Billy Don Burns is kind-of a rounder. In the sense that he’s been around. And likely around again. I took the picture above the first time I was introduced to him. He played the Opry with Shooter Jennings and Jessi Colter. He played his tune “Is He the Writer” — You can hear the Opry audience - with baited breath ( a phrase I rarely can justify using and meaning)— as they hang on his every word.
A row of blue-haired ladies clutched their chest and gasped as he sang this line:
"He’s holed up one night
as usual, alone,
He’d been drinkin’ and druggin’
and rightin’ his wrongs
With no more to lose,
there’s nothing to fear,
he takes out his knife
and he cuts off his ear.”
Now, I’m not entirely sure of the entire rip-roaring, winding path that led Billy Don from whence he came 60-ish years ago (somewhere in Arkansas) to that Opry performance last year and then a few days ago, to hotel room #8 (where Gram Parsons died) in Joshua Tree, CA with his sidekick Johnny, Shooter Jennings, wife Misty, me and Col. Jon — but I can testify that saying he turned up some dust on the way would be an understatement.
Somewhere between birth and last week, Sammy Kershaw, Connie Smith, Johnny Paycheck, and Willie Nelson have all cut Billy Don’s songs on records - not to mention his release of several records of his own. Oh, produced Hag. (Yeah, the Hag.) He’s had wives, he’s had women, he’s had babies, he’s had arrests, and he’s been to the shittiest shitholes and the fanciest parties. He’s seen Paycheck wield a knife at a pilot. Met thugs. Done drugs. Cut rugs. Been…around. And again.
In a music industry so focused on creating a narrative around their artists, Billy Don Burns should have the red carpet rolled out for him. His biography alone could float shitty songs - but Billy Don has great songs. It’s like - for a genuine country music audience - he’s a triple threat : He has a great back story, he writes these visceral melodic masterpieces, and he looks like a wonderfully bad-ass, bad ass. I rarely say it *best* myself - but as I shot photos of Billy Don on his motorcycle in the Vine below I sum it up with - “Oh, Man… Okay, he looks like a cool bastard.”
While in room #8, the five of us making up his motel audience listened- betwixt is the best word - as Billy Don played several songs in his vast catalog- including one about where he was at the time, 40 years ago , when Gram Parson died. The song left chills up and down my arms and a heavy spiritual weight on my heart. As Billy Don picked from line to line — sometimes, a toilet flush or a sink coming on would send a faint rush of water through the pipes above, one of us would re-adjust in our seat, or the heater would sigh — mostly, it was quiet. All of us, like Jon, below, a bit awestruck.
If you didn’t know, you might just walk by that room with no inkling that it was 6 people deep and think the only thing occupying #8 was one songwriter alone with his songs. And the magic of that - and the history of the space - makes me ache in the acknowledgement of just how special that moment was.
Maybe Billy Don Burns is just too good. I’m not the leading specialist on country music, but I pride myself on having good taste - and when I hears Billy Don’s music, I feel like the country music community should know him as an icon, and treat him as such. I won’t make a dirty laundry list, but he’s just as good as so many of the songwriters that still boast a cult-like following on the road, with far less songs of value and even less than that- songs that you’ll feel in your gut. I personally aspire to see the world around me, digest it, really feel it, and express it as poignantly and so right as this man. It’s one of those situations where - in theory - if Billy Don finally lost his shit and burned down Music Row, I’d probably be on his side.
He won’t burn it down, though.
He’s just too good. He’s only *sort-of* a rounder, remember? Billy Don visited the wrong side of the tracks - and visited the right ones - and he reminds us over and over in his music that, regardless of your side, the track sure as hell is in the middle and we all share it to get anywhere. What I additionally learned in the desert listening to all those songs is that most people in this metaphor wait for a train to pick them up — and Billy Don just takes his damn Harley.
Dig on Young Mary’s Record? Don’t just sit there, bust a LIKE.
- February 27 2014 1 Notes