Wednesday 24 February 2010

Abner Burnett - The Biography

Born March 4, 1953, Odessa, Texas. Burnett showed precocious talent - he won a poetry competition at the age of twelve - but dropped out of high school to enrol in the University of Life. His name first appeared on vinyl - a 45 on an obscure label, Ignite Gram-o-phonics: Jerusalem b/w Alley Song - in 1968, when Burnett was 17. A debut album, Crash & Burn, appeared seven years later in 1975.

The back cover of Crash & Burn, credited to Abner Burnett & The Burn-Outs, shows the artist in a photo-booth with two black eyes, sustained the night before in a bar-room brawl. Variously described as “low-budget jug-band psychedelia” or "acid casualty Texas outlaw rock with an unusual dark feel overall", the album opens with the arresting line, “I woke up this morning and my liver was walking out the door”. The second song, Call In The Buzzards, begins with vulture imitations as Burnett intones, “I've been down on the stockmarket floor too long…” Crash & Burn culminates in an extended instrumental, inspired by Miles Davis' Right Off (from Jack Johnson), called That's What You Get For Calling Me A Spook. Gutsy fifteen year-old schoolgirl Cindy Geppert takes Billy Cobham's role on drumkit.

Burnett almost died on the same day as Elvis Presley when he was involved in an automobile accident following a pilgrimage to Fort Sumner to visit the grave of Billy The Kid. This incident makes sense of an inscription (“I had my wreck”) found on is second album, Old McDonald.

Old McDonald was recorded in 1977 in Roswell, New Mexico, famously the site of a UFO crash. Apropos of spacemen, Abner's younger brother Paul - a collaborator on both records - was overheard to remark, “Based on what I know about the universe, the aliens may not even be as compassionate as Lyndon B. Johnson”.

More stylistically coherent than Crash & Burn, Old McDonald is an acoustic affair in the classic roots Americana style, with a setting of Herman Melville, covers of Townes Van Zandt and Bob Dylan, and a song, Bed of Roses, by Burnett's mentor, cowboy poet Buck Ramsey (the album's dedicatee). However, a sitar instrumental called Hindu Picking Cowboy indicates that Old McDonald is far removed from your average ranch stash. In a nicely barbed compliment, the late, Townes Van Zandt claimed that Old McDonald was his favourite record to fall asleep to.

(Most of a limited print-run of 500 ended up in a thrift shop in Austin, where, in 1982, a UK tourist, Al Parry, bought some copies for a few cents apiece and gave one to his friend, Mike Butler.)

Meanwhile, Burnett - who graduated from the University of Texas with a BA in Music in 1984 - was purveying rhythm and blues, in a band called The Burners, on the same Pacific Northwest circuit as Robert Cray. Cray's singer, Curtis Salgado, conceived a funky riff and the line, “You love me baby and I don't blame you”, and asked Burnett to work it up as a song. Burnett obliged. The result, with a middle section resembling Weather Report, horrified Salgado. Robert Cray, to this day, has never sung anything by Abner Burnett.

When friends started dying because of the rock 'n' roll lifestyle, Burnett Abner decided to follow his father, distinguished Civil Rights lawyer Warren Burnett, into law. He attended and graduated from the South Texas College of Law in Houston, Texas.

Viewed cynically, the law practise seemed like an extension of Burnett's earlier career as a professional gambler ("I never really was a professional gambler'" corrects Burnett. "However, the things I was doing professionally involved a lot of gamble.") It thrived in the first few years, and Burnett invested in a tree farm in Mexico on the proceeds. Then came the slump. "Last week I tried a personal injury case where myh client's hand had been crushed in a tortilla making machine," read a fax from Burnett dated March 5, 1998. "The jury awarded $100,000. Today the owner of the tortilla factor was seeing a lawyer friend of mine about declaring his business bankrupt."

The downturn coincided with a renewal of interest in Burnett's music. Manchester-based music journalist Mike Butler, an obsessive admirer of Old McDonald and its predecessor, Crash & Burn (discovered on a trip to Texas in 1991), penned a fan letter and sent it to the outdated PO Box No. on the back of Old McDonald. The ensuing correspondence resulted in low-key tours of the UK in 1997 and 1998. Following an ill-fated encounter with American Primitive guitarist John Fahey on the latter's final UK tour in 1999, Burnett teamed up with Johnny Moynihan (of Sweeney's Men; famed for introducing the bouzouki to traditional Irish music) for a tour of the UK in 2001.

His last album, It Ought To Be Enough (2006), was conceived as a farewell to US folk-based song. Abner Burnett currently works as Chief Public Defender in Willacy County, Texas, for Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, and still plays, sings and composes.


  1. Very nice bio, really captures the spirit of Abner the musican/hippy/sojouner/attorney. I played bass guitar on his very first recordings, the Ignite single and on the Crash and Burn album. If you use your imagination, you can "fill in the blanks" from your description of the early years of living the lifestyle of a Texas Cosmic Cowboy Guitar Slinger. What great,imaginative,and innovative original music we played together. I wouldn't trade those years for the world.

    David Sumners/Bass Player on Crash and Burn.

    (sry, I took the liberty- DS)

    For All of the Class of ‘70 on their 40th Birthday

    The memories of the events, our moods and ideas,
    Convictions regarding the truths felt and seen
    Mingle into a wellspring.

    The nature of heartbreak matured as the heart swelled.
    The ruthlessness of pragmatism was impressed.
    We uncovered the shine of unbridled good will.
    We cut our teeth on each other to discover ourselves.
    We flaunted ourselves.
    School dished beautiful and bitter lessons in unfathomable portions.
    Unbelievably hilarious, blessed, cursed, and cruel sometimes . . . were those days.

    Now, with our mischievous older hands pressed in the familiar mudra,anjali
    “Now, I lay me down to sleep.” We
    Pray for some fun, us sweethearts;
    We’re gonna have a party, no lights out!

    The dream curtain rises as the other one falls.

    A-a-a-nd . . .
    It is Us, The Best Carnival Ride Ever!

    With our arms round each other, seeing
    Whatever arises, “a stone, a leaf, a door”
    Nos tenemos amor
    Uno para el otro
    De veras, Amor!

    The exuberant blood of the incessant hide and seek dreamers
    Dances in intertwined lanes;
    Longs for, reaches,
    Swelling the common wellspring heart.
    We go boom!
    . . . collapse in giggling, beaming newborn pieces. Let’s
    Do it again!

  3. Well that was certainly a dark period for me, with the drug culture etc a serious regret. The only bright spot was riding Paul's Yamaha 80cc motorbike around the Odessa oil fields, where (ironically) I got my first taste of freedom.

  4. I first heard his record with Melissa Dooley in 1979. "I had my wreck" still resonates as the finest tagline I've ever read. First time I heard "Pancho & Lefty." All speed, Abner.


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