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Burnin' Burton 

Reminiscing and looking ahead with James Burton, arguably the greatest guitarist in rock 'n' roll

There's a roar coming from the other end of James Burton's phone on a recent Saturday morning, as he pulls his tractor into the barn at his Shreveport home. "I'm trying to get seven acres mowed before I leave for Los Angeles tomorrow," says Burton.

The scene is a microcosm of the storied career of legendary guitarist Burton, the humble Louisiana six-stringer who's played guitar for Ricky Nelson, Elvis Presley, Dale Hawkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Merle Haggard, Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, not to mention countless other performers and recording sessions. The collective starpower of his numerous employers and associates is blinding, but Burton's navigated that rarified stratosphere with a combination of impeccable playing and selflessness.

"Communication is so important," says Burton. "Before you can be a player, you have to incorporate and associate yourself with the other players. You can't be the individual person, it doesn't work that way. You have to work together as a team. You listen to the other players, and then you add to it, or try not to take anything away from it. Even if it's just two notes, it's always a discipline."

His devotion to that credo has kept Burton's name in the shadows somewhat, largely known to fellow musicians and music aficionados. He's only recorded one solo album in his career, 1971's The Guitar Sounds of James Burton -- and that was a fortuitous accident. "We were in the studio to work with Elvis, and he got sick and cancelled the sessions," remembers Burton. "So the producer said, 'This is a great time to do some recording with you and take advantage of these great players we already have here, like David Briggs and Charlie McCoy.' It worked out really good."

More than three decades later, Burton's relentless touring and recording schedule as a sideman still leaves little time for projects that bring him closer to center stage. That's what makes his Jazz Fest appearance alongside pianist Kenny Bill Stinson & the LA/ARK Mystics such a highly anticipated set; Burton's schedule is open for a rare chance to play a festival in his home state, in a band with his friends and local peers.

"I don't sing, and I don't think doing a lot of instrumentals looks good, but people like exciting tunes with vocals and everything in the mix," says Burton. "We do a whole bunch of different stuff together, and I think it's going to be interesting. It doesn't matter who's fronting the group -- what's important is you're playing good music. It'll be a mixture of rock 'n' roll from the '50s and '60s, some blues, and probably some stuff from the '70s."

This live performance coincides with Burton's desire to finally record another solo album, which is already in the planning stages. "I'd like to include a bunch of friends as guests on the album, and I've worked with so many people, it'll probably come down to who's available," he says. "I've talked to Vince Gill, Marty Stuart, Jeff Beck, and I spoke to George Harrison shortly before he died," says Burton. "I'd like to get the Stones -- Keith (Richards) and Ron (Wood) and Charlie (Watts); I already mentioned it to Merle Haggard and he said he can't wait; Emmylou, of course. ... There's just so many wonderful entertainers I've worked with."

All those luminaries called on Burton for his signature blend of chicken-pickin', which he developed through using a combination of finger-picking and straight-picking. "Everybody tells me that they can tell it's me playing when they hear a few notes," says Burton. "Having that identity in my playing is so important, whether I'm playing behind Tom Jones or Merle Haggard or Travis Tritt. It's like being a great singer -- a solo is so important, and it's as important as the record."

A list of Burton's most magical guitar moments -- like the riff for "Susie Q" -- could fill a book. When asked which songs he's most proud of playing on and being associated with, Burton pauses for a minute, then the memories start flowing. "'Hello Mary Lou,' 'Fools Rush In,' a lot of Elvis, like 'Mystery Train,' where we remade some of the stuff live ... Remember Gram Parsons? I like a lot of that, like 'Leaving Las Vegas,' and 'Until I Gain Control Again.' I did an album with Rodney Crowell, and I did some dobro stuff on there. And there was the Jimmie Rodgers album with Merle Haggard..." Burton's voice trails off. "I've just done so much stuff that I've forgotten some of it," he says apologetically, before getting ready to start up his tractor again. "Every once in a while I'll go back and listen to some of the old stuff, and say, 'Is that me?' How did I do that?'"

click to enlarge 'It's like being a great singer -- a solo is so important, and it's as important as the record.' -- Legendary guitarist and sideman James Burton - THE JAMES BURTON INT'L FAN CLUB
  • The James Burton Int'l Fan Club
  • 'It's like being a great singer -- a solo is so important, and it's as important as the record.' -- Legendary guitarist and sideman James Burton
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