Music News & Reviews

Rockabilly prince Billy Burnette comes to Woodsongs

Billy Burnette is the progeny of musicians and has played with greats like Fleetwood Mac, John Fogerty and Bob Dylan.
Billy Burnette is the progeny of musicians and has played with greats like Fleetwood Mac, John Fogerty and Bob Dylan.

Billy Burnette can't recall the first time the riotous sounds of rockabilly grabbed his attention.

Maybe that's because the music has surrounded every moment of his waking life — from the roots-driven songs his father and uncle created during the '50s with the acclaimed Rock and Roll Trio to the younger Burnette's own industrious career, which has included touring and recording tenures with Bob Dylan, Fleetwood Mac and John Fogerty as well as a rockabilly-and-more solo career he is just now returning to.

"As far back as I can remember, music is all I have ever done," said Burnette, 58, who performs Monday at the Kentucky Theatre for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. "My mother told me I performed with the Rock and Roll Trio when I was about three and a half. I've been told I sang Hound Dog or something with them as a kid. So I've been involved with music all of my life."

Born in Memphis, the city that helped put rockabilly on the map, Burnette and his family moved to Hollywood when he was in grade school. By age 7, he cut a single for Dot Records with Rick Nelson's band. His father, Dorsey Burnette, produced it.

"We lived right in the heart of Hollywood, so I wasn't the only one in school whose family was involved in music at the time. I just thought everyone was involved in making music and making records. My dad did it. My uncle (rockabilly great Johnny Burnette) did it. That was the way I was brought up."

By the time Burnette was in his early teens, he had cut records with Herb Alpert and toured with Brenda Lee. Roughly a week after he finished high school, his father took him back to Memphis to meet veteran country music producer Chips Moman.

"Instead of going to college, I went to the recording studio and became a writer and singer," Burnette said. "I kind of rediscovered my roots in Memphis then, too. I had a great time."

In the ensuing years, Burnette wrote and recorded steadily, constructing songs and recordings that mixed contemporary country formulas with his inherent command of rockabilly. But by the early '80s an entirely different alliance was struck.

In 1981, Fleetwood Mac drummer/co-founder Mick Fleetwood enlisted Burnette for his side project band The Zoo. The following year, that band backed up Fleetwood Mac guitarist/singer Lindsey Buckingham for an appearance on Saturday Night Live. In 1984, he co-wrote So Excited with Fleetwood Mac keyboardist/singer Christine McVie and recorded a duet called Are You Mine with Stevie Nicks during her Rock a Little sessions.

So it hardly seemed surprising that Burnette was summoned when Buckingham balked at the prospect of touring behind Fleetwood Mac's album Tango in the Night.

"They were in the middle of production rehearsals for Tango in the Night, so they had everything in gear to go on the road," Burnette recalled of joining Fleetwood Mac. "I guess Stevie and Lindsey must have gotten into it because they called me.

"It's a close family, Fleetwood Mac. It's really protected, but I was accepted in before I joined the band, really. Until that first gig in Kansas City, though, it was kind of scary. We didn't know what the crowd was going to think. But it all went fine."

With a more recent six-year stint playing in Fogerty's band also complete, Burnette has finally turned his attention exclusively to his own music. Along with his induction into the International Rockabilly Hall of Fame last month, Burnette has released his first solo album in a decade, Rock N Roll With It.

The album offers hearty samplings of Burnette's rockabilly roots in tunes like the Bo Diddley-flavored Karaoke Queen and the holiday original Rock N Roll in Christmas. But it also veers into vintage pop with the poppish, Roy Orbison-inspired Only the River Knows.

"I told myself it was simply time to do an album again, one that I did by myself. I've never done that before. I've always had a producer or a record company or a band I was part of behind me. So this is the first one I did with just me and my band. It was great fun.

"I've been really fortunate to have played with all these great people and then to have so many people (Ray Charles, Faith Hill, Cher, Loretta Lynn, George Strait and many others) record my songs. So I am very blessed when it comes to doing this."