Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Billy Burnette: Fleetwood, Fogerty & a Family of Rockabillies

Billy Burnette knows what it's like to grow up in the music business.  His dad was Dorsey Burnette and his uncle was Johnny Burnette.  Johnny's son Rocky is also a singer and you'll read how he and Billy played a key role in naming their parents music from the mid-50's.  Billy's career has taken him from solo records to fronting Fleetwood Mac to touring with legends like Bob Dylan and John Fogerty and back to solo projects.  Rock N' Roll With It is his latest and it goes back to his rockabilly roots.  I had the opportunity to talk about his whole career and dig into specific tracks on this latest project with Billy recently.

My 11 year old son likes to get involved with these and his question for you is a great place to start since it’s at the very beginning.  He wants to know if you’re really the “Billy” in “rockabilly”?
Yeah!  They (Dorsey and Johnny) wrote it right after we were born.  I’m a month older than Rocky.  They wrote the song “Rock Billy Boogie”.  That kind of made the term.  It was rock & roll and hillbilly music mixed together but they kind of came up with the phrase “rockabilly” and that was the first time a lot of people started using it.

They were such a wild, raw rockabilly sound.  Plus, I read they were amateur boxers.  Did they scare people back then with being so tough?
Dorsey (left) and Johnny (right)
They were tough.  You had to be kinda tough playing that kind of music back then because nobody was doing it.  The south was a different place then.  You just had to be tough.  They had to fight their way out of clubs.  My dad was a boxer and fought Sonny Liston in an exhibition room in St. Louis.  They were into it.

They were punk rock before there was such a thing.
Yeah they were.  They influenced a lot of the English bands.  The Beatles covered “Lonesome Tears In My Eyes”.  Elvis used to come around to Lauderdale Courts where they played.  That’s where they rehearsed.  The band was in the laundry room.  Elvis would come around and my dad would run him off every once and a while.  “Boy, get out of here!” (laughs)  They made it up to him.  They kind of turned him on to Scotty Moore and Bill Black back then.

Didn't you start your career at age 7?
I recorded my first record in 1960 for Dot Records.

At 13 you toured with Brenda Lee.  Did you think this was normal for all kids your age?
I thought it was.  I thought that every family was involved in music because my uncle was involved in it.  I was involved in it.  Everybody was in it.  All of our friends were musicians.  I’d be hanging around the house and there’d be Roger Miller, Glen Campbell, Gene Vincent and people like that hanging around.

Speaking of Roger Miller, you toured with him for a bit.
Yeah, I did some touring with Roger early on.  Mostly we did Vegas.  Back then we’d do Vegas for 2-3 weeks at a time.

Wasn't this the time your songwriting skills really came into shape?
You know I was around guitars all the time but I didn’t really pick it up until I was around 13 or 14.  I think it was about the time I was in Japan with Brenda (Lee).  I got into playing guitar when I got back.  I wish I had gotten it started a little earlier.  As soon as I started, I was making up stuff and writing songs.  A week out of high school my dad took me down to Memphis to meet Chips Moman.  I had grown up in LA.  There were some great writers down there like Mark James, Johnny Christopher, Bobby Woods, Dan Penn and Chips himself.  I learned how to write songs through those guys.  They were writing hit after hit. 

You’ve had a lot of artists cut your tunes.
A couple of years ago we did the Grammy’s with Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard.  I gave a cd to Jerry of Shawn Camp and myself.  He’s cut 2-3 songs off that already.  We’re excited to hear that.  I used to work with Jerry and my dad years ago.  He had cut “Honky Tonk Heaven”.   I had songs cut by The Everly Brothers.  I’ve been writing with Phil Everly and wrote a really cool song with him. 

One of my favorite tracks off of that last studio project for Roy Orbison called Mystery Girl was a track you wrote titled “(All I Can Do Is) Dream You”.  What was that like?
That was a funny story.  It was a great day for me.  I got the call to join Fleetwood Mac as I was in the studio with Roy doing my song.  Roy and I had even done the background vocals on that.  Rick Vito played guitars on it.  Mick (Fleetwood) called and said “You have that guitar player that played on the demo the other night?”.  Mick and I had a group called The Zoo.  I was kind of accepted in to their whole family anyway.  I had started writing with Christine (McVie).  I did a duet with Stevie Nicks.  Lindsey (Buckingham) actually got me in the band to go to New York to do Saturday Night Live with them.  But yeah that was a big day being in the studio with Roy and his wife Barbara.  T-Bone (Burnette) was producing and Jim Keltner was playing drums.  T-Bone Walk was playing bass.  Bless his heart though he’s passed away since then.  It was just a great session and Roy was so great.  Roy said “will you sing a ghost vocal for me?” which means do a vocal for him to learn from.  We wrote this for Roy.  He cut it and it was a great thrill for me.
Billy Burnette in Fleetwood Mac (far right)

Did you have a moment where you freaked out a bit realizing you were in the band?
They were one of my favorite bands!  I had met Mick at a Dick Clark Anniversary.  We sat at the same table and hit it off.  They were forming a band and Mick called and asked if I wanted to join a band and I said “Don’t you already have one?”   They wanted to put together a fun band.  We started working on a record.  We did an album called The Zoo.  We cut “Tear It Up” on that one too.  When I joined Fleetwood Mac they were in production of Tango In The Night.  And I had a record out that was doing pretty good at the time.  I was nominated for Best New Country Male Vocalist for the ACM Awards.  When he called and asked me to join I asked “when do you want this to happen?”  He said “tomorrow morning” (laughs).  I had to get on the phone that night with Curb.  Mike Curb was gracious enough to let me out of my record deal.  They wanted me to be freed up to join the band.

You toured the world with them didn't you?
Oh yeah.  I think I did 3 world tours with them.

That was a cool mix of your background and Fleetwood Mac’s early blues roots.
Fleetwood Mac had cut “Honey Hush” .  The original was a slow blues version.  My dad and uncle took it and made the “claw lick” as they called it.

Fast forward a few years and you find yourself touring with Bob Dylan.  How did this come about?
I had met Bob years ago in the 70’s.  I walked into this club with Roger McGuinn and T-Bone Burnette.  T-Bone and I were friends.  We had played around some clubs together in LA.  He introduced me to Bob.  He said “man, I love your dad’s song ‘Tall Oak Tree’.”  You realize that’s the first Ecology song.  I had never thought it like that nor had my dad.  My dad was still alive and I called him and told him.  He was really thrilled about that.  Years later I ran into Bob at Barbara Orbison’s house.  Barbara was publisher for a long time.  I got a call to come out to New York and try out for the band.  I tried out and got the gig.  I went to Australia and New Zealand with them.

with John Fogerty
Then you hit the road for a few years with John Fogerty.
Right after that, Bob Dylan’s manager Jeff Kramer was managing John Fogerty.  He said “I got something that might be interesting for you.”  It had been years since I had been a sideman.  I was doing records myself and doing pretty good as a writer.  I had my songs cut by Ray Charles, Rod Stewart, Roy Orbison…a lot of my heroes.  To play with Bob Dylan was just really something and then to join Fogerty…I mean when I was younger I played those songs in my high school band.  I’ve really been blessed in my whole career to play with these people.

John Fogerty seems to never lose energy!
Yeah, it’s amazing really!

Do you miss him saying “on the chugga chugga guitar…Mr. Billy Burnette”?
Oh yeah! (laughs)

You did a fantastic album in 2006 called Memphis In Manhattan.  This was done live wasn’t it?
Totally live.  No overdubs at all.  I don’t know if I want to do that one again (laughs).  You can’t fix stuff.  I mean there’s a certain energy you get with it.  It’s live!

That had a great cover of Bob Dylan’s “Everything Is Broken”.
Oh yeah.  I always loved that song.

The next year you put out a record with Shawn Camp called The Bluegrass Elvises.  Where did this concept come from?
Shawn and I were over at Cowboy Jack Clements studio.  We just kind of put it together and did it.  That was pretty much a live record.  We did 2-3 tracks to try it out.  Then we went for it and did the rest of the album in one day.  We did it at John Prine’s studio.  I didn’t know much about that world.  Shawn and I had a song at the time cut by the Del McCoury Band.  Shawn is one of the best in that field.  It was something.  I had to play really fast!  It was a lot of fun.  A lot of people really liked that record.

Your new album, Rock N' Roll With It, is totally independent.
First time I’ve ever produced a record myself.  I had a hand in production before.  We all kind of produced Fleetwood Mac.  I was always in there and had creative control but had a producer of course.  With this one I wanted to do the whole thing myself and put it out.  We spent a day cutting the tracks.  Kenny Vaughan, Dave Roe, Chad Cromwell. ..we’ve done a lot of sessions together. 

There’s also a Christmas version of the title track called “Rock And Roll In Christmas”.
I just did that.  I didn’t have time to write a new Christmas song.  I had the track sitting there and started messing around with it and said “hey this kinda works” so I put that together.


“My Love Will Not Change” really is a great rhythm song that has to be fun to play live.
That’s the song Del McCoury had a hit with.  The video was a big hit.  They showed the video all the time on CMT.  Hal Ketchum had cut the song too.  The song had been floating around for a while.  One of my favorites!  It’s one of those songs you can do live and has a certain energy.  It’s like “Tear It Up”.  It has the same kind of energy.

One of my favorites is “Wrong One Right”.
Yeah, that’s Shawn Camp and myself.  Some of these songs I had already written and wanted to do on a record before.  “Wrong One Right” is kind of funky.  It’s kind of a true story.

Yeah, we’ve all been in that situation most likely.
Yeah (laughs)

Do I hear a Roy Orbison influence on “Only The River Knows”?
That’s definitely inspired by Roy Orbison and that type of a vibe.

Who came up with vocal harmonies on that one?
Bekka Bramlett  helped me do the backgrounds on that.  Bekka is one of the greatest singers on the planet.  She helped me arrange those background vocals.  She’s really something.  The part she came up with was really great.

Was the Bo Diddley beat you have going in “Karaoke Queen” intentional?
I tried to cover all the grooves from those days.  I’m not cutting down any of the music today.  I think there’s some great artists and music today.  I just wanted to do a retro kind of album and take it back a bit yet do it with a modern sound.  Westwood Studios is a great room.  Micky Cones is a great engineer.  We had a great sound.  Dave Roe is a great stand up bass player.  He’s just a great bass player period.   Kenny Vaughan is one of my favorite guitar players.  Chad Cromwell is one my favorite drummers.
Junior Johnson

“Hot Rod Hillbilly” is a great title and a whole lot of fun.  What is this one about?
Shawn Camp and myself wrote that.  We’ve written a couple of songs for this movie about the Junior Johnson story.  He was one of the first Nascar drivers. 

Tell me about “Rollercoaster Ride”.
My son, Billy Jr., gave me the idea for that and we wrote that together.  He has a band himself and gave me the concept.  It was great at the time.  I had open heart surgery a couple of years ago.  My whole life has been a roller coaster ride (laughs).

Before you go, I wanted to ask about a Rockabilly CafĂ© you’re planning.  When will we see this come about?
We’re still working on that.  In fact I’ve got a meeting here this week.  We’re pursuing that.  That’s been a dream of mine forever to have a club called Rockabilly’s.  It’s going to be really 50’s.  I have a certain design I want with that.  We have a good team put together.  We’re working on that.  It will be coming sometime next year I hope.

EPK for Rock N' Roll With It

"Tear It Up"

"Don't Say No"

"Oh Well" with Fleetwood Mac

"Lookin' Out My Back Door" with John Fogerty