Nashville Cats: Salute to Session Player James Burton

July 23, 2011
James Burton decided to experiment with the strings of his Fender Telecaster guitar shortly after he moved from Shreveport, Louisiana, to the Los Angeles home of actor-singer Ricky Nelson and his parents, TV stars Ozzie and Harriet Nelson.

A teen-ager when he arrived in California in the late 1950s, Burton had established himself as a guitar prodigy with a remarkably bright, forceful style on a Telecaster. Burton’s guitar work on the 1957 recording of “Susie-Q” by Dale Hawkins drew considerable attention in musical circles, as had his work on the Louisiana Hayride radio program and on recordings by country singer Bob Luman.


Playing lead guitar on Nelson's recordings starting in 1958, Burton became even more of a sensation by contributing distinctive solos on the recordings "Believe What You Say," "Poor Little Fool," "Travelin' Man," Hello Mary Lou," and others.

During this time, Burton wanted to achieve the piercing, string-bending sound he heard on his favorite blues recordings by Howlin' Wolf and Lightning Hopkins. He eventually replaced the instrument's usual steel strings, instead using four banjo strings and shifting the A and D strings to non-standard positions. The result gave Burton a distinctive sound, bringing him even greater acclaim.

"When I first got a guitar, the strings were so tight and stiff," Burton said. He realized many blues players achieved a different sound than he did, and that it couldn't all be from a bottleneck slide guitar. "They had to do some of that with their fingers. But I tried it, and it didn't happen. The steel strings hurt your fingers. So I experimented and went down and bought some banjo strings."

Later, guitar-string designer Ernie Ball examined Burton's guitar to see what he was doing differently. Ball noticed the unusual gauge of the strings, then designed similar strings to emulate what Burton had achieved. Ball's strings came to be known as "slinky" and "super slinky" strings. The new strings made it easier for guitarists to bend strings for a distinct sound.

Burton talked of his guitar innovations during a 90-minute program at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum on Saturday, July 23, 2011. Burton was honored as part of the Museum's ongoing Nashville Cats series, which pays tribute to veteran musicians who have proven integral to the history of country music. Interviewed by series host Bill Lloyd, Burton traced his wide-ranging career in a ninety-minute program in front of a capacity crowd in the museum's Ford Theater.

The program included rare photos, videos, and recordings, culminating in Burton demonstrating his personal style by performing a sampling of his famous guitar parts, with Lloyd providing rhythmic counterpoint on electric guitar.

"James's style has been known as chicken picking, and like a chicken, the strings get choked, sometimes strangled, definitely plucked," Lloyd said in introducing Burton. "It's also a guitar technique that has become synonymous with country music . . . [Burton] provided inspiration for a whole generation of guitar players."

Besides Hawkins, Luman, and Nelson, Burton has provided distinctive licks to hits by Buffalo Springfield, Nat King Cole, John Denver, the Mamas & Papas, Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buck Owens, Gram Parsons, Brad Paisley, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, and hundreds of others. He also toured for significant periods with Denver, Harris, and Presley. "The list is staggering," Lloyd said.

For his contribution to American music, Burton was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.

Burton, for his part, has never separated the various musical styles or roles he has played over his career. "Playing in the studio or live on stage didn't really matter to me as long as I was playing my instrument," he said. He made a similar comment about the difference between country and rock; to him, what was important was sharing music with artists and musicians he admired.  

Born August 21, 1939, in Dubberly, Louisiana, Burton received his first Fender Telecaster at age thirteen-a guitar he still owns and plays. By fourteen, Burton was playing professionally on the Louisiana Hayride. "Being on the Hayride, getting a chance to play with all these great singers and entertainers, I learned a lot being there," he said. "I also learned what not to do. Being a great musician is a guy who has a lot of respect for the other musicians in the group, so that you don't step on somebody's toes."

Burton also suggested that a musician can overanalyze his parts, something he tries to avoid. "If you think about things too much, you can get very confused," he said. "That's why I like to play solos off the top of my head."

Burton first traveled to Los Angeles for a recording session with Luman. During the recording, Ricky Nelson was in the building and heard Burton's playing, so he walked down the hall to watch the session. "He ended up staying for two or three hours, listening to us play," Burton said.

The following day, Luman, Burton, and the rest of the band received an invitation from Nelson to visit a television studio during the filming of an episode of the popular TV series The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet. After that, Ozzie Nelson wrote a song for his son Ricky to perform on the show and asked Burton to play on it.

Two weeks after Burton returned to Louisiana, Ozzie Nelson asked him to move to California to become the guitarist in his son's band. Ricky Nelson picked him up at the airport and asked if Burton wanted to join his family for dinner that night. By the end of the evening, Ozzie invited Burton to move into their home instead of staying in an apartment of his own. Burton readily accepted.

"We want you to be comfortable," Burton recalled the elder Nelson telling him. "We know what it's like to be away from home."

Burton's recordings with Nelson remain stellar examples of concise, catchy rock & roll. Fifty-three of Nelson's songs reached the Billboard pop charts; he achieved his greatest success between 1957 and 1963, when Burton was his guitarist.

Burton's work with Nelson also established him as one of the first masters of the Fender Telecaster. "It's a great instrument, it's well balanced, it's got the tone ... it's got everything I like. It's got that little switch between the pickups that gives me that out-of-phase sound. It's got a great neck on it. It's fast."

He told of a special Telecaster with a pink paisley body that Fender made and presented to him as a gift. Burton tried not to accept it, saying the wildly painted guitar wasn't his style, but a Fender representative insisted he take it. Burton didn't play it until one night in Las Vegas with Presley.

"I was afraid to break it out, I was afraid of what Elvis might say," Burton said. "I was afraid he might throw me off stage."

Still, Burton brought it out for a show one night. Between sets, Presley's assistant Red West came to Burton, saying Presley wanted to see him. Burton thought he might get reprimanded for playing such an attention-getting instrument; instead, Presley praised it, and it became Burton's first-draw guitar for Presley concerts.

While in Los Angeles, Burton received a call from singer Johnny Cash, asking him to play a resonator guitar on a song he planned to perform on the ABC-TV music series, Shindig! When Burton asked Nelson's permission to perform with Cash, the bandleader said no. "He said, 'Your sound is my sound,'" Burton recalled.

But Burton wanted to take the offer, so he checked with Nelson's management, saying he would ask the camera operator not to show Burton playing during the telecast. After a discussion with the Nelsons, the manager called giving Burton an OK.

"Unfortunately, I never played with Rick again, from that day," Burton said. "I never had the opportunity to, because the good Lord blessed me with so many great sessions and so many great artists in the world to work with."

Jack Good, a producer of Shindig!, was a fan of Burton's and offered him a lucrative job as the show's regular guitarist. Good also asked Burton to put a house band together, so he recruited Chuck Blackwell on drums, Delaney Bramlett on bass, Joey Cooper on rhythm guitar, and Glen D. Hardin on piano.

"It was a pretty good little group," Burton said. "They called us 'the Shindogs,' and we did ninety percent of the recording for all the artists who came to the show, from Jerry Lee Lewis to Glen Campbell to Tina Turner."

Lloyd also touched on Burton's recordings under his own name, including instrumentals issued under the names Jimmy Burton and Jim and Joe, and a Shindogs song, "Who Do You Think You Are," that featured vocals. In 1968, he released an instrumental album with steel guitarist Ralph Mooney titled Corn Pickin' and Slick Slidin', and a 1971 album, Guitar Sounds of James Burton.

Burton also played several landmark recording sessions with Glen Campbell, a renowned guitarist in his own right. When Burton worked for Nelson and couldn't do sessions for others, he often would refer requests for a guitar player to Campbell, helping him gain work as a session musician before he became a country music star. Later, when Campbell recorded, he hired Burton to play dobro to complement his own guitar work, including playing on the classic hit "Gentle on My Mind."

Burton also contributed dobro to some Buck Owens recordings. During one session with Owens, the band leader suggested Burton play guitar on a cut. Burton asked if Owens's usual recording partner, guitarist Don Rich, would mind. Rich gave the OK, and Burton played on the hit "Open Up Your Heart."

Burton further expanded his reputation as one of the West Coast's great country Telecaster players through his work with Merle Haggard. The two first connected when Haggard heard Burton on a Nelson cut, "You Just Can't Quit," and called him to ask how he created it.

"Merle loved that lick, and it's all he talked about for an hour," Burton said. "He was looking for a little different sound, and it gave me a chance to do a little chicken picking on some records with Merle."

That connection led to Burton playing on several classic Haggard cuts, including "The Bottle Let Me Down," The Fugitive," "Mama Tried," "Sing Me Back Home," and "Workin' Man Blues."

Burton didn't just play on country records. His credits from that time period included Buffalo Springfield, Ray Charles, Joni Mitchell, the Monkees, Randy Newman, Paul Revere & the Raiders, and Frank Sinatra. In each case, even while other session players followed strictly written charts, Burton was asked to improvise his solos and add his own flavor.

"We want you to do your own thing," Burton said he was told. "I enjoyed creating and coming up with different ideas for different artists. I tried to be a big part of it. With all the different styles of the singers I played with, I always tried to keep my own style. I mean, if you're going to play like another guitarist, they might as well call that guitar player."

With Presley, Burton turned down an invitation to play on the famous televised 1968 comeback special. The next year, Presley called again, and this time the two musicians talked for three hours. Burton joked that, during the conversation, his wife kept goading him, "Give me the phone!"

Burton put together a band for Presley, one that became the core of his classic band for Presley's return to the concert stage beginning in 1969. The band eventually included keyboardist Glen D. Hardin, bassist Jerry Scheff, drummer Ronnie Tutt, as well as Burton on guitar. "It was really fun," Burton said. "I did everything Elvis did from 1969 until he died."

Later, Burton played on tour and on recordings with John Denver and with Jerry Lee Lewis, including Lewis's hit "Rockin' My Life Away."

Other famous Burton sessions included an album with Gram Parsons, whom he first met while in the studio with the Byrds. "Gram wanted to be a country singer," Burton said. "He'd dress up like Porter Wagoner and go to the Palomino Club in North Hollywood. He got a good following playing country."

Through Parsons, Burton met Emmylou Harris, and after Parsons's death, Burton joined Harris's Hot Band. He played on her first two albums and toured with a classic version of her band, which included Rodney Crowell and Emory Gordy, among others.

As Burton has matured, he has remained a vital part of American music. In 1988, he played on a Roy Orbison special, Black & White Night, which has become a PBS staple. He played on Elvis Costello's King of America album and toured with him as well. Later, he played on country albums by Brad Paisley, the Tractors, and Travis Tritt.

Lloyd also mentioned Burton's charity work, including a foundation he started in Shreveport that provides instruments and instruction to kids and has helped keep musical instruction in public schools.

After performing at the end of the program, Burton received a framed Hatch Show Print poster commemorating the program. Burton recalled that bassist Norbert Putnam joked with him earlier, saying Burton wasn't really a Nashville Cat, since most of his recordings took place in Los Angeles. But as the guitarist accepted the poster, he said, "This makes it official. I am one now."

-Michael McCall