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.
Below is his 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 32 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 Trouble CD. 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: This kid from South Carolina, Aaron Rodgers, ran me down and told me he was a big fan and wanted to produce a new CD on me. We did that and I am proud of it and I think it is one of my best ones. The CD is called (Nights When I’m Sober) Portrait of a Honky Tonk Singer and will be out soon.
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