Billy Burnette: From Fleetwood Mac To Dylan To The Rockabilly Hall Of Fame

Copyrights: By Evan Schlansky

Born into a family of esteemed songwriters, Billy Burnette – whose father and uncle were two thirds of influential ‘50s rockabilly group The Rock and Roll Trio – has written songs for everyone from Roy Orbison and Tammy Wynette to Alan Jackson and Faith Hill.

After years touring alongside Bob Dylan and John Fogerty, the Nashville-based guitarist, singer-songwriter and Fleetwood Mac member has released his first solo album in a decade, Rock & Roll With It. We talked to the International Rockabilly Hall of Fame inductee about producing his own record, Fleetwood Mac’s off-stage tiffs and how Bob Dylan kept him on his toes.

You come from a songwriting family. Did you always think you’d be in the business?

I was in it before I can even remember because it’s all I thought anybody did. I started performing when I was three-and-a-half years old and I cut my first record for a major label when I was seven.

How many solo albums have you put out?

I’ve lost count. I did my first about a week out of high school in Memphis when I was 18. I’ve been on just about every label in the business.

What was the impetus for the new album?

I haven’t done a studio album in about 10 years. I’ve been with John Fogerty for the last five years and before that with Dylan’s band. It had been a while and I just had to do a record. I’ve never done one that I produced and did everything myself.

So did you play all of the instruments?

No, I had Dave Roe, Kenny Vaughan, and Chad Cromwell on drums. We did all the tracks in three sessions. Then I took it home, worked on it, added guitars and additional background vocals. I did a lot of the guitars by myself at home.

Do you prefer the older, vintage style of recording or the new, digital style?

When we’re mixing and recording we use a lot of vintage equipment. We cut it on tape, moved it to Pro Tools, and then mixed it back. I have my process of doing it and believe tape has a richer quality.

Are you into country as much as you are rockabilly?

Country music has changed. I came to Nashville in ’72 and people like Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn cut the songs. They would hear a song, go in, cut it and it would be out the next week. Now it’s what I call “slow business” – they think about something for so long, they cut it, and then think about it again.

How did you get to be a part of Fleetwood Mac?

A month after I’d been nominated for ACM Best New Male vocalist [in 1985] I got the call to join. It was a big life change, and it was exciting – it was a great band and I was huge fan. They were a tight knit family and Lindsey [Buckingham] was a fan of mine from my rockabilly records. I’d sung on a couple of albums and they’d had me out on the road before I was part of the band.

Fleetwood Mac is famous for their inter-band drama. Did you witness any of that?

Oh yeah. I remember when a book came out exposing all of that. We were in Austria and they weren’t too happy that day. There’s drama in every band – overall we got along really good.

Was it more fun than being in Dylan or Fogerty’s band?

With Fogerty and Dylan I was a sideman, but of course… he’s Bob Dylan. I loved playing with his band and I’d been a fan of Fogerty since before high school. Fleetwood Mac was a pretty democratic way of working things out – we would have meetings about everything and we were equal members. With John and Bob, they made the decisions.

Did Dylan change his arrangements to suit your playing style?

No, but he changes stuff every set. We didn’t get the set list until about 20 minutes before we went on. You never know what’s going to happen with that deal – you’re always on your toes with Dylan.

Did you have to learn his whole catalog?

I did learn it all. The band laughed because I told them I learned the songs on the records and they said, “that’s been different for years!” I even had a minor case of carpal tunnel because I was in my room all of the time learning songs. We had our staples though – we did “All Along the Watchtower” pretty much every other night and “Highway 61”.

So the other band members just ignored the album recordings?

Well, the guys who are playing with him now have been with him for 10, 15 years. When I started working with him, he was playing guitar and I could follow him. Then he decided to play piano half of the set, but the guys were great helping me learn it. When you’re with somebody like Dylan, living and breathing it every day, it’s an incredible experience.


Site of Elvis Presley's first public appearance before Sun Records discovery

Elvis Presley with KWEM Radio DJ Texas Bill Strength

Credits: Commercial Appeal Newspaper, Robert Dye Photographer

A historical marker is being erected at the site of the old Goodwin Institute Building (demolished in 1973) in Memphis, Tennessee  to commemorate the site of the KWEM Radio Station Saturday Night Jamboree, the location of the first major public appearance by Elvis Presley before signing with Sun Records a year later. The details of the Elvis performance in the 900 seat arena were unknown to the public before being revealed by Larry Manuel, Rockabilly star and son of KWEM's Joe Manuel who launched the Jamboree in early 1953. Not only did the young Elvis make his first major appearance there, other unknown artists including Johnny Cash, Reggie Young, Barbara Pittman, Lloyd Arnold, Charlie Feathers,  and Eddie Bond were regulars on the show. The KWEM Radio Station was located in West Memphis, Arkansas, just across the Mississippi River from Memphis and broadcast many of the shows.

The Jamboree was a family oriented country music show that ran from February of 1953 to December of 1954 and was broadcast on KWEM Radio, one of only 7 radio stations in Memphis at the time. The format was much like that of the Grand Ole Opry but the Jamboree, fronted by popular Memphis radio personality, Joe Manuel, allowed and encouraged amateur country music singers and musicians to take the stage and perform for packed houses every Saturday night. Elvis Presley's first official "public appearance"  and probably first radio broadcast (as an adult) happened at the Jamboree just months before making his historic recording of " That's Alright Mama " at fabled Sun Records.

Other unknown artists appearing at the Jamboree included future Sun Recording artists Johnny Cash and Barbara Pittman. Also appearing were other unknown artists including Bud Deckleman, Johnny and Dorsey Burnette, Reggie Young, Tommy Smith, Harmonica Frank Floyd, Lloyd Arnold, Kenneth Herman, Eddie Bond, John Hughey, Marcus Van Story, and many others. The Jamboree, according to the Bob Trimmers of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame,  may be the first location where a new music that would become known as Rockabilly was performed.

The Jamboree was so successful that it was extended to Friday Night for auditions to perform in one of the Saturday Night shows. Veta Arnold, niece of Lloyd Arnold, whose band was featured each week, recalls seeing Elvis for the first time standing in the shadows wearing a shockingly "Pink" sportscoat. The Jamboree was forced to close in November of 1954 when the Goodwin Institute decided to renovate the facility, but not before the fabulous history of a new music was created.

The historical marker will be erected in early 2012 at a ceremony with many of the notables of early Rockabilly and Memphis music in attendance. More information may be obtained by contacting the State of Tennessee Historical Commission.


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