Against the enduring (despite what anybody else tells you) bravura of rock n’ roll, the train song remains as immortal a focus as mean, mean men, red-headed women, and FTW teen rebellion. With the exception of its younger, chromier cousin, the automobile, no other vehicle (with apologies to Carl Perkins and ol’ Becky’s back) has propelled popular music in quite the same direction. The iron horse is power, sexual energy, revolution, exploitation, life, death, tragedy, triumph– all the vitamins and minerals any genre needs to keep the firebox red hot until the proverbial wheels fall off or the tracks run right off the edge of the Earth. Is the railroad fated for obscurity? Soon-to-be obsolescence? Maybe. But the train song will outrun us all.
Little Junior Parker’s “Mystery Train” is critical to the tableau, a sax-laced then-contemporary take on the Carter Family’s “Worried Man Blues”– itself a thoroughly at-the-time modern update two decades earlier with its sixteen coaches and proto lead guitar– that heralded the new sound goin’ ’round Sam Phillip’s Memphis Recording Service in the early 1950s. In 1955, as America’s first wave of entitled youth culture began to swell, Elvis Presley left his mark on the tune as well as the rest of the galaxy, and one could (and I aim to) make a solid case that The King’s cut of “Mystery Train” is one of the finest confluences of blues, gospel, and country music ever recorded up to that point. “Mystery Train” is the very primordial essence of rock n’ roll, an alpha moment exercising its new lungs and opposable thumbs to axis-shifting effect.
Certainly, to be mentioned in the same breath, the two-fisted, cast-iron-jawed contributions of Presley’s Memphis neighbors, brothers Johnny and Dorsey Burnette, make for stimulating history. The siblings along with innovative Telecaster master Paul Burlison arrived on the scene as the Rock n’ Roll Trio and dealt in a riotous breed of rockabilly that was violent as it was provocative, a proud parent of the punk spirit only twinkling in Johnny Thunders’ eye when Coral issued the group’s eponymous debut album in 1957. Driven by the same relentless mash-up of hillbilly and southern rhythm & blues, the Rock n’ Roll Trio excelled with their own locomotive offerings, most notably on renditions of the earnest “Lonesome Train” and their surly yet definitive version of Tiny Bradshaw’s “Train Kept A-Rollin'”.
Either one of those would’ve been perfect for Rocky Burnette’s contribution to Americana Railroad’s celebration of the train song, but legend has it that his dad, Johnny, was also a fan of “Mystery Train”, performing it in concerts– presumably viciously– before his accidental death in 1964. Rocky’s own career began with the release of 1979’s The Son of Rock And Roll, which featured the Top 10 hit “Tired Of Toein’ The Line”. From there, Rocky has been a globe-trotting, tireless champion of his family’s often overlooked legacy. His songs have been recorded by Rick Nelson, Dwight Tilley, Rosie Flores, Percy Sledge, and more. In addition to his solo efforts, Rocky has also released albums with English rockabilly revivalists Darrell Higham & The Enforcers, and after our conversation, here’s hopin’, the Son of Rock n’ Roll may be ready to “tear it up” again soon!
I called Rocky Burnette at his home to talk about his recording of “Mystery Train”, the impending (hopefully) Burnette family documentary, and to ask about the Rock n’ Roll Trio’s continued neglect by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
AI- Let me dive right in with what brings us together and that’s the Americana Railroad album– huge set, so many wonderful artists, so many great songs, including the one that you have on there, “Mystery Train”, a song I know you are no stranger to! Tell me about your history with it.
RB- Well, it’s always fun to do an Elvis song! Of course, you know, I was born in Memphis, along with my dad and my uncle, and in the early days, they grew up right down the street from Elvis. Besides their music and besides the things they were doing, we also had Elvis goin’ to high school right down the street. My dad and Dorsey, although they weren’t Catholic, they went to Catholic High ’cause the priests were the only ones that could control ’em, really (laughs)! So we grew up with the Rock n’ Roll Trio, a lot o’ rockabilly, but we grew up with a lot of Elvis!
When I found out that someone else was gonna do “Train Kept A-Rollin'”, I said, “Well, let’s do the Elvis thing,” and Carla [Olson] and Saul [Davis] thought it was a good idea. They actually came out to the house and we recorded the vocal out here, but it had some really good pickers on there– James Intveld, Mickey Raphael, and some great folks! The whole album’s good, it’s a great package, and I love train songs. My dad and Dorsey did several train songs– “Lonesome Train”, “Train Kept A-Rollin'”…
I thought “Lonesome Train” was conspicuous by its absence.
They can only do so many things and there was a couple o’ other ones that they could’ve done, but maybe that’ll be part two! ‘Cause everybody loves this album! Everybody that gets the vinyl copy loves it, and the CD’s comin’ out pretty soon too! It was a lot o’ fun!
I did not realize that the vinyl had come out for Record Store Day last year– Black Friday– so not terribly long ago, but I didn’t realize that had already come and gone. So I don’t have it on vinyl yet!
Moon Martin, a dear friend of mine that passed away last year, who wrote “Bad Case of Loving You” and “Rolene” and a bunch o’ hits– he was really a great songwriter– we were gonna do a whole thing of nothin’ but train songs way back when. Unfortunately, he passed away of cancer, so we never got a chance. This was a lotta fun for me, especially to work with Carla and Saul because they’ve been longtime friends of mine for decades. They put together a great package, I love the Fogerty thing, I like the whole album!
I actually talked to Carla— we had a great time divin’ into the album and really just goin’ all over the place for her career in production and recording. I asked her what her favorite track on the album was outside of the ones that she was a part of– do you have a favorite outside of “Mystery Train”?
I liked the version of “Train Kept A-Rollin'” [that Gary Myrick did]! I’m an old-time Fogerty fan too! My cousin Billy [Burnette} toured with him for years and years and years, so he’s kinda like a part of the family.
Many years ago, Moon was lookin’ for another 24-track machine. He had bought a couple of ’em. We went down to Long Beach here in Southern California, and we saw all these old vinyl pressing machines! I told my daughter about it, and she goes, “Daddy, get some of those machines! You can print up your own vinyl!” I go, “Honey, people aren’t listenin’ to vinyl anymore,” and she goes, “They will!” And she was right!
She was a prophet!
She’s part of a club that collects nothing but vinyl, and now, a lot of artists today– I can think of Dwight Twilley and a couple of other old friends of mine– their starting with vinyl and then workin’ their way into the CDs because people love that white noise that only a vinyl record can provide!
That’s a fact! I happen to be one of ’em for good or for ill!
(Laughs) I coulda had a whole warehouse full of vinyl– making the wax and the whole bit! I think when Moon passed away, he had four or five complete 24-track machines that are really… You’re never gonna use those machines again ’cause nobody can afford the tape! So we made the wrong decision! We shoulda gone with the vinyl thing and we coulda started our own business right then and there! But we didn’t do it!
Can I ask about the Raised On Rock documentary? I know that it’s made the festival circuit, but it has yet to have a wide release. I’ve not seen it and haven’t had an opportunity to be at a festival to view it– can you share a little bit about that?
I tried to share with the producers of that, do a PBS thing like [TJ] Lubinsky does and a lot o’ other people do because you don’t have to pay as much for the copyrights. Sally Steele, and the people that work with her, she wants to own the thing outright and sell it to who she wants to. I said, “Yeah, but you’re talkin’ about payin’ a fortune for a bunch o’ songs!” And that’s what makes these documentaries worth watching is the soundtracks! But she did a great job, and it’s got a lotta good friends on there– [Gary] Busey’s on there and Mick Fleetwood’s on there and a couple o’ the Stray Cats, James Intveld’s there, Albert Lee… I’m missin’ somebody, and I’ll feel bad about that later but just a bunch o’ great folks got together!
The story about my dad and uncle, it’s one of those things. They’ve been considered for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and they’ve been considered for a lot of other things, but they always just get passed over. It shouldn’t be that way because what they started back in the early ’50s is really the cornerstone to a lot of British rock n’ roll and a lot of American rock n’ roll, and it’s just a shame that the full story’s not out there. But sooner or later, it’ll get out there. I just wish I was healthy enough to keep pushin’ the envelope a little more so I could get out there and spread the word of just what they were’ doin’ back then and how many people they influenced– everybody from Gene Vincent to The Beatles!
I wanted to bring that up– the unfortunate aspect that Johnny Burnette and The Rock n’ Roll Trio, Dorsey Burnette, and Paul Burlison are not in the Rock and Roll of Fame. I’ve always wondered why that’s the case. As you just said, they were absolutely fundamental in where music went from that point on!
Well, they need to change the name from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to It’s Just The Same Old People Hall of Fame (laughs)!
You get no argument from me on that!
Because they’ve missed the point of the whole rock n’ roll idea! Sure, have a pop hall of fame– you’ve got the County Music Hall of Fame! Let’s do it the right way, let’s call rock n’ roll rock n’ roll. You know, we’ve got a little Rockabilly Hall of Fame, and the guy who was puttin’ all that together, he passed away. And then the guy who was puttin’ together the International Rockabilly Hall of Fame, he passed away! There’s nobody speakin’ up for some of these early artists that really were the cornerstone of what later became everything from punk to heavy metal to you name it! But that’s the way it is. We’re livin’ in a world now where a lot of that history is just being plowed under, and it’s a shame because there’s a lot o’ great music and a lot o’ great artists. I feel bad for them, but I feel bad for the world in general because they’re gonna miss out on a lot of really good music!
With the exception of this track on Americana Railroad— that I am aware of– it’s been a few years since you have done a release of your own. Rock Solid came out in 2019 and you had some retooled versions and you had the early live record that came with it. I’m assuming, like with so many other artists, the pandemic might have dampened any ambitions you had during those couple o’ years– but what’s been on your plate recently?
Usually, I get an album done every couple o’ years, and I do a lot of work overseas. I’ve done several albums with Darrel Higham, the rockabilly guy from England. I work a lot with Carlos Díaz, from Spain, we’ve done a couple o’ albums together. I’m always gettin’ calls from Australia and New Zealand ’cause I spent a lot o’ time down there.
I saw my dad’s career, he was gettin’ to the point where he was really startin’ to get noticed, and he decided to start his own record company. But he still lacked the management to get him on the Ed Sullivan shows, like the Bobby Vintons and the Frankie Avalons and folks like that. For some reason or other, I don’t know whether it was their reputation or what it was that caused the slow-down, but whatever it was, my dad died before he could do the things that he really wanted to do. Part of that was owning his own record company and seein’ to it that artists didn’t get slammed up against the wall. So many o’ those guys, especially the early ’50s and early ’60s guys, they were so talented and they had families to feed and they just got everything they had ripped off from ’em. Even some of the bigger stars walked away with nothing!
I come from the viewpoint of when my dad died in 1964, it was my brother, myself, and my mom, and we were put out there to try to survive. Fortunately, for us, we had great friends like Glen Campbell and his wife, Billie, back then. Glen hired my mom when his career took off, and she worked for him for the next thirty years! So we had people lookin’ after us, and my mom worked hard to take care of a couple o’ rowdy boys! But she did most of it herself, and it was tough.
I think back on a lot o’ the folks back then– only a small percentage of ’em actually got away with makin’ any dough. I hate to break it down to just money, but that’s what makes the world go ’round, and we had a chance to really do a lot of things. Of course, my dad dyin’, and then Dorsey died young himself… Those were our heroes, my dad, and my uncle, and it was just heartbreaking to see a lot of their dreams didn’t get fulfilled. But a lot of ’em did! We’re respected all over the world, we’re still working all over the world, we’re still recording, and now our kids our recording! Hey, that’s rock n’ roll!