Album Review – Billy Don Burns “Nights When I’m Sober”

July 10, 2012 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  13 Comments

What a treasure this album is.

I’ll spare you the lengthy diatribe about what shame it is that Billy Don Burns isn’t a more heralded and recognized elder of the greater country music community. But rest assured, he should be. When you’ve produced albums for Johnny Paycheck and Merle Haggard, and had Willie Nelson cut your songs and appear on your albums, you deserve to be thrown a few more bones than what Billy Don has found at his feet. But you don’t need to drop names to know what a one-of-a-kind talent Billy Don Burns is, all you have to do is listen.

Then again, the demons that have pursued Billy Don throughout his life and career, dogging his successes with lapses into addiction and destitution make the start and stutter nature of his career understandable. Those battles are also what have fueled and elevated his status as a songwriter in certain circles. He’s deity-like to the people who know and love him, yet the general public is unfamiliar with the name (though they may recognize music he’s written or produced). Billy Don Burns is a force behind the music.

There are great songwriters, and then there are songwriters that define the apogee of the craft, songwriters like Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt…and Billy Don Burns. There are songs on Nights When I’m Sober that will rip at your heart like nothing else. There’s a great variety on the album with sweet songs and fun songs. And where Billy Don elevates the stakes is in the production and approach to each composition. With producer/guitar player Aaron Rodgers, they reinvigorate the late-era, rock-infused Outlaw sound that had Haggard and Paycheck seeking Billy Don’s services.

Aside from maybe Tom Waits, Hank Williams and a few others, I have never heard an artist be able to pull as much emotion out of a composition as Billy Don Burns does by slowing everything down in the tear-jerking songs that constitute the backbone of this album. “Is He the Writer?” and “Stranger” are two excellent selections that work in the traditional Keith Whitley-style self-referential method that calls on both wit and irony to drive home a tragic story. “When Lonesome Comes Around” is a lot more of a loose arrangement, and takes “darkness” to all new depths as Billy Don tells the story of a man inviting in illusion as the one last antidote to alleviate chronic sorrow.

The dark songs are counterbalanced with some really warm offerings, specifically “Gaylor Creek Church” about the by-gone culture of community churches and the warmth they instilled in a child’s soul, and “Wouldn’t Have It Any Other Way” with its fun acoustic lead-in and lead-out and its positive take to life on the road. “Wouldn’t Have It…” is awfully fetching and probably constitutes the “hit” of the album. Night’s When I’m Sober is always on the move, with the motorcycle story “Born to Ride” and the touring tale “Aaron Rodgers and Me”.

What elevates this album the most, the intangible of Nights When I’m Sober is the authenticity Billy Don Burns can approach these songs with. The battle will rage on forever about if songwriters and performers have to live what they sing and write about to be authentic, but with Billy Don, the point is moot.

In the song “Is He the Writer?” Billy Don mentions the classic tale of the artist cutting off his ear to suffer so he can draw inspiration. Many artists and their fans love this romantic notion of art and inspiration, but few artists have the commitment to see it through. You get the sense that with Billy Don, if times were tough, he wouldn’t hesitate looking for a fillet knife, and that he’s done the rough equivalent of cutting his ear off many times before, and will again before it’s all over.

Billy Don Burn’s albums Train Called Lonesome and Heroes, Friends, & Other Troubled Souls are also worth picking up, but I think one could make the case for Night’s When I’m Sober being Billy Don’s defining release.

Two guns up!

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Purchase Nights When I’m Sober from Rusty Knuckles

The following videos showcase songs from Nights When I’m Sober with luthier Richard Peek making a gas can banjo in the background.

13 Comments to “Album Review – Billy Don Burns “Nights When I’m Sober””

  • I am proud to say that I am from the same tiny county in Arkansas as Billy Don Burns, and have had the oppurtunity to see him perform locally. My dad has a farm near the Gaylor church that Billy Don sings about, and my dad was also shot in 56, where Billy Don was born. Local legend says Waylon made his way down Gaylor road a time or two, but I don’t know if it’s true. Billy Don’s songs do sometimes get to me, not only because they are just plain great, but because he sings about the specific pieces of dirt I grew up on, and still live on. He’s the most underrated song writer I know of. Thanks for giving him some recognition, Trig, maybe this will turn some people on to Billy Don that have never heard of him.

  • I met Billy Don Burns in Charlotte NC back in March. It is a shame that this man isn’t mentioned in the same breath as Willie, Waylon and Merle. He is a hell of a nice guy also. He told me a lot of crazy stories about him and Johnny Paycheck and Willie. I wish him all the best!

    • You’re right on target JBennett…we both saw this show and while he wouldn’t be a guy you go on a trip with w/o putting aside some bail $ he is interesting as hell and the small setting show we saw just took your breath…..best part was when he told some yakky folks to either shut up or there was gonna be a problem….really nice guy who should be more recognized but isn’t, partly of his own doing, but some of the best stories ever…..the Paycheck on a bender meets Pat Robertson @ the 700 Club story had me crying

  • very nice. thanks again, trig.

  • Listening to Wouldn’t Have it any Other Way right now …. so pretty and I love Billy’s voice too. Will definitely be picking this one up. Thanks for the review!

  • I drove to Nashville to meet this man in person ; on the radio wasnt enough. I wanted to hear him live and on stage. OMG, what a voice and a story teller. The words he writes are from his heart and his life;he nots like some of the people who need someone to write then a hit song. He is like magic. I set and listen to him in person, and was in all. He is so passionate about people, family and friends. Music is his gift. If you can, go see this man in person. Without ups & downs in our life,none of us would be who we are today. Isnt that what county music is about; true life, true feeling; and we are all looking for love. Billy Don Burns go sell a million, Gods speed.

  • Sounds like this is the polar opposite of the new Bocephus album.

  • Havent known him long..But I have known him long enough to know he is Real…
    And that he obviously knows two Triggers cause I am #1 ..lol
    This write about Billy Don was great..
    Thanks for sharing it!

  • You sure put it in to words Trigg. I’ve been a net friend of Billy for a few years. and I couldn’t wait for everyone to hear this cd. Hands down my choice for cd of the year.It is a shame he isn’t more known.Maybe with the new cd and label he will be
    I’m sure hoping.
    He is right up there with Merle, Willie and Waylon.
    A friend of mine says Billy is David Alan Coe sings Waylon. I say he has the 3 r’s

    Real Deal
    Real Music
    Real outlaw

  • what if you had never heard of Hank williams,or johnny cash,willie nelson, or merle haggard..then I would bet the farm, that everyone of you.. who have heard of these ledgends.knows without a doubt that If any one of them were missing from history …then you and the rest of the music world could not really see[,or in this case] hear the whole picture.if there is a piece missing from a puzzle you just cant get the complete picture.Thats how I feel about anyone who hasnt heard Billy Don Burns…They could have the worlds largest album collection.But if they dont have THIS ALBUM.They are missing a piece of the puzzle.It would be nearly impossible for me to think that they could understand how incomplete there collection really was.OUTLAW MUSIC without WAYLON/ TEXAS MUSIC without WILLIE/ COUNTRY MUSIC without BILLY DON BURNS..yes it still exsist but it aint the whole story.

  • Billy’s cd “Desperate Men” / the legend and the outlaw .it’s a duet cd with Billy Don and songwriter Hank Cochran. He also released a foreign cd called “The Berlin Tapes”. It’s just Billy and his Guitar singing some of his best songs. and if you look hard enough there is his first cd not sure on the title but worth a listen.

  • Really loved your review. Thank you for doing such a well written review on Billy Don’s new CD. Billy Don is the best.

  • Thanks for such a well written review. Billy Don Burns’ voice over the years has become so mature and heart trained. It is addictive. I cannot listen to his music for a short time. I have seen him in person and have become transformed to the place that each song takes you. Have you wandered how he could write a song about a person falling on their sword if their woman leaves? After teaching 20 years, I can tell you Billy Don Knows more about American History, World Geography than any student, and most teachers I have known. THIS IS ONE OF THE MOST INTERESTING PEOPLE I HAVE EVER HAD THE PLEASURE OF REALLY KNOWING. Thanks to all of Country Music for sharing such a great person. He is a man that holds nothing back, pretends none and does pretty much the best at entertaining than any country singer I have seen perform on the CMAs in my life!

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