Rock-A-Billy

I have to assume Billy Burnette lives in my neighborhood because I see him out walking and at the corner Kroger. It’s always a bit surreal to encounter one of Nashville’s most proven musicians (Fleetwood Mac and John Fogerty haven’t called YOU to play guitar on world tours, have they now?), not to mention a devilishly handsome cat with rockabilly hair in the produce section. Just another day in Nashville I guess. And Billy is such an approachable, unassuming guy that it’s easy to be blasé about his amazing resume and heritage. So here I am to tell you why his anchoring slot on this week’s Roots is not to be missed. 

Typically, the achievements of the father are of academic interest to the story of the son, but in Billy’s case, it’s like some unbroken flow. Put yourself in Memphis, circa 1953. Brothers Johnny and Dorsey Burnette are smoking up the edgiest joints in the city with a crackling combo called the Rock ‘n’ Roll Trio. Some kid named Elvis would come around their place seeking advice and guitar lessons. Dorsey was the energetic slap bass player, Johnny the lead singer and guitarist. Legend has it one of their best and biggest songs, “Rock Billy Boogie,” was named for Billy (Dorsey’s son) and Johnny’s son Rocky, and that’s how the term rockabilly was born. At least this is a hotly debated premise; I’ll have to ask Billy what he believes when he gets to the chat room.

What we do know is that the Rock ‘n’ Roll Trio influenced the Beatles, Ricky Nelson and the Stray Cats, among many others. And we know that Billy became a commanding musician on his own. By 13 he was touring overseas with Brenda Lee. By 18 he was being produced by the legendary Chips Moman. There was never a big breakout hit for Billy the solo artist, but the career that followed has been wide and deep, with spectacular credits as a musician, performer and songwriter. He was nominated as the ACM best New Male Vocalist in 1985. He was a full-time member of Fleetwood Mac between ’87 and ’95. And his songs have been cut by Roy Orbison, Ray Charles, Rod Stewart, Cher, Faith Hill and Greg Allman among beaucoup others. More recently, Burnette has been recording music closer to his rockabilly roots. His duo album of Elvis Presley songs with Shawn Camp a few years ago was brilliant. Now he has a new project called Rock N’ Roll With It, featuring twang, snap, romance and raw power. When Billy takes the stage at Roots this weekend, you’ll be seeing 40 years of experience in a guy who rocks like a teenager. It’s gonna be hot like a hot rod. 

The rest of the night will be great as well, with a raft of relative newcomers. St. Paul and the Broken Bones features a wild and wooly frontman who sings big bad soul music with power and finesse somewhat like our friend Mike Farris. This Birmingham-based, horn-laced outfit will open the night. Next will be Gwyneth & Monko, a heavy-traveling folk/roots duo out of California with one EP and one LP under their belt. Erick Baker is a sincere troubadour out of Knoxville who’s been recently added to the prestigious Cayamo festival/cruise. And Reed Foehl is a Colorado-based Bostonian who used to be part of the jammy Acoustic Junction but who now is impressing folks everywhere with his calm, commanding solo folk. 

So come for the songwriting and stay for the rockabilly. That’s what we call a well rounded Roots. 

Craig H.