Arkansas native Billy Don Burns has been playing music professionally for over 50 years. A survivor of six marriages, getting stabbed, a stint in prison and substance abuse, he’s had plenty to write about. At 73, he shows no signs of slowing down. He’s written songs for everyone from Willie Nelson, Mel Tillis and Hoyt Axton to Cody Jinks, Colter Wall and Whitey Morgan. He’s travelled from Japan to Germany and once kicked Tompall Glaser’s ass. And in the last 20 years, he’s been more productive and popular than ever. He has a new album coming out next year and is planning to tour in support of it.
I talked with Burns recently over the phone. I wasn’t sure what to expect. With his dark shades, black leather jacket, mustache and lean physique, he reminds you of Sam Elliott. On YouTube videos, he doesn’t seem chatty. During our conversation, though, he was like an old friend or favorite uncle — warm and funny with stories to spare.
Burns was born July 19, 1949 in Fifty-Six, a small community in Stone County, near Mountain View. His father was a farmer and timber man. Burns didn’t have electricity until he was 5. As is true of so many country musicians, he started in the church. There, he first played a Gibson guitar, a brand he has remained loyal to ever since. His early influences include Johnny Cash, Hank Williams and Jimmy Driftwood, the latter of whom the family knew personally. Burns still lives in the vicinity of Mountain View, though he plans to relocate to the Nashville area before long.
In the late ’60s, he was drafted. He hated the army, but after winning a talent show before a large crowd of soldiers, he thought he might want to pursue a music career. In 1970, he traveled to California. A huge fan of Merle Haggard and the Bakersfield scene, he visited Haggard’s publishing company one day. Not only did he get to meet his hero, Merle, he also got some songs recorded and played for the first time on television.
In May of 1971, Burns issued a single on the Souncot label, “She Hasn’t Been a Lady Very Long,” backed by a B-side, “Tucker Farm,” about the notorious Arkansas prison of the same name. He didn’t think much of “Tucker Farm,” but the warden at Tucker heard about it and invited him to play there, which he did.
In 1972, Burns arrived in Nashville, where he became friends with Lynn Owsley, Ernest Tubb’s pedal steel guitarist. Owsley helped him get settled and introduced him to other musicians. That year, Billy Don signed with Harland Howard’s Wilderness Records. His time with Wilderness, however, was brief, and in less than a year he’d signed with Mel Tillis’s Sawgrass Music, where he wrote the up-tempo “Be Alright in Arkansas” for Connie Smith (who is neither from Arkansas nor the South). At the time, Burns was also performing as a Hank Williams impersonator at Opryland USA. Hank had always been one of Burns’ favorites, and the gig allowed him to hone his craft. In 1975, Billy’s “I Always Come Back to Loving You” appeared on the album “Mel Tillis and the Statesiders.”
In the 1980s, Burns continued to endure the ups and downs of the music business, releasing his first solo record, “Ramblin’ Gypsy,” produced by Porter Wagoner. The album did not sell well (though is now a collector’s item), and it was his last solo record for more than a decade. Back home, then-Gov. Bill Clinton declared March 27, 1983, “Billy Don Burns Day.” Despite his Arkansas roots, Burns spent much of the ’80s in Canada. He enjoyed it, but it kept him away from his young children. It was during his four years in Canada, he says, that he “lost [his] family.”
In 1990, Willie Nelson recorded Burns’ “(I Don’t Have a Reason) To Go to California Anymore.” The song furthered Burns’ standing in the music business, but it was not a hit. In 1995, he issued a second solo effort, “Long Lost Highway,” following it with “Desperate Men” in 1996, an album he recorded with Hank Cochran. “Desperate Men” was a sensation, and Johnny Cash wrote Burns a letter of congratulations when it bumped Cash’s “Unchained” from its 14-week run at the top of the Americana charts.
In the past 20 years, Burns has released solo records with greater frequency, though he has struggled with addiction and legal troubles. Following the 2015 release of his solo acoustic album “A Night in Room 8,” produced by Shooter Jennings, Burns was arrested in Kentucky for possession of methamphetamines. Sentenced to 22 months in prison, he was granted parole, provided he did not leave the state.
But he did. And after a routine traffic stop in New Mexico, he was arrested for violating his parole. He served 13 months behind bars, but he has a sense of humor when asked about it. Echoing Merle Haggard’s classic “Mama Tried,” Burns jokingly sang “I turned 66 in prison” to me on the phone.
Burns’s personal life has been as complicated as his music career. He has been divorced six times. In the 1980s, he broke off an engagement to Nashville singer LorrieMorgan, though they got along well enough to collaborate on the 1984 song “New Commitments.”
Burns is much more willing to talk about his music than his marriages. When it comes to the details of long nights spent in bars, honky-tonks and cheap motels, he spares reporters the details (though he admits to getting stabbed 17 times in an East Texas bar fight), wryly saying his stories are “either X-rated or incriminating.” He’d prefer to speak through his guitar. And despite his age and current problems with his eyesight, he has dates planned for Kentucky in late January. Like so many musicians, he can’t give up the road. It’s his first love, even when it’s rough. When he looks back on his life and career, he is plain about what music has meant to him. “It’s been good to me really,” he said. “Not easy but good.”