house. My wife, Misty [Swain], is the reason for the whole thing, how Billy Don and I became friends. I got asked to come down by another friend and record in North Carolina with him. At the time, my wife and I were just dating, and she was a big Billy Don Burns fan and had a record of his that she really loved and played it for me: [2004's] Heroes, Friends & Other Troubled Souls. It was a beautiful record, and she was really into it, and [my friend] said, "Hey, I can invite Billy Don down to the session. Do you want to come down?" I said, "Yeah, my wife would love to meet him."
We were doing something together, and I had this idea of doing something in that room. It hit me, and then I thought, me and Jon Hensley -- Col. Jon Hensley, my manager who passed away [in June of 2015] -- we started kicking around the idea of doing a Billy Don record, and it just struck me to do something in that room. I said it to Billy Don, and he said, "I like that idea."
What was the mood like in the room while recording A Night in Room 8?
Burns: It’s not hard to love Shooter and Misty and Jon. They treated me like family. So it was a mystical time. To me, it’s like we were in a bubble: We were laughing around and in all kinds of moods, I guess. I don’t know if Shooter wants to go into that or not ...
Jennings: To me, the idea of there being this environmental element to the record that you can’t hear, necessarily, or you can’t see -- it wasn’t like having a guest on the record, but it was like going to a sacred place and respectfully doing a record there ... So there’s, like, five other people in the room, and you can hear that.
I never heard a record quite anything like that, to be able to really take this intimate vibe, but not muting the life of it, the laughing, or taking a break.
How long did it take to record A Night in Room 8?
Jennings: We thought we were going to do it over a couple of days, and we did spend a couple days recording it, but we used only the first night. We went up until about whatever time it was Gram passed, and that’s when we did the Gram song ["When Gram Parsons Died, I Was Playin' Hank"]. We just kind of held on. It was kind of like an experiment ... There was like a fifth wall through the whole thing, not necessarily what the listener would pick up on.
The environment was a player in it. We were just laughing, cutting up, sitting on the bed, talking. I came home, and I think I had 13 cassette tapes. Afterwards, I went through them all. It literally took me about half a year to really kind of dice it all up correctly and get all the pieces in there. You can hear the different moods, you can hear the joking, you can hear the stories, you can hear people in the corners. To me, it was really like capturing kind of this special energy that we had in that room and then trying to preserve that. There was a lot of weird technical things that happened.
Billy Don, you said that A Night in Room 8 was recorded during a moment of sobriety for you. Why was that important?
Burns: I was an addict at that time. I know that it had to be hard on Shooter and Misty sometimes. Shooter packs out these big joints all over the country. His work is so great. I had to be a burden on those guys, but I guess everybody knows that anyway --
Jennings: He’s not a burden!
Sorry, man, didn’t mean to cut you off ... I have to say one thing about that: Billy Don has had his fight with addictions and all that. I think, in a way, that that was important, where he was. Shortly after that, he went through a lot in gaining sobriety.
It’s never something that ends. I get it; my dad had his own things with addiction. But Billy Don, the thing about him is, he’s got so much heart and soul. He never put that on anybody. Some people, they turn into a different person, and Billy Don’s heart was always there. He was so worried about not impeding on someone else, he’d walk all over himself.
He’s such a kind person. He comes across in his humor and in the storytelling and things like that. That doesn’t get captured a lot in records. That’s why this one is so important, trying to keep all these stories, and his self-deprecating humor sometimes. There’s so much charisma in that. That was the thing that I was the most trying to get across in this record.
Now that A Night in Room 8 is out, what are each of you planning next?
Burns: The record I had out before this, Nights When I’m Sober, that record company is out of North Carolina. It’s a two-record deal I made with them, and then Shooter wanted to do the Gram Parsons thing, so I went to Ralph Miller, who is the CEO of Rusty Knuckles Records, and I told him that I’d like to do that with Shooter and would that be alright with him and we’d do the one I owed him next. He said sure, so I’m actually working on the next album for Rusty Knuckles Records.
Jennings: I’m working on a lot of stuff; I’ve got a lot of stuff this year. I’m working on a record with Julie Roberts, and we’ve spent a whole year on that ... I’m excited for her to find a home for that record.
And then I’m working on some other projects that will be coming out later this year. [In March, I] finally got my Countach [(for Giorgio)] record out, so that was a good year and a half of my life.
I’m in constant perpetual motion. If I can keep a record in the works, I kind of feel like I’m getting something done.
a night in room 8 article 2
Billy Don Burns may not be a household name in most music circles, but the singer/songwriter/producer is often listed in same sentence when referring to original outlaws like Waylon, Willie, Merle, Johnny and Kris. In the beginning of 2014, during a period of sobriety for Burns, he, Shooter Jennings, the late Colonel Jon Hensley and a few others retreated to the Joshua Tree Inn in Joshua Tree, CA, to room 8, the hotel room where Gram Parsons was found dead in 1973. The result is the incredibly compelling A Night In Room 8, set for a very limited release on beautiful white vinyl!
The entirety of A Night In Room 8 was recorded within the hotel room on a Tascam Portastudio (the same model on which Bruce Springsteen recorded Nebraska.) A Night in Room 8 is an eerie yet extremely vulnerable album of new, brilliant material from such a relic of country music. The environment of the recording by itself creates a very unusual and haunting atmosphere for the performances.
Billy Don Burns came up with the best. The minute he hit Nashville in 1972 he was collaborating with Harlan Howard, Willie Nelson, Wanda Jackson and writing hit songs for Connie Smith and others. Considered a friend to the greats in country music, Billy Don has always been one of those rare songwriters who shined in the Dylan/Kristofferson light of honesty and grit.
He has danced on the razor’s edge of between literary prophecy and addiction with turns on the run, in rehab and in jail, but in the last year Billy Don has turned it all around and turned a new page of his life.
“This is a very special album, with a very unique story,” said Shooter. “Perfect for someone with such a unique life.”
BILLY DON BURNS