Melody maker: T-Bone Burnett
The Texan musician and producer has dug out the best of Americana for a string of acclaimed movies. Now he's tipped for a Bafta – and an Oscar – for his most recent soundtrack
By Monday morning, T-Bone Burnett's already crowded mantelpiece may well be groaning under the additional weight of yet another award. His composition "The Weary Kind" is a strong contender to win the Bafta for Best Song, to go along with the Golden Globe he recently picked up, and in all probability the Oscar for which it's also nominated.
It's from Crazy Heart, in which Jeff Bridges – likewise favourite to pick up the Best Actor award – offers a bravura portrait of a road-ravaged country singer suspended somewhere between outlaw and out of luck. It's the latest of Burnett's perfectly measured, evocative movie soundtracks and, more intriguingly, the first film project on which he's been producer not just of the music but also of the actual film itself. Indeed, Burnett's involvement was crucial in securing Bridges for the role, the two having been friends for close to four decades now. "The two of us have been playing guitar and writing songs together since about 1970, so I was well acquainted with what he was capable of doing," Burnett explained recently. "I think we both agreed to do it out of a desire to do something with old friends. I don't think either of us thought we'd actually have to go through with it!"
Having signed up, Burnett tackled the job with the same blend of taste and diligence which he brought to all his previous movie commissions, which include the acclaimed soundtracks for the Civil War drama Cold Mountain (for which he was nominated for an Oscar), the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, and several Coen brothers films including The Ladykillers, The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou?. It was the last which hoisted this reserved, quietly spoken studioholic into the public limelight, securing him Grammy awards for Producer and Record of the Year. It went on to sell seven million copies, an extraordinary feat for a soundtrack of antique blues and bluegrass music performed by niche artists such as Ralph Stanley, Gillian Welch and Alison Krauss.
Overnight, Burnett became the first choice for any soundtrack job set in the American past, his peerless command of roots music styles and encyclopaedic knowledge of music history enabling him to tailor the perfect mix of classic old tracks and custom-built new material for each project. "Working in movies opened up a whole new way of being a musician for me," he said. "It's like conjuring up a believable, but non-existent past."
The lanky, 62-year-old Texan's own past is as colourful and eccentric as anything in a Coen Brothers movie. Born Joseph Henry Burnett on 14 January 1948 in St Louis, Missouri, he grew up in Texas surrounded by a wealth of indigenous music. As young as 14, he was a regular visitor to the Skyliner Ballroom, a Fort Worth juke joint where he first encountered R&B legends such as Junior Parker, Bobby "Blue" Bland and BB King.
It was crucial to his subsequent development as a music producer – he has since acknowledged that the "sound" of that specific venue from his youth is the sound he has been subconsciously attempting to re-create on every record he produces. "It's been a long time of figuring out how to make it sound as exciting on a record, or in a room, as music sounded to me at that time," he said.
The father of his lifelong friend Stephen Bruton (who worked with him on Crazy Heart, shortly before succumbing to bone cancer) ran a record shop in Fort Worth, where Burnett got a thorough grounding in a vast range of different music, from country to jazz, blues to Brecht and Weill. But it was the impact of the Beatles, swiftly followed by an appreciation of Burt Bacharach, which convinced him to become a musician.
By the age of 17, he had bought a local studio and started recording local bands, and visiting performers who would arrive late at night, still buzzing from their show, eager to continue playing. "These country musicians would drink a lot of whisky, take a lot of speed, and want to stay up all night," he recalled. "They'd need a place to do it, so they'd end up at my studio."
In the early 1970s, Burnett relocated to Los Angeles, where a chance meeting with Bob Dylan's pal Bob Neuwirth landed him a job playing guitar on Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue alongside Joan Baez, Mick Ronson and playwright Sam Shepard, with whom he struck up a friendship that would result in collaboration on a production of Shepard's play The Tooth of Crime almost a quarter of a century later. For Burnett, Dylan's ramshackle, poetic carnival served as a form of apprenticeship. "I've lived the rest of my life on the fuel I got from the tour," he later observed. In return, he was reputed to have been involved in helping the troubled legend to become a born-again Christian.
With a couple of fellow musicians from the Rolling Thunder Revue, Burnett then formed the Alpha Band, who suffered the inevitable consequences of being inappropriately hyped as "the next Beatles", breaking up after three albums.
The following decade found Burnett pursuing a solo career in which critical plaudits were not greatly accompanied by sales. But alongside his own albums, such as 1980's Truth Decay and 1984's Behind the Trap Door, he found greater success producing other artists' work: Counting Crows' August and Everything After, Los Lobos' How Will the Wolf Survive?, Elvis Costello's King of America and Spike, and Roy Orbison's swansong Mystery Girl all achieved the holy grail of critical and commercial success, establishing Burnett as a first-rank studio helmsman.
Most recently, his work on Robert Plant and Alison Krauss's 2007 album Raising Sand helped to secure it all five of the Grammy awards for which it was nominated, including Album of the Year. Robert Plant, no stranger to studios, was deeply impressed by what several other singers have referred to as Burnett's "zen-like" attitude and approach.
"His guidance and otherworldliness is just fantastic," said the former Led Zeppelin frontman. "There was never even one tiny droplet of irony or short temper."
But unlike some producers, Burnett was intensely active in the project's earliest stages, bringing his huge knowledge of arcane material to bear in the choice of songs covered on the album. Months beforehand, he would send both singers recordings of obscure but beautiful tracks by Gene Clark, Mel Tillis and his own ex-wife Sam Phillips, along with a dossier explaining how he believed each song would work for the duo. "It was like an Open University thesis on each tune, and why it was important as a piece of music," marvelled Plant. "I'd never had a producer like that before, one who tells you to think about it like this."
It was a talent which Burnett had by that time wielded to imposing effect in his work for the Coen brothers, conjuring a magical synergy from combining disparate strains of music which on the face of it shouldn't work together. His soundtrack for The Big Lebowski, for instance, may be the most diverse compilation ever made, bringing together tracks by Bob Dylan, Captain Beefheart, Moondog, Yma Sumac and Meredith Monk, not to mention the Gipsy Kings playing "Hotel California". "I didn't want to use anything that commented upon the people or looked down on them," he explained. "It was, 'What does The Dude put on just after he's made love?'. He'd come in, smoke a J, do a little t'ai chi, have a White Russian, listen to Captain Beefheart. That's a man after my own heart, someone I can look up to!"
It's this capacity of what he calls "creating an identity" which Burnett brings to every record on which he works, whether it's helping to devise the character of Bad Blake in Crazy Heart from strands of Kris Kristofferson, Robert Johnson, Leonard Cohen and Don Gibson, or uncovering something in the character of an artist whom he's producing. "You look for different parts of that identity, like solving a mystery," he said. "But you also want to hold something back, to keep a little mystery for the listener. That's what makes these recordings interesting."
Over the next few months, the list of artists whose mysteries he'll be exploring reads like a roll call of roots-rock legends. First up is Willie Nelson's Country Music, which will doubtless do exactly what it says on the tin; it's set to be followed by albums for Steve Earle, an intriguing collaboration between Leon Russell and Elton John, and a retro-rhythm and blues offering from Gregg Allman which Burnett enticingly describes as "superbad".
"There's so many beautiful musicians, and creative people in general, but what most of us get is squeezed through this tiny bottleneck of American Idol and things like that," he noted recently. "I think it's incumbent upon those of us who care about music that isn't in the mainstream to spread the word however we can. All the music I've loved the most was unfathomable to me when I first heard it."
A life in brief
Born: Joseph Henry Burnett on 14 January 1948 in St Louis, Missouri.
Family: Married singer Sam Phillips after producing her album in 1987. They are now divorced.
Education: Set up his own recording studio in Fort Worth, Texas, instead of going to college, and started making records in 1965. Moved to Los Angeles in the 1970s.
Career: Recorded his debut album, The B-52 Band & the Fabulous Skylarks, in 1972. In 1975 he was recruited to play guitar in Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue tour, through mutual friend Bob Neuwirth. When the tour ended, Burnett and two other Revue members formed the Alpha Band. Continuing as a solo artist, Burnett found success as a producer, producing albums such as Counting Crows' August and Everything After (1993), and the Roy Orbison tribute, A Black and White Night (1989). He had further success when he composed and produced the music for the Coen brothers' 2001 film, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, leading to several film soundtracks.
He says: "I made a few records here and there by default, but I wasn't ever comfortable in that role. I wasn't comfortable on stage. We'll see how it goes this time."
They say: "It was great to check in with the Boss, the Teacher, to make sure I was on track." Sam Phillips, on Burnett producing one of her records after their divorce.
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