Rolling Stone‘s interview series King for a Day features long-form conversations between senior writer Andy Greene and singers who had the difficult job of fronting major rock bands after the departure of an iconic vocalist. Some of them stayed in their bands for years, while others lasted just a few months. In the end, however, they all found out that replacement singers can themselves be replaced. This edition features former Fleetwood Mac singer Billy Burnette.
Billy Burnette has been creating music on a professional level for so long that he barely remembers recording his first single, 1960’s “Hey Daddy (I’m Gonna Tell Santa On You),” which came out when he was just seven years old, and features Hall of Famer James Burton on guitar. That would be the thrill of a lifetime for most people, but it was just another day for Burnette, son of rockabilly icon Dorsey Burnette.
In the years that followed his childhood novelty song, he wrote songs that have been covered by Ray Charles, the Everly Brothers, Faith Hill, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ringo Starr, Tanya Tucker, Gregg Allman, and too many others to mention. He has also served as a touring guitarist for Bob Dylan and John Fogerty, released a string of acclaimed solo albums, and even took acting roles in a wide variety of under-the-radar Nineties movies like Richie Rich’s Christmas Wish and Carnosaur 3: Primal Species.
His most high-profile gig of all began in 1987, when Fleetwood Mac recruited him to replace Lindsey Buckingham for the Tango in the Night world tour. He remained in the group for the next eight years, in which he not only sang signature Buckingham tunes like “Go Your Own Way” every night onstage, but also became one of the band’s primary songwriters and vocalists in the studio.
“It was a magical part of my life,” Burnette tells Rolling Stone on the phone from his home in Nashville. “I was so close with Mick [Fleetwood] back then. We did everything together. We even went through our divorces together. I love Mick, and I also love Stevie [Nicks], John [McVie], and Christine [McVie]. I’m sure it was a magical time for them too.” [Editor’s note: The interview took place two weeks before Christine McVie’s death at age 79.]
Burnette began singing when he was three with his dad’s band, an influential Memphis act called the Rock and Roll Trio that saw success with songs like “Tear It Up.” As a kid in the Fifties, he met Ricky Nelson, Sam Cooke, and Fabian. He toured Japan on a bill with Brenda Lee when he was 12, right around the time the Beatles hit and he discovered rock music.
“I snuck into concerts in L.A. for years,” he says. “I asked Jimi Hendrix one night how I could get into his concert at the Forum. He goes, ‘Carry this.’ And I carried his guitar alongside him and got in. I saw Delaney & Bonnie and Friends, Led Zeppelin, and Creedence Clearwater Revival. I just saw everything I could back then. I loved music.” For much more on Burnett’s story, check out his memoir, Crazy Like Me — or read on for the wildest chapter in his rock & roll life.
I read that you visited Charles Manson’s Spahn Ranch as a teenager. Tell me about that.
God, that was scary. We had no idea what was happening there. There was nothing in the press about it yet. They put me on a horse and went, “This is Tex Watson’s horse.” The horse ran up to the hills and I got all scratched up from the tree branches. It was a nightmare. I’ve been scared of horses ever since then.
I drove my dad’s Lotus Europa out there. They wrote “Pig” on it in dust. They were telling me to get out of the machine and come join their group out there. I wasn’t interested. The whole thing was just really scary.
Did you meet Manson?
Yeah. I met him a couple of times. One time, I was hitchhiking. My folks lived in Woodland Hills, and I used to hitchhike to the beach all the time with my guitar. He picked us up one day and gave us a ride home from Topanga Beach. Also, my dad knew Terry Melcher. We knew a lot of people after the strory broke who were involved with it.
Who are some of your biggest influences as a guitar player?
There were so many great guitar players just hanging around my dad’s house. Thumbs Carllile was an amazing guitar player. Glen Campbell and James Burton were both great too.
When I was 18, my dad took me down to Chips Moman’s down in Hollywood. I went back to Memphis, where I was born, and Chips had just recorded Elvis and everybody. There was a guitar player there name Reggie Young. He’s probably one of my favorite guitar players ever. He was so great. He did the intro to “Hooked on a Feeling.” He’s also on “Suspicious Minds” and “Drift Away.” In fact, I was there in Nashville when Dobie Gray cut “Drift Away.” I went to the studio with them and Reggie when they cut it. I picked it out at the time to be a hit.
Did you meet Elvis Presley?
I met Elvis when I was a little kid. I was downtown in Memphis. He was passing out teddy bears since he had the song “Teddy Bear” out. He asked me if I wanted a teddy bear. I don’t remember this, but my mom told me the story.
I didn’t meet him as an adult, but I was invited out to Graceland once to write a couple of things. Some friends of mine had written “You Were Always on My Mind,” and he’d just cut that. And Red West was a good friend of ours. He said, “Elvis wants you to come out to the house to write something for him.” We were going to do that, but it didn’t line up. This business is so much about timing and whether it’s in the stars or not.
You did a bunch of solo records in the Seventies and Eighties. Did it frustrate you that none of them found a big audience?
It was frustrating. I think I started out too early. In fact, I was a week out of graduating high school when I went to Memphis for Chips Moman. I had a deal with Columbia Records. It was happening pretty quick. I wish I had stuck with my garage bands and came up that way. But I always had a record deal or a writing deal or something to do.
Tell me your first memories of ever hearing Fleetwood Mac.
I remember going to a concert night at Royce Hall at UCLA to see Delaney and Bonnie. On the way home that night, I heard “Oh Well.” I go, “God, what’s that guitar lick?” And it was Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green. I went home, learned that lick, and started buying the albums.
I heard Stevie and Lindsey’s album [Buckingham Nicks] through the walls one day at [record executive] Lester Sill’s office. I went, “Wow, that sounds great.” Next think you know, they’re in Fleetwood Mac. Boom. That was it.
What did you think of Rumours when it came out?
I loved it. I was probably their biggest fan in the world. I couldn’t believe how great it was. I was like, “I want that. That’s what I want to do.” Lindsey had the finger-picking thing that I liked to do. There were people all around me that did that kind of music, the L.A. thing. I worked at the Palomino Club in the house band. I was around musicians all the time. When Fleetwood Mac hit the scene, I went, “Wow, this is incredible stuff.”
What did you think about Tusk?
I love Tusk. There isn’t anything they did at the time I didn’t like. Then I met them. My cousin Rocky and I were invited to a Dick Clark anniversary event. That’s where I met Mick Fleetwood. And then Mick and Lindsey called me the next night and went, “Don’t you want to join my band?” I went, “Don’t you guys already have one?” [Laughs]
I was trying to be funny, but Lindsey went, “I’m playing Saturday Night Live and we want you to join the band I’m putting together to do that.” That was the first gig I did with them. That was in 1982.
What was it like to suddenly be on live TV with Mick and Lindsey?
It was amazing. We were pretty wild back in those days [laughs]. We were totally out of control. I mean, we did music and we did our job, but when it was time to party, we knew how to party.
You mean staying up late and getting drunk and doing drugs?
Staying up late? Staying up all night [laughs]. But it was great. Lindsey and I became great friends. I wrote with him. I helped him out with some songs. I wrote some words of [the 1982 Fleetwood Mac song] “Oh Diane.” He said he didn’t like them, but he used a few of my words.
You started out in Mick’s band the Cholos, which later became the Zoo.
Yeah. Lindsey was in the Cholos, too, at first. We did some tracks, but who knows what happened to them? Mick and I put together the Zoo. We used Stevie and Christine and Lindsey. The whole band was on everything, pretty much.
You guys covered “Tear It Up” by your dad’s band.
We did that with the Zoo. And when I first joined Fleetwood Mac, Jimmy Barnes got up and sang “Tear It Up” with us one night. The girls were like, “Let’s keep that in the set.” And so that was our encore every night for about ten years.
Tell me about your tours with the Zoo in the Eighties.
We toured with the Beach Boys in 1985. One night, Mick and I were out partying, and we were not sober. We got kicked off the tour because we were dancing in some restaurant and the Beach Boys found out about it. I love the Beach Boys. They were dear friends of mine. But somebody in their organization fired us off the tour. I was really good friends with Carl [Wilson], though. I loved him. He was my favorite singer in the band.
You co-wrote “Angel Come Home” with Carl on the first Zoo record.
Yeah. Christine went out with Dennis Wilson for a while. When we cut that song, it was everyone in Fleetwood Mac besides Stevie and John McVie. Lindsey worked on that record. Christine worked on it. I remember Glen Campbell coming into the studio that night, and we stayed up all night working on it.
It seems like this band existed since Stevie was busy with her solo career, and Mick wanted to keep going.
Oh yeah. And we toured all over the world. We did a three-month tour in Australia. We went to a place called Mount Isa, which was wiped out by a hurricane. We went all over Australia, and loved it.
You wrote “So Excited” for Christine McVie’s solo record in 1984, too.
We were already friends by that point, and always hanging out. She was one of my best friends.
Those Christine songs in the Eighties should have been bigger hits. She could have been a real solo star.
Oh yeah. She wrote most of the Fleetwood Mac hits. “Don’t Stop,” “You Make Loving Fun,” “Over My Head.” That song actually broke the band. Warner Bros. was done working the  album. And then “Over My Head” busted out as a fluke. It became a big hit.
Do you think the Zoo parties were the best parties you’d ever been a part of?
Oh yeah [laughs]. No doubt about it. There were a bunch of us that ran around Malibu. It was a wild scene. Everyone you can imagine was hanging out with us. We were the party band. When we played somewhere, we’d have everyone play with us. In Australia, we had Jimmy Barnes and Colin Hay from Men at Work. There was also Billy Thorpe. We wrote “Shakin’ The Cage” with him, which was the only hit the Zoo ever had.
Fast forward to 1987. How did they ask you to join Fleetwood Mac?
They had a meeting that day. Things got weird between Stevie and Lindsey. I was actually in the studio with Roy Orbison that day. He was doing one of my songs for the Mystery Girl album. T-Bone Burnett was producing it. T-Bone Wolk was playing bass. I went in and went, “Is T-Bone here?” T-Bone Wolk went, “Yeah, I’m T-Bone.” I go, “No you’re not.” [Laughs.] I just knew T-Bone Burnett.
We cut my song “(All I Can Do Is) Dream You.” It was me, Rick Vito, Jim Keltner, and T-Bone Wolk. We cut a great track. Roy used it for his Black and White special. He wanted me to do that with him, but I was on the road with Fleetwood Mac.
Getting back to when I was asked to join the band, I was in the studio with Roy. Mick goes, “Can you join Fleetwood Mac? We’d need you to get free from all your contracts and everything.” I’d just been nominated for my record [Soldier of Love] for Best New Country Artist. Things were starting to go somewhere. I had to get out of my deal with Curb MCA. They weren’t happy about that since I just got the nomination.
You didn’t hesitate to say yes to Mick with all that going on at the time?
Not at all. How can you? It was Fleetwood Mac.
Tell me about band rehearsals. You suddenly how to learn a lot of material, including an entirely new album, for a tour.
I was so into playing with Mick. We had already done a couple of albums and toured all over. I also knew Christine really well. Stevie and I had done a duet for one of her albums. It was called “Are You Mine” that Jimmy Iovine produced. It was a great night. Jimmy was very sweet. We had Brian Setzer play on it. It was a big thrill for me at the time to do a duet with Stevie.
When I joined the band, I already felt like part of the family. So it was easy. I’ll never forget the first day of rehearsal when Stevie walked up to me in the parking lot. We rehearsed at this place where I had filmed a movie before. She walked up and goes, “Sounds like Fleetwood Mac to me.”
We rehearsed the songs. Everyone got along great. We did our first date in Kansas City. It was fantastic. I don’t think we got a bad review on that Tango in the Night tour until we got to Pittsburgh. The critic said, “Billy Burnette merely aped Lindsey’s parts,” which I did. Rick [Vito] and I played the stuff to the T of how it was supposed to be played. We were both guitar players, and we could hit the parts. In fact, the song “Everywhere,” Christine asked me to play that song and sing those parts. For me, that was a hard thing to do, but I did it.
Were you nervous before that first show in Kansas City, thinking the fans might reject you since you weren’t Lindsey?
It was scary. But it wound up being amazing. Somebody had a big banner that said “Lindsey Who?” That made us feel good. We were on our way. It was a big tour, and everyone got into it.
I know you did most of the singing, but how exactly did you and Rick Vito divide up Lindsey’s guitar parts?
He did mostly the lead stuff. I did the parts that were on the records. We got together and worked it out. We’d known each other for years, and Rick was a huge Peter Green fan. In fact, he did a Peter Green song in the show. I did “Oh Well.” Rick did “I Love Another Woman.” We split up the parts. We knew what we were doing before we got with the band.
How did it feel to sing “Go Your Own Way”? This is a pretty personal song about Stevie and Lindsey’s relationship, and now you’re singing it as an outsider.
It just worked. We did a great version of it with the band. The band that Rick and I were with was a really great band. Lindsey, of course, was one of my favorite guitar players and artists in the world. That part of it was tough. But he sat in with us when we came to the Forum [in 1990].
Did you speak with him and make sure he was OK with you taking his spot in the band?
Oh yeah. We got along good. He didn’t hold it against me at all.
You sold out Wembley Stadium in 1987. That must have been nuts.
Wembley Stadium was our biggest gig at the time. We cleared a million dollars that night. I had my mom, my wife, and my kids with me that night. I turned around and told my mom, “We made a million tonight.” She was so excited. If I remember, she sat in the royal box with Prince Andrew. We tried to get him to go to a party with us, and he said he couldn’t do it. She broke all the protocol.
I can’t imagine standing on that stage and seeing more than 100,000 people watching your show.
It was 127,000 that night. It was amazing. You couldn’t even see the end of the crowd because a fog had set in. They had Jumbotrons way in the back for people that couldn’t see.
Some of Lindsey’s vocals are pretty high. Were they hard to sing?
They were completely high. After a while of being on the road, I got the band to come down to E flat. That made the guitars easier. A lot of bands do that now anyway. I started that with Fleetwood Mac. We did it one night because one of the girls was kind of sick. I said, “Let’s bring it down to E flat.” We brought it down and just stayed there.
Did you feel like an equal member of the band, a hired hand, or somewhere in between?
I felt really equal. It just felt natural. I don’t want to say that I took over, because Stevie and Christine both did some talking, but I sort of became the spokesperson for the band. It was pretty natural since I’d been working with them so long, and we’d jammed so much, that it was pretty natural for us to do it onstage.
Tell me about recording Behind the Mask. That was your first time cutting an album with them.
Before that, we did two cuts for their Greatest Hits record [in 1988]. We did “As Long As You Follow,” which was kind of a hit for Christine. That was my first time in the studio with them. But starting Behind the Mask was scary. It had an edge to it, since this is a band that had been so big. They were Number One for over a year with Rumours. How do you top that? As I said, the business is so much about timing. At that time, that type of rock music wasn’t really happening for anybody. Grunge had just started to come in. It was a different time, as far as radio goes.
Did you enjoy the creative process of making the album?
It was a great time. I lived out in the West Valley then. So did John McVie. We shared a car into town every day. We had a ball in the city. We’d get there around noon, start working really hard, break for dinners, and then come back the next day, and then probably take everything off we did the previous day.
They used to write songs in the studio. They’d bring in a couple of ideas and build on them. I came from the songwriter school where you demo first, and then finish them.
All three of you sing on “In the Back of My Mind.”
That was a song I wrote with David Malloy. He’s a writer-producer here in Nashville. We wrote that song for Fleetwood Mac. Mick liked it, so we cut it. I think we had two or three big tape machines tied together. Greg Ladanyi was producing the record. We had more tracks on that song than we had on any other song in the band’s catalog.
You wrote “When the Sun Goes Down” with Rick Vito.
That was just an afternoon of us getting together and writing something new for the band. They loved it. In Fleetwood Mac, everybody got together and decided what they wall wanted to do. Everybody got their vote it. It was a democratic kind of deal.
You also wrote “When It Comes to Love” with Dennis Morgan and Simon Climie.
Yes. I had just met Dennis at that time. The two of them had just written “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” for George Michael and Aretha Franklin. That was Number One all over the world. Dennis was a Nashville guy, but I met him in L.A. We became really good friends. I got along with Simon, too. In fact, we just had a song on Rod Stewart’s last album that we wrote back then. It was called “Love in the Right Hands.”
Lindsey plays guitar on the title track of Behind the Mask. Band relations couldn’t have been that bad if he was willing to play on the record.
No. The problem was that Stevie and Lindsey had a rift at the band meeting when I joined the band. Something happened there.
The album wasn’t a big commercial hit. Was the band frustrated by that?
I don’t think they were more frustrated than I was. The business was changing. I knew it. I don’t think the band really knew it, or cared as much as I did. I just wanted to have hits and be loved by the masses like they were. When you step onstage with Fleetwood Mac, you know that Stevie is the star of that show. Everybody knows that, in the band, and outside the band.
Stevie was gracious to make Rick and I full members. When we first joined, we split Lindsey’s parts. Stevie and Christine were the main ones to say, “Let’s make them equal members.”
You guys split everything six ways?
Yes. Concerts and everything, from then on. It was very generous. It was so nice of Stevie. They were all so free with their money. They were a great band to be with. We were pretty close back in those days.
You guys did 102 concerts on the Behind the Mask tour.
I didn’t know it was that many, but we had a blast. We had a private jet, a 727. We used the MGM Grand plane. Before that, we used Madonna and Michael Jackson’s jet. We had a ball. If I could go back and redo it, I’d save some of the money rather than spend all that money we spent.
Right. I’m sure it all came out of your pockets.
Oh yeah. We were good at spending money.
The band basically dissolved for a bit after the tour wrapped. What happened there?
We all had solo deals. I went back to Nashville.
During this time, the Clinton campaign uses “Don’t Stop” as its theme song. Fleetwood Mac then played the inauguration in 1993, but with Lindsey instead of you. Did that bum you out?
You know what? I put together that gig. I went out with John Kay of Steppenwolf to meet Al Gore. And I met Al Gore Sr. I learned that Tipper Gore’s favorite song was “Don’t Stop.” It had nothing to do with the Clintons. Al asked me to call the managers and see if we’d do something at the inaugural.
I called everybody and got everybody together to do it. And then Stevie calls and asks if it would be OK if Lindsey played with them instead of me. At the time, I was the head spokesperson for Crown Royal. We flew over the inaugural. The pilot pointed it out.
Your band was down there playing a gig you set up, and you weren’t invited.
A few years later, Fleetwood Mac reforms with you, Dave Mason from Traffic, and Bekka Bramlett, but without Stevie. How did that happen?
Stevie kind of left the band after the Behind the Mask tour. We just didn’t see much of her. Everyone wanted to move in different directions. It just kind of dissolved.
I told Mick and Mick’s manager to check out Bekka one night in Malibu. They were looking for someone to replace Stevie at the time. Boom, they put Bekka in the band. Then they called me to do that tour with them, and record some songs on the album. I did that.
How did Dave Mason wind up joining?
He was a friend of ours. He lived in Malibu and was always hanging out. He was one of our buddies.
Tell me about making the Time record.
When they started the record, I was living in Nashville and doing my country thing. It was stuff I had written with Deborah Allen and Rafe Van Hoy here in Nashville. The band loved them. I thought the tracks were great.
“Talkin’ to My Heart” is a great song.
Thanks. Like I said before, it’s just timing in this business when you put out an album, especially with a group as big as Fleetwood Mac. People expect so much from them. Even on Behind the Mask, I don’t think we had any big hits on there from Christine or Stevie. “In the Back of My Mind” was a single in England, and we debuted at Number One there. I think we did pretty good on the charts there, but it was a bomb for Fleetwood Mac at five million. I said, “That’s not bad.”
Time was the first one without Stevie. I’m sure you knew it would be tough to sell that without her.
Oh yeah. We all knew it would be a tough road for radio back then.
You wrote “Dreaming the Dream” with Bekka.
I remember us writing that in a hotel room somewhere. I brought it back into the band. Dave, Christine, and Mick loved it, so it made the record. When you brought a new song in, everyone had to like it. It was something the band voted on. I still carry that to this day. There’s a lot of things I learned in Fleetwood Mac that work.
When you toured in 1995, there was no Stevie, Christine, or Lindsey. It must have been tricky to go out without at least one of them.
It was tricky, but it was still a good band. The people loved it. I sang “Don’t Stop” and “Go Your Own Way.” People want to hear the hits when they come to a concert. When we put out Behind the Mask, we put up a list of all the songs we want to do. At the first night, we’d do a bunch of the new songs. But we’d just go back to doing the hits after the first night. People don’t want to hear the new stuff.
Dave Mason brought his own songs to the band.
Yeah. He had a couple of hits. That’s why he was good for the band. He had “Feelin’ Alright” and “Dear Mr. Fantasy.” We toured with Pat Benatar and Crosby, Stills, and Nash and REO Speedwagon. There were plenty of hits to go around.
You were playing smaller venues, though. How do you think Mick and John felt about that?
I don’t know. We were still playing sheds. It was the same places we’d play with Fleetwood Mac. To me, it was still great. I never felt like they felt bad about it.
The last show was in New Year’s Eve in Las Vegas in 1995.
Yeah. I just saw that there’s a YouTube post of the full show. I just watched that the other night. It’s wild to see something like that after all this time.
In Mick’s book, he said that the Dave Mason/Bekka Bramlett version of the band shouldn’t have gone out as Fleetwood Mac. I imagine you feel differently.
I didn’t know he said that. I haven’t read his new book. But I don’t think it was a mistake. It’s just part of the evolution of the band. He tried different things. Sometimes they worked, and sometimes they didn’t. With Fleetwood Mac, it’s hard. When they hit with Rumours and the White Album before that, those albums were Number One for about a year each. Nobody has had that since then.
By the time of that final show on New Year’s Eve, did you know they were plotting behind the scenes to reunite with Stevie, Lindsey, and Christine for The Dance?
I knew about it. I tried to tell Bekka and Dave about it, and they didn’t believe me. I just knew Stevie’s people and I knew something was up to get Lindsey back in the band. I don’t know how I knew it, but I did.
The Eagles reunited in 1994 and made a ton of money on the road. The logical move was to get the Rumours lineup back and do the same thing.
Yeah. It was for a lot of money.
You wrote in your book that you felt “used.” Do you still feel that way?
We were all used to a certain extent. When we were on the road with Tango in the Night, I think we sold another ten million records for them. It was quite a big deal. When you’re a touring band, you’re out there and you do that…I would have liked to have more singles. But it was Stevie and Christine, two of the greatest writers in the world.
I guess I said that in the book, but I don’t feel used now. I don’t feel like I’m poor little Billy that got treated bad. I made a lot of money with them.
You also wrote in the book that Bekka bought a house for a million dollars before she learned about the reunion, and it really messed her up financially.
Yeah. It’s hard to blame anybody. I wish they had told her at the time. Me and her were going together at the time. We had a short affair. In fact, we signed with A&M Records as Bekka and Billy. We all thought that was going to be a big hit, but you never know in this business. Here we were coming out of Fleetwood Mac into Nashville. It just didn’t sell much.
Did you see Fleetwood Mac on their tours in the late Nineties and in more recent years?
Oh yeah. I’ve been to many shows. We’re still friends.
When Lindsey left the band again in 2018, some fans thought they might bring you back. Did you think that was a possibility at the time?
I did. In fact, I got really upset with Mick about that. I’d heard that the girls wanted me back in the band. But Mick’s management team has always had a problem with me from that time I was in the Zoo. Some people gel, and some people don’t. I could have done that tour easily. I saw them do a couple of shows and I went, “Oh, that doesn’t sound very good.”
Did you call Mick and tell him you wanted back in?
Yeah. He said, “We’ve already made that decision.” I got upset with him. We didn’t make up for a year or two after that. But we’re like family. You can get in a fight with your brother or something. You can’t carry around bad vibes with somebody forever.
What did you think of his decision to bring on Neil Finn from Crowded House and Mike Campbell?
I didn’t understand it myself. I love Mike Campbell. I’d never heard of Neil Finn before. I just didn’t understand it at all. I felt that I could have come back in and done it just as well. But my health…I had a thing happen to me where I had a colonoscopy and they didn’t sew me up right and I ran out of blood and hit my head. I had all kinds of health problems at the time. Maybe it’s better I didn’t do it. I feel much better as a performer now. But I’m 69. Stevie is in her seventies, and she’s doing the biggest shows she’s ever done.
It sort of feels like the band is over at this point.
I think so. It would be the wisest thing to do for the fans. Who knows with those guys? I just talked to Fleetwood yesterday. He wants me to go hang out with him in Hawaii. But first I want to put this record out. The record is really good, by the way. I’m really happy about it. Mick is playing drums on it.
There’s a great song on it that I co-wrote with Shawn Camp. He wrote the George Strait hit “Rolling On The River of Love” with me. That was a Number One record down here. Most of my success in this business has been as a writer.
It’s great you made peace with Mick and are playing with him again.
Yeah. It’ll eat you up. I got over it real quick. As soon as I saw the new version of Fleetwood Mac on a few TV shows, I was like, “Whatever.” [Laughs.] I was over it quicker than I thought I would be.
Moving on here, you were Bob Dylan’s touring guitarist for a little bit in 2003. What’s your favorite memory from that tour?
There’s so many. We were rehearsing at Jackson Browne’s studio in L.A. We had been rehearsing with electric guitars all day. It was one of the last tours where he played guitar. I learned about 120 songs. He plays them differently on the road, though. What happened is he sent me all the records he did, but he didn’t send me any work tapes. I had these guys sneak some work tapes so I could learn the stuff better.
It was a big thrill. I remember at the first day of rehearsal, Dylan picks up his acoustic guitar. He goes, “This is my thing.” I go, “You’re right about that.”
Bob travels the whole world. He’s always on tour. But he’s almost never seen offstage. He just seems to vanish.
He went out and ran every day. I’d see him in his sweats in the hotel, but he’s slippery. He can walk in an airport…they lost him one day. They couldn’t find him anywhere. I’m in this little gift shop and I turn around, and there he is. He goes, “Hi Billy.” I was like, “How did you get in here?” He moves around. It’s a weird thing.
He wears that hood over his head sometimes.
When he wears the hood, you’re not supposed to talk to him. I didn’t know that until one day we were in line to get on a plane at the airport. I tapped him on the shoulder. The drummer said, “No, no. He don’t talk to anyone when he’s got the hood on.” I was like, “OK. I’m glad you told me.”
Standing onstage with him every night and playing “All Along the Watchtower” and “Highway 61 Revisited” must have been so much fun.
Oh yeah. It was amazing. One night we did a set in Australia. We were playing to like 400,000 people. It was just amazing. Even his bass player, Tony Garnier, who is the leader of the band, said to me, “I’ve never seen him do a set like that.” I was so happy to be there that night, and be able to play with him. He did all the hits.
You were replacing Charlie Sexton, and he’s such an amazing guitar player.
He’s a great guitar player. I’m a different guitar player. I’ve developed more into being a lead guitar player. I’ll play lead once in a while, but I’m mainly a rhythm guitar player.
You wrote in your book that they made you wear Charlie’s same suits onstage.
Yeah. They were tight because he’s a skinny guy.
Was there a wardrobe person on the road?
Yeah. The only thing you had to bring to a Dylan show was your shirt.
Why were you only on that one tour of Australia and New Zealand?
It was because I had a publisher. I made a publishing deal with Barbara Orbison. She was good friends with Bob from the Wilbury days, since she was married to Roy Orbison. I didn’t write too much on the road. In fact, Bob asked me one day if I was writing. Barbara told me later that she got me off that tour since I wasn’t writing enough.
How did you feel when you learned that?
I was pissed. It was a great gig. I couldn’t understand it at the time. Bob liked me. I got along really well with the band. It was just that Barbara…bless her. She’s passed away since then. But she was real tight with Bob.
You went out with John Fogerty after that.
Yeah. I was with him for seven years.
Between Fogerty and Dylan and Fleetwood Mac, you really played many of the greatest rock songs ever written with the people that wrote them.
Yeah. With John, we had the best band. God! It was a killer band. John is an amazing artist. He’s an amazing cat. How he sings that high every night is just unbelievable.
Are you still close with Bekka Bramlett?
Yeah. I just did a gig with her the other night. She lives in another part of Nashville. I don’t do as much as I used to do. What I do now is a lot of rockabilly festivals. I do them in Switzerland and Sweden and London and Vegas. I do all the rockabilly festivals because of my dad’s and uncle’s affiliation with them. When I do the rockabilly things, they don’t want any Fleetwood Mac or John Fogerty or Bob Dylan. They want to hear rockabilly.
That’s certainly in your blood.
It’s part of my DNA. I just do it.
How do you feel if you’re driving around and “Go Your Own Way” or “Don’t Stop” come on the radio? Is it still fun to hear those songs you’ve done live so many times?
Yeah. I still have my own band. Every once in a while, I’ll do them. People still ask to hear them. It was a big band and a big change in my life. It was the biggest ever. God, it’s a hard one to top.
A ridiculous amount of talented guitar players have been in that band, from Peter Green to Jeremy Spencer, Bob Welch, Lindsey Buckingham, Dave Mason, Mike Campbell…You’re a part of that chain.
It’s amazing. I was really honored to be in the band. At the time, they were my best friends I had in L.A. For me to be in the band was a no-brainer since I was part of the family.
Stevie is arguably more popular right now than at any other point in her career.
It’s unbelievable. They’re selling out stadiums with her and Billy Joel. It’s unbelievable.
Many of her fans are really young, too.
I know. I’ve never seen anything like it. In fact, the whole Fleetwood Mac thing now is hotter than it’s ever been.
That’s why it’s so sad to see the group seemingly ending.
You can’t do it forever. The way they travel is all luxury, but it’s still a lot of work. Traveling is a lot of work no matter how you look at it.
Do you have any regrets about the whole thing besides all the money you burned on the road?
No. I don’t have any regrets at all.
What do you hope to accomplish in the next few years?
I hope this record I’m going to put out with me and Mick is a hit, first of all. Besides that, the whole thing has changed. I have so many songs in my catalog. I’ve had a hit on Genius Loves Company that Ray Charles did with Bonnie Raitt. I have the Roy Orbison song. Faith Hill has cut songs of mine. Alan Jackson. I could go on forever.
I’m still rocking. I’m still asked to do a lot of stuff, especially because of Fleetwood Mac. I’ve sat in with a couple of Fleetwood Mac cover bands. They pay good money to have me play with them. The shows are usually sold out.
Fleetwood Mac is really a great band. If we got up on stage, forget about it. Someone could be sick or not feeling well, but when we hit that stage, it was great. Every night John McVie would say, “Best band in the world.” He was right. The people were going crazy. That’s what it’s all about, taking people away from bills and divorces and all the shit they’re going through for a couple of hours.
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I’ve been doing this all my life. I just got through going all over the world doing these rockabilly festivals. I was booked through Christmas. It’s been a lot of work. I have a band in Italy, a band in England, a band in Sweden. I have bands all over the place for the rockabilly stuff. There are so many people that know the music of my dad and uncle. I can do a whole set.
You have a very good attitude. Some musicians your age really fixate on the downsides of success, and they’re angry about things from decades back.
There are highs and lows. I had a major heart attack. I had the one that Lindsey had. I couldn’t sing for a long time after those pipes went down my throat. That’s hard to get through. I went through mine 20 years ago. I’ve been very blessed in my whole life to be a musician that earns a living doing it. That’s a major achievement.