T Bone Burnett looks perplexed. I’ve asked him if there was ever a turning point in his four-decade career as a rootsy songwriter, performer and, most successfully, producer. “A turning point?” he repeats. A moment when things really started happening for him, I say. The bespectacled 6ft-plus Burnett, all two-tone with his black suit and white hair, crinkles his nose. “I never thought of it that way. I never had any specific thought about things ‘happening’… I still don’t think of it as a career! I look at it as a pursuit.”
Burnett, who turned 66 last week, has done well for a man without a “career”. Working with greats from Elvis Costello to B.B. King, he’s won 13 Grammys – including Producer of the Year in 2002 and album of the year in 2009 for his work on the Robert Plant/Alison Krauss hit Raising Sand. In recent years, he has become best known for his film work, producing soundtracks for everything from The Hunger Games to country music drama Crazy Heart, for which he claimed both an Oscar and a Golden Globe for co-writing the song “The Weary Kind”.
His latest Hollywood project is Inside Llewyn Davis, another collaboration with the Coen Brothers, who kick-started Burnett’s journey into Hollywood when they invited him to be the “musical archivist” on their 1998 cult hit The Big Lebowski, picking songs for the soundtrack. Two years later, they asked him to produce the music for their Depression-era comedy O Brother, Where Art Thou? – and the bluegrass-soaked soundtrack became a phenomenon, winning five Grammys and selling nine million copies.
Although it was released in December 2000, the album’s success, Burnett believes, was due to people discovering it in the aftermath of 9/11, nine months later. “It was a similar cultural moment [to] when The Beatles [emerged] after John Kennedy was killed; the country was in a state of national trauma and there was this relief, this beautiful music,” he says.
For Inside Llewyn Davis, Burnett has similarly mined sounds from the past. Set in 1961 amid New York’s burgeoning folk-music scene, the film follows the trials of a fictional struggling songwriter, the titular Llewyn, and Burnett’s soundtrack is largely adapted from trad folk tunes, such as the mournful “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” that opens the film. Burnett doesn’t expect it to generate the same reaction as the O Brother ... soundtrack – “I think the [folk] revival is already happening. Mumford and Sons, the Alabama Shakes, The Lumineers and so on,” he explains. That said, with songs as catchy as “Please Mr Kennedy”, and a musical line-up including Justin Timberlake, who plays one half of a husband-and-wife duo alongside Carey Mulligan, and folk-pop superstar (and Mulligan’s real-life husband) Marcus Mumford, anything is possible.
Burnett couldn’t be more sincere when he calls this project “the best job in the world”. Part of Burnett’s task was to train up Oscar Isaac, who plays Llewyn; Isaac, 34, played in a ska-punk band called The Blinking Underdogs in the late Nineties, but this required him to perfect a stripped-down, intimate performance style, playing guitar and singing live to camera. Isaac took to it like a natural, Burnett says. “Each song, he would get it and internalise it and the song would grow into this beautiful performance. It was amazing watching him reveal these songs.”
Burnett claims Inside Llewyn Davis is “the story of my life”. Does he mean that? After all, it’s a film that explores failure. “I do mean it, but not in any simple way,” he says. “Llewyn doesn’t have a career. Hanging around Washington Square Park was never going to be a career. But he would play in places and he would get by.” So Burnett spent years similarly scratching a living? “All my life!” he chuckles. “I have a bedroom now, but I slept on couches!”
Born in Missouri as Joseph Henry Burnett – the nickname came when he was five – he grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, amid a burgeoning teen music scene. He started playing guitar when he was 10 and, by 16, he and some friends had a band, even taking out a bank loan to buy a local studio that was for sale.
His bandmates’ idea was to record, get songs on the radio and get gigs, but Burnett was dreaming a different dream. “I wanted to be Burt Bacharach. I didn’t want to be a public performer. I wanted to write songs for movies, marry Angie Dickinson and have race horses! That kind of thing was a way out of Fort Worth, a way into the bigger world.”
Nevertheless his breakthrough did come as a performer, when, after moving to LA, he was asked by Bob Dylan to play guitar on his 1975-76 Rolling Thunder Revue tour. “It was a masterclass in showbusiness,” says Burnett. “He taught me about pacing shows. Every show needs a script, needs to tell a story, needs to have some kind of identity and cohesion. I really learned everything I needed to know to sustain me for the next 40 years in music.”
Dylan features prominently in Burnett’s work with the Coens, from the use of “The Man In Me” in The Big Lebowski’s title sequence to the appearance of rare cut “Farewell” in Inside Llewyn Davis. Indeed, Dylan haunts the latter as the revolutionary who finally took folk standards to the masses where many faithful but workmanlike interpreters in the mould of Llewyn had failed. “He had no problem with opening the window and letting this music out, re-inventing it for the modern world,” says Burnett. “Just as Louis Armstrong had, just as Hank Williams had, just as Elvis Presley had.”
After his Dylan gig, Burnett formed the Alpha Band with other members of the backing band from the tour. But the group disbanded in 1979, after three albums, and, though he pursued a solo career for a while, it’s clear he has always been more comfortable producing. He’s recently worked on Nashville, the country music soap created by his wife, screenwriter Callie Khouri, and has just finished scoring HBO crime drama True Detective, starring Matthew McConaughey. “I’m in an age and time in my life when I don’t need to go out to the audience and get attention. In fact, I’d rather not have attention; I’d rather work in solitude and private.” He flashes a smile. “But I’m really happy.”
‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ is released on Friday