Billy Don Burns is perhaps the greatest unknown figure in outlaw country music, so if you’re not familiar with the man, his story, and his music, you can be forgiven. But by the end of this piece you may be scratching your head as to why he isn’t more of a household name.
Born in Arkansas, Burns’ country music career had a rather unorthodox start when he picked up a gig performing as Hank Williams at the Opryland USA theme park 1973. It opened up the gates to a quick succession of recordings of his songs by popular performers: Rick Nelson (“Wild Nights in Tulsa”), Mel Tillis (“I Always Come Back To Loving You”), and Connie Smith (“Be Alright In Arkansas”).
His career seemed to be on the rise with his Porter Wagoner-produced debut released in 1982, but seemed to stall over a series of unrealized projects that included his production work on a shelved gospel album, “Outlaw at the Cross,” by Johnny Paycheck. Willie Nelson’s 1990 recording of Burns’ “(I Don’t Have A Reason) To Go To California Anymore” gave his career a much-needed shot in the arm. His recording career resumed not long after that, though many of his albums have gone out of print.
In 2015 Shooter Jennings (son of Waylon) recorded an intimate solo acoustic performance of Burns for his label. “A Night In Room 8” was recorded in the same room at the Joshua Tree Inn where Gram Parsons died. The album is as raw as can be; between songs is banter between Burns, Jennings and his wife Misty, the guitar is slightly out of tune, and you can hear Burns breathing into the microphone, but you feel as if you’re right there in that hotel room, communing with Parsons’s ghost with Burns acting as medium.
Unfortunately for Burns, that recent period in his life was a bit of a blur. Not too shy to talk about his trials and tribulations with substance abuse, Burns confesses that he was so high that he hardly remembers the recording process and the subsequent tour.
“I went to prison right in the middle of that. It was a little ol’ dope charge. We played Cincinnati and crossed the Ohio River into Kentucky and that’s where it happened. They gave me probation and told me I couldn’t tour with Shooter. At that time Shooter was paying me good money so I ran off — what they call ‘absconded.’ Of course when I got picked up I got extradited and they sentenced me to two years. I did 13 months. I ain’t proud of it but I ain’t ashamed of it either. You know I don’t rob or steal. Anybody that’s perfect can throw the book at me but I’m a decent person.”
Released from prison early last year (due in part to a letter from Willie Nelson pleading for leniency), Burns has set out for an extensive winter tour of the western United States with South Dakota compatriot Ken Fanger. The tour is titled the “Talk About Crazy” tour, named after the Burns song of same name.
“We are a pretty wild and crazy bunch,” says Burns. “When you do this for forty-five years like I have you’re kinda like a truck driver — you’ve been up and down the road so much you’re half crazy.”
This month marks the second time Burns has swung through Eastern Oregon. Last July Burns was the marquee performer at Heppner’s Ruckus in the Boonies festival, which features a rowdy mixture of outlaw country, crust punk and heavy metal music. Ruckus promoter Aaron “Dog Bite” Harris, himself a country-punk performer, sees as Burns as an overlooked legend.
“I think country music should appreciate guys like Billy Don more. They are a dying breed,” Harris emphatically states. “We need to take care of them, and help them as much as we can because they are treated like [garbage] in the business they helped create. I think it’s a tragedy that guys like Luke Combs are on TV and I’m booking Billy Don shows at clubs where 20 people show up and talk over his set. He’s also just a good soul. He’s one of the most understanding, genuine guys I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with.”
At 68 years old ,Burns has been experiencing a surprising and very welcome career renaissance. Rising contemporary outlaw country performers Cody Jinks and Whitey Morgan have recorded his songs, which has raised his profile with a new generation.
Says Burns: “I tell you I get a lot of respect from these kids. Most of them I play with are twenty, thirty. Cody says he’s been a fan of mine for five years. So it’s really nice to be treated that way in my old age. Of course I’m out there still doin’ it. I gotta keep doin’ it — ’til the day I die hopefully.”
There are too many tales from Burns’ life to fit in the confines of this article: a broken engagement with Lorrie Morgan, dropping Johnny Paycheck off for a stint in prison, a lifelong friendship with Tanya Tucker, receiving a heartfelt letter from Johnny Cash, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton declaring March 27, 1983, as “Billy Don Burns Day,” a duet album recorded with legendary songwriter Hank Cochran, etc. A documentary on Burns also entitled “Talk About Crazy” has been in the works for a few years and will hopefully do him justice. In the meantime, the best way to digest the Billy Don Burns story is to witness him live in concert.
James Dean Kindle is a Pendleton musician and executive director of the Oregon East Symphony. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Billy Don Burns with Ken Fanger and Dog Bite Harris performs at Bucknum’s (Heppner) on Sunday, Jan. 21, and the Great Pacific (Pendleton) on Monday, Jan. 22.