The title’s no joke. Billy Don Burns is the kind of rough-and-ready character — equal parts artist/fan/sidekick, drinker/doper, and biker/badass — who used to be found on the fringes of the Nashville scene, and who every now and then was actually able to carve out a niche in the music biz from there, even though he was most definitely more about music than biz and could never be tamed.
That’s the hard-knocks life Burns writes and sings about, inspired by the 1970s Outlaw scene. The only non-original here is “Give My Love To Rose,” a stirring nod to Johnny Cash. Burns’ own songs are finely-drawn tales of the music wars (“I Was There”, “Patsy” with guests Willie Nelson and Hank Cochran), harrowing portraits of the dead-end dissolute (“Dark Side Of The Spoon”, “Full Blown Addict”), and both (“Haggard & Hank”).
The music ranges from the full-throttle rocking opener “Mississippi” (with Tanya Tucker) to more delicate arrangements such as “No Man’s Land” built around mandolin, fiddle and banjo. In different times for country music, the catchy, richly melodic “Keith Whitley Blue” could have been a hit single.
There’s not a lot of room for optimism, or even hope, in Burns’ world, but at least it all rings true, and he can lay out the grimmest scenarios without self-pity or false bravado. That triumph alone keeps the album from becoming prohibitively depressing.
Burns’ biggest flaw is excessive name-dropping. But without sounding like any of his inspirations, he has made a peerless modern Outlaw album, which is to say that he remains his own man at all times