Billy Don Burns (1949–)
Billy Don Burns is a country singer, guitarist, and songwriter. Born and raised in Arkansas, he has made his home state the subject of some of his most memorable music. While he has not enjoyed great commercial success, he has collaborated with the biggest names in country music. His drug abuse, time in prison, and multiple marriages have added to his legend, rendering him one of the true “outlaws” of country music.
Billy Don Burns was born on July 19, 1949, in Fifty-Six (Stone County), near Mountain View (Stone County), to Junior Jackson Burns and Urene Balentine Burns. His father was a farmer and timberman. The family did not have electricity until Burns was five. As is true of so many country musicians, he started in 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 his family knew personally).
In the late 1960s, Burns was drafted by the U.S. Army, serving from January 1968 to January 1970. He was trained as a paratrooper, but he remained in the United States during the Vietnam War. He disliked military life, 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; he met his hero, recorded some songs, and played for the first time on television.
In May 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 did not think much of “Tucker Farm,” but the warden at the Tucker Unit 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, who was Ernest Tubb’s steel guitarist. Owsley helped him get settled and introduced him to other musicians. That year, Burns signed with Harlan Howard’s Wilderness Records, although his time with Wilderness was brief.
His next stop was Mel Tillis’s Sawgrass Music, where Arkansas was not far from his mind. In 1973, he wrote the up-tempo “Be Alright in Arkansas” for Connie Smith (who was not from Arkansas or the South). At the time, Burns was also performing as “Hank Williams” at Opryland USA. Williams had always been one of his favorites, and the gig allowed him to hone his craft. In 1975, Burns’s “I Always Come Back to Loving You” appeared on the album Mel Tillis and the Statesiders.
In 1982, he released his first solo record, Ramblin’ Gypsy, produced by Porter Wagoner. The album did not sell well (though it later became a collector’s item), and it was his last solo record for more than a decade. Back home, Governor Bill Clinton declared March 27, 1983, “Billy Don Burns Day.” Despite his Arkansas roots, Burns spent much of the 1980s in Canada. He enjoyed it, but it kept him away from his two young sons. It was during his four years in Canada, he says, that he “lost my family.”
In 1990, Willie Nelson recorded Burns’s “(I Don’t Have a Reason) to Go to California Anymore.” The song furthered Burns’s 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 hit. Johnny Cash wrote him a letter of congratulations when it bumped Cash’s Unchained from the top Americana spot; Unchained had been at number one for fourteen weeks.
In the twenty-first century, Burns has released solo records with greater frequency than ever before, though he has struggled with addiction and legal troubles. In 2015, he recorded a solo acoustic album called A Night in Room 8, produced by Shooter Jennings. That same year, though, he was arrested in Kentucky for possession of methamphetamines. Sentenced to twenty-two months in prison, he was granted parole, provided he did not leave the state. He left Kentucky, however, and after a routine traffic stop in New Mexico, he was arrested for violating his parole. He served thirteen months.
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 Lorrie Morgan, though they got along well enough to collaborate on the 1984 song “New Commitments.” Never one to back down from a fight, he was once stabbed seventeen times in an eastern Texas bar. He is reluctant to give details about his life, wryly saying his stories are “either X-rated or incriminating.” He is plain, however, about what music has meant to him. “It’s been good to me really,” he said. “Not easy but good.”
Burns still lives in the Mountain View area.
For additional information:
Fennel, Andrew. “Billy Don Burns.” Rusty Knuckles, https://www.rustyknucklesmusic.com/pages/billy-don-burns (accessed March 31, 2023).
Kindle, James Dean. “Out of Prison and On Tour.” East Oregonian, January 19, 2018, https://www.eastoregonian.com/community/news/out-of-prison-and-on-tour/article_c379f0af-7383-5e16-997e-85f82d1c71e5.html (accessed March 31, 2023).
Lennon, Courtney. Live Forever: The Songwriting Legacy of Billy Joe Shaver. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2022.
“Nashville Scene.” Billboard, May 15, 1971, p. 43.
Reisman, Lisa. “A Real Deal Outlaw: Billy Don Burns.” June 21, 2018, CT Insider, https://www.ctinsider.com/living/article/A-real-deal-outlaw-Billy-Don-Burns-16962576.php (accessed March 31, 2023).
Schelle, Crystal. “‘Outlaw’ Country Singer-Songwriter Billy Don Burns Plays Two Gigs in the Area.” Herald-Mail Media, September 6, 2013, https://www.heraldmailmedia.com/story/lifestyle/2013/09/04/outlaw-country-singer-songwriter-billy-don-burns-plays-two-gigs-in-the-area/46176733/ (accessed March 31, 2023).
Colin Edward Woodward
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