|Billy Don Burns - photo by Lance Dawes|
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"Through a career that dates back to the early 1970s, singer-songwriter Billy Don Burns has earned the respect of some of country music's most legendary artists.
He's hung out with such internationally recognized superstars as Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Johnny Paycheck, and he's also had close association with such Nashville songwriting royalty as Harlan Howard and Hank Cochran.
But widespread commercial success has always eluded Burns, who has instead become somewhat of a cult music figure.
In other words, to be a fan of Burns takes a little digging.
“I don't have a lot of fans — maybe a couple of thousand — but they're the best fans on the planet,” said Burns, 64. “Man, they write me messages and say the best things. It's very humbling.” Those who are aware of Burns' artistry are likely to go on and on about how gut-wrenching and brutally honest his songs can be. Like such masters as Billy Joe Shaver and the late Townes Van Zandt, Burns can be classified as a “songwriters' songwriter.”
“People ask, 'How do you write?' Or sometimes somebody will say, 'That's a good hook,'” Burns said. “Well, if it's got a hook in it, it's just because it happened. I just sit down and write whatever comes out.
“… I've got (songwriting) buddies who have made millions, and I'm proud of them. They've written some great songs. But thinking about hooks and stuff like that is just not the way I approach it, for some reason.”
It's not like Burns hasn't had some degree of success. His 1997 album, “Desperate Men,” has the distinction of unseating Johnny Cash's “Unchained” for the No. 1 spot on what was then called the Gavin Americana chart.
“Johnny had been No. 1 for 14 weeks, and I kept moving up the chart and, all of a sudden, I was No. 2 and he was No. 1,” Burns said. “I started calling jocks and telling them to quit playing my record. … It was like I was unworthy. It felt almost like blasphemy or something to knock him out (of the top spot).”
Perhaps having heard about Burns' effort in trying to keep him at No. 1, Cash sent Burns a hand-written letter of congratulations when “Desperate Men” overtook his “Unchained” for the top spot on the chart.
Burns described receiving a letter from his hero as “the biggest thing that ever happened to me.” “I cried like a baby. I just couldn't believe it,” Burns said. “For him to have taken five or 10 minutes of his life to sit down and write me a note like that, it was overwhelming.”
Burns said he donated the letter to the Stone County Museum in the Ozarks region of Arkansas, where he was born and raised.
When he was growing up, Burns got to know legendary folk musician Jimmy Driftwood, who's most famous for having penned such classics as “The Battle of New Orleans” and “Tennessee Stud.”
“Jimmy always encouraged me,” Burns said. “And once I got into it, music was all that I did. There was no turning back. And I don't have any regrets. I don't have a 401k or any retirement (savings), but I did manage to buy me a farm back in the early '90s after Willie Nelson did a song of mine.”
Nelson recorded the Burns-penned “(I Don't Have a Reason) To Go to California Anymore” on his 1990 album, “Born For Trouble.”
Burns' newest album, “Nights When I'm Sober,” was released last year. It was recorded in Nashville and produced by South Carolina native Aaron David Rodgers.
“Aaron tracked me down about three or four years ago and told me that he wanted to produce an album on me,” Burns said. “He's really a rocker, so I asked him, 'Why the heck would you want to produce my country (tail)?' And he said, 'Man, I can feel your songs.' … He's a phenomenal South Carolina boy who comes from good people.”"
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