by Michelle Broussard Honick
Billy Burnette literally is the Billy in Rockabilly. When his dad Dorsey Burnette and uncle Johnny Burnette created the popular style of music blending rock and hillbilly in the Fifties, they wrote the song “Rockabilly Boogie” in honor of their infant sons Billy and Rocky. The term stuck for the kind of music they were doing, and rockabilly music was born.
Burnette is the author of a fascinating new autobiography, “Crazy Like Me,” with a companion CD of the same title. He has great stories to tell about a multitude of experiences and he recounts them for his readers in a conversational tone that makes them feel as though they are sitting in their living room, chatting with him. The singer talks about his childhood growing up in a home filled with music and celebrities of the moment.
He’s also honest about his own experiences as he found his niche in the music world, first traveling as a youngster on a tour with Brenda Lee when he was 12, then being invited to join the rock ‘n roll world of Fleetwood Mac, one of the hottest bands at the time he became a member of the group. He details their exploits including the drug culture of the day and the wild times they had on the road, as well as talks about his love for the music and their travels around the world. He lets readers in on what it was like to later be on the road with John Fogerty and Bob Dylan as he also got to travel extensively with them.
The Memphis native says the most exciting moment of a lifetime of memories was “joining Fleetwood Mac and playing with them for almost ten years. I’d known them a while before joining, and it was a big deal. It changed my life overnight. The morning after I became a member of the band I was on Good Morning, America with them. They were such a powerful band.”
Burnette says he has no regrets over joining them, even though at the time his career as a country artist on Curb Records was kicking off. He had just been nominated for Best New Male Vocalist by the Academy of Country Music alongside Randy Travis, Marty Stuart, Keith Whitley and T. Graham Brown. He will always be thankful to Mike Curb for allowing him out of his contract so he could join Fleetwood Mac.
“When I was with Fleetwood Mac, we had a private jet and were so pampered. It was just a little over the top. We played the Super Bowl when Michael Jackson played at half-time, and then I played it again with John Fogarty when Paul McCartney played at half-time. When the Clinton-Gore ticket won the first election, I went with John Kay of Steppenwolf to meet Al and Tipper Gore at the Nashville airport, then sang at a party for them that night. They told me their favorite song was ‘Don’t Stop’, so I arranged for Fleetwood Mac to sing it at the Inauguration. They reunited for it so I was asked by Stevie Nicks not to perform so Lindsey Buckingham could play with them.”
Though admitting that hurt, he added he’s still friends with Mick Fleetwood, Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie. Mick, who wrote the blurb for Billy’s new book, points out how loyal his former bandmate is. And he should know. Burnette once turned down a million dollars to write a book about the dirt of Fleetwood Mac.
As one might imagine, Burnette has many memories from his decades of playing music. “My favorite picture is one with Paul McCartney and my friend Gary Busey when Paul invited me backstage at his concert at The Forum. Paul held my hand and told me he wanted me to know how much my dad and the music of The Rock ’n Roll Trio (Dorsey, Johnny and Paul Burlison) meant to him and John Lennon. He said they’d get the Trio’s records from sailors on Liverpool’s docks because the records were banned in a lot of places then. So he and John would learn them and play them.”
“In fact, he told me he still performs ‘Honey Hush’ at soundchecks and that one of his favorites is Rick Nelson’s ‘Believe What You Say,’ which was written by my dad. The Beatles even recorded some of my dad’s and uncle’s music (onThe Beatles at the BBC), and Ringo had a big solo hit with their ‘She’s 16’ If I could have anyone at all record any of the songs I’ve written, it would be Paul.”
Coming from a musical family, it’s no surprise that Burnette got his start at an early age. “I started singing when I was three and recorded my first record when I was seven. I thought it was what everybody did. Growing up in Hollywood, people like Glen Campbell, Roger Miller, Rick Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Duane Eddy, James Garner, Nick Adams, and Jerry Lee Lewis used to hang out at our house.
“Elvis had watched my dad and Uncle Johnny rehearse when they all lived at Lauderdale Courts in Memphis, before he got started, and they were still friends. When Elvis and Priscilla kicked the Memphis Mafia out of their house in L.A., those guys came and stayed at our house.
“Glen was always one of my favorite singers—so pure, always in tune, and a great player. He just had it all going on. He had a great sense of humor, too. Once, he was in a car and he saw a lineman about to climb a pole. He rolled down his window, yelled, ‘Are you a lineman for the county?,’ rolled his window up and drove off, with the man no doubt wondering if that really was Glen Campbell asking him that!”
One of Burnette’s first major tours was with Brenda Lee when he was 13. “I went to Tokyo with Brenda. She was huge. It was the Casuals, me, intermission, then Brenda. I’d sing five songs, usually including one of dad’s, my uncle’s ‘You’re Sixteen’, Rick Nelson’s ‘It’s Late’ that my dad wrote, and ‘Hound Dog.’ They took very good care of American artists. I still remember having Kobe beef for dinner one night—and they also gave me sake!
Burnette came to Nashville in the early Seventies to write songs. “I grew up in L.A., but it’s not the same now. People like Johnny Depp, Justin Timberlake and Will Farrell live in Nashville now.
“I joined Bob Dylan’s band for a while. He told me when I first met him that he’d been listening to my record in his truck, which was a thrill. When I joined his band, I was told at the time not to talk about him to anybody. We wouldn’t even know where we were going. A car would just pick us up. We didn’t know our itinerary, and he would change the hotel. He’s a Gemini, so you never knew what you’d get when he walked in the door,” he says of the mysterious legend.
Billy continues to live in Nashville, writing hits like George Strait’s “River of Love,” and continuing to record his own music. Someone told him that he should start a rockabilly band, but he says his music was always too country for rock ‘n roll and too rock ‘n roll for country.
“I had several country deals in Nashville. When Bekka Bramlette and I had (the duo) Bekka & Billy, we had a huge record deal in Nashville, but I think we might not have been considered country enough. She’s still one of the best, most soulful singers around,” Billy says.
Burnette’s good looks and natural acting ability (he helped one-time bandmate Gary Busey get ready to play Buddy Holly) led to roles in six movies in a row, including “Saturday
Night Special” (which has had six-and-a-half million views on YouTube), “The Addams Family Reunion” and “Richie Rich’s Christmas Vacation.”
Burnette is all about family. The oldest of seven kids, the singer has two sons of his own. “My boys both were great at baseball. Now Beau has his own band, Hot Damn Burnette, and Billy works for my publishing company and plays guitar,” he says, with obvious pride. When showing me around his home studio and its museum, he pointed out a picture of his beautiful sister Katina, who had been killed in a car accident at just 22, before talking about any of his cool music memorabilia.
Burnette says he decided to write the book now to set the record straight in print about the Rock ’n Roll Trio. “Dad was my best friend. He and my mom were both spiritual people. He was ahead of his time in his way of thinking, and he was surrounded by so many talented artists. He sang around the house and was always writing something new. He had so many hits, and he and his brother influenced so many, to say the least. His ‘It’s Late’ was Rick Nelson’s biggest hit, and Dad produced the first record on Stevie Wonder. After my dad died in 1979 was when I really realized what he’d done.”
What’s the singer’s next adventure? “A backer is talking with me about opening a rockabilly club in downtown Nashville,” he says. “It would have really good live music, a recording facility and maybe use rehearsals.com with moving cameras to record live shows and videos.”
For someone who’s lived the exciting life he has, Burnette is surprisingly humble and gracious. “My kids are healthy, I have the best friends in the world, and I’m lucky and blessed to do what I’ve always loved to do and still be doing it. Family really is the most important thing.”
“Crazy Like Me,” the book and CD, can be found at Amazon by clicking https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_2?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=billy+burnette
Michelle Broussard Honick is a freelance journalist who lives in Nashville, Tennessee. She has written for numerous magazines including “American Songwriter,” “Nashville Scene” and “Nashvillian.” She has also written several mystery dinner theatre plays and books, including “Ghosts, Gangsters and Gamblers of Las Vegas.” Honick had a short story, “Trouble at the Hip Joint,” in the Valentine’s anthology, “The Trouble With Cupid.” She is currently working on “Trouble With Tigers,” a book in a new series featuring Trouble, the black cat detective.