Mobile Register (AL), September 10, 1993

Section: E

Billy Burnette


Entertainment Writer

Most parents are horrified when a child announces he's becoming a musician. Billy Burnette would have been run out of his family if he hadn't become one.

As the son and nephew of two pioneering country rockers, he could hardly have considered doing anything else.

``I don't know how to do anything else,'' he said. ``I've never had any other job.''

His father was Dorsey (``Tall Oak Tree'') Burnette and his uncle was Johnny (``You're 16'') Burnette. Along with guitarist Paul Burlison, their Rock 'n' Roll Trio influenced an entire generation of artists, from Rick Nelson to The Beatles. They perfected a style of up-tempo rock, boogie and blues before disbanding in 1957 and moving on to solo careers.

``I thought my childhood was normal until I realized not everybody made records or had a musician father,'' Billy said.

Burnette, 39, currently is touring with the Crown Royal Country Music Series, the first time he's been on the road in two years. ``I'm a little nervous,'' he admitted.

Naturally, music was the cornerstone of his childhood in Los Angeles, then the recording center for country singers like Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and Glen Campbell.

One of Burnette's first memories was performing ``Hound Dog'' for guests at his father's parties. He was 3 years old.

In 1961, at age 7, he recorded his first single, ``Hey Daddy,'' with Rick Nelson's band backing him up. ``It's funny to listen to it now but I don't remember doing it,'' he said.

At the tender age of 11, he toured worldwide with Brenda Lee and ``decided to get serious about music.''

After his voice changed and he was old enough to drive, he moved to Memphis to work with producer Chips Moman. Moman, who had just turned out the Elvis classics ``Suspicious Minds'' and ``In The Ghetto,'' became his mentor and Burnette absorbed his knowledge about songwriting and engineering.

In the '70s, he moved to Nashville and spent two years as a singer and guitarist with the late Roger Miller. He also wrote singles for Loretta Lynn, Ray Charles, Charlie Rich, Eddy Raven and Roy Orbison.

At the same time, he didn't ignore his own career and in 1986, the Academy of Country Music named him the Top New Male Vocalist. He said he's always ``walked the line between rock and country'' but in 1987 he stepped solidly onto the rock side: He went to work for Fleetwood Mac.

Burnette met drummer Mick Fleetwood at a party, then joined his group after guitarist Lindsey Buckingham left. ``Things were starting to go well for me but it was hard to say `naah' to Fleetwood Mac,'' he explained. ``I couldn't walk away from an offer to join one of the biggest bands in the world.''

Surprisingly, he fit in well with the rock group because he believes ``there are only two kinds of music good and bad.''

But Burnette never really snipped his country roots. ``I dressed real country boots and a cowboy hat. Christine McVie used to kid me about being country and talk to me in a country accent.''

He also co-wrote five songs for 1990's ``Behind The Mask'' all of them decidedly country. ``Finally I said, `Man I gotta face it. I'm country.'''

Although he remains friends with Fleetwood and company, he left in 1991 and went solo again. His new album is titled, appropriately, ``Coming Home.''

Released in July, it's been described as ``a mangle of twang, rhythm and emotion'' but he likes to call it ``country with an edge.'' The new songs are a mixture of beat-heavy rockers (``Tangled Up In Texas,'' ``I Still Remember How To Miss You'' and ``Let Your Heart Make Up Your Mind'') and sensitive ballads (``Into The Storm'' and ``The Bigger The Love'').

``I write about love and love,'' he said. ``I always write about relationships.''

Next spring, he'll finally branch out into another profession acting. He describes his debut movie, ``Saturday Night Special,'' as ```The Postman Always Rings Twice' in a country bar.''

His role called for ``a dark-haired rockabilly singer from Memphis. So I got the job. It's supposed to be a drama but it might be a comedy with my acting. I don't know.''

Tom Cruise probably doesn't have too much to fear because Burnette prefers performing on-stage to on-screen. ``I love getting up in front of people and showing them what I do,'' he said. ``There's nothing like a live show.''

Undoubtedly, his father and uncle would be proud to know he and his cousin, singer Rocky Burnette, are carrying on the the family tradition. Sadly, Johnny (Rocky's dad) drowned in 1964 and Dorsey died of a heart attack in 1978.

``Rocky and I are like brothers,'' he said. ``We try to keep our fathers' memories alive. Maybe the next generation of Burnettes will be musical too.''