James Burton is a god among guitar players. Born in Dubberly, La., in 1939, he grew up in Shreveport and by his early teens had already appeared on seminal Southern radio broadcast the Louisiana Hayride. At 15, he wrote the guitar lick for and recorded "Susie-Q" with Dale Hawkins and became a regular with Ricky Nelson's band on television not long after that.
In a career that stretches over more than a half-century, Burton's licks have marched through popular music, gracing the work of everyone from Elvis Presley (most famously) to Elvis Costello, Gram Parsons to Jim Lauderdale, Frank Sinatra to John Denver, the Monkees to Merle Haggard. His influence and the innovations he's brought to the art of the guitar are undeniable and incredibly far-reaching. When inducting Burton into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001, Keith Richards claimed, "I never bought a Ricky Nelson album; I bought a James Burton album."
Burton makes a rare Austin appearance this weekend at the Lonestar Rod & Kustom Round Up with shows on Saturday at the Travis County Expo Center and the Continental Club, where he'll be joined by locals who Casper Rawls has rounded up. We caught up with the guitarist by phone in his home base of Shreveport to talk about the past, present, and future.
Austin Chronicle: What first prompted you to pick up the guitar?
James Burton: My mother tells me that ever since I was a little, itty-bitty kid, I loved music. I loved to listen to the radio and play the phonograph. She would catch me going around the house beating on a broomstick like it was a guitar and singing. She said she knew I had the music in me. I actually started playing on an acoustic guitar when I was 11 or 12. When I was 13, I got an electric, and that's when I really jumped into playing licks and stuff.
AC: How many guitars do you own?
JB: I haven't counted them. I know it's probably in the hundreds. I can't keep up with it. I've been with Fender for so long. I've been involved with their signature series. It's worked out great. I was able to give Brad Paisley, Eric Johnson, and everyone that came to play my show one of my guitars. It was just wonderful.
AC: It wasn't long after you began playing that you got involved in the Louisiana Hayride, which broadcast out of Shreveport.
JB: Yeah, I went professional when I was 14. That's when I played on the Hayride with George Jones and the staff band with Floyd Cramer, the piano player, and Jimmy Day, the steel guitarist. It was around that time that I came up with the guitar lick for "Susie-Q."
AC: Do you get tired of being asked about Elvis Presley?
JB: No, not really. That was a beautiful part of my career.
AC: Do you remember the first time you met Elvis?
JB: The first time, he called me, and we talked on the phone for about 3½ hours. He called me in '68 to be on his Comeback Special, but I didn't actually speak to him because I wasn't available. I was doing an album with Frank Sinatra. In 1969, he called me, and we talked on the phone. That's when he asked me if I'd be interested in putting a band together for him for the opening of the International Hotel in Las Vegas. That turned into nine years of working together. He named us the TCB Band.
AC: He gave you lots of leeway, didn't he?
JB: Absolutely. He'd say: "Let's do this song. Kick it off." [Chuckles.] Basically, it was a real fun gig. No problems musically. Of course, he was such a great singer, and he loved the power and energy of the band.
AC: His musical range was amazing.
JB: When he came out of the Army, he wanted to change. There was a change he was looking for when he called me. When we had our first rehearsal, I could tell where he was going. He didn't feel limited with what he could do. He wanted to sing "My Way" and all these Beatles tunes, and he wanted that kind of band. So when we went to Vegas, with a full orchestra, it was incredible – the excitement. The energy was there.
AC: After Elvis died, you played with John Denver.
JB: I did a TV show with John a couple of months before Elvis passed away. John had asked me when we did that show if I would be interested in doing some live shows with him and cutting an album with him. I said sure, but it all depends on Elvis' schedule. When I came back home after Elvis' funeral in Memphis, I had about 25 calls from John and all the people that worked for him asking me to come to the studio and record with him.
AC: Was it culture shock to go from working with Elvis Presley to John Denver?
JB: Not really, because my career is working with a lot of different artists. Elvis was one of a kind, and so was John Denver, and so was Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison and Johnny Rivers, all those people. Everybody is so different, and I guess that's what makes our music world so good. We have such a good variety. It's so interesting to go from a Nat King Cole session to a Frank Sinatra session to a Beach Boys session, then to Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Wanda Jackson. You know, it's just amazing. It's wonderful to be able to say that.
AC: In 1969, you recorded with Townes Van Zandt on his Our Mother the Mountain album. How did that come about?
JB: The producer at the time – I can't recall who it was – wanted my style, and I just happened to be there. I was doing all kinds of studio work at the time.
AC: What keeps you busy these days?
JB: I travel a lot. I still do a bit of studio work in Nashville and Los Angeles. There's still lots of amazing things going on. I'm working with a lot of great artists.
AC: I saw you on The Tonight Show with Jim Lauderdale a week or so ago.
JB: I've done a couple of albums with Jim. He's a good friend of mine. We also did Conan O'Brien about a month ago. I get to play with Al Perkins on steel guitar, and Jim calls us the Dream Players. It's amazing. I got a phone call from Elvis Costello awhile ago. He's got a bunch of stuff he's asked me to do, and he flipped out. He said: "Man, I was watching Jay Leno the other night, and who comes on but you and Jim Lauderdale. That blew me away."
AC: One of your big projects this year is the James Burton International Guitar Festival in Shreveport. What will that be like?
JB: I don't have my list laid out yet, but I'm doing a trade show as well. My son Jeff is working on it with me and my wife. I've been out of town quite a bit lately, so they've been doing most of the work. I've always wanted to do my own show, so I put a show together in 2005. That's when I formed my foundation. I wanted to give something back to the kids, so it benefits the kids. It raises money to buy guitars. We were very fortunate to get music back in schools, teaching guitar. We also went to St. Jude [Children's Research Hospital] in Memphis and gave 25 guitars to the kids there and started a music program. We work with the Shriners here in Shreveport. It's just amazing. The kids go nuts. They love it so much, and they all want to play guitar. It's just a blessing from God. Some of the kids were out-of-hand; they couldn't control them, and now that we're doing the music program, they can't wait to get to school and are making straight A's. The festival this year is three days in August, around my birthday, and we have a lot of people coming from Memphis, because it's around the Elvis memorial [of his death].
AC: Ever thought of retiring?
JB: [Laughs.] I don't even know how to spell that word
Note EpGold: James Burton also had a fantastic rockabilly career in the 1950s, playing with Dale Hawkins, Bob Luman, David Houston, Bobby Lee Trammell and Ricky Nelson.
2008/04/06 By Jim Caligiuri - www.austinchronicle.com / davepenny / www.epgold.com