“[Sachs’] critical point of view stands out as good as Burnett’s musical history” – Critics at Large blogger John Corcelli on “T Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit”

Elvis Costello and T Bone Burnett (right) at McCabe’s Guitar Shop, Santa Monica, California, 1984. (Photo: Sherry Rayn Barnett)

Some of the most prized albums in my collection have the name T Bone Burnett attached to them. These include the marvelous duo recording Raising Sand by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, the remarkably personal No Better Than This by John Mellencamp, Low Country Blues by the late Gregg Allman and the outstanding soundtrack to the Coen Brothers‘ picture, O Brother, Where Art Thou? So I was keen to learn more about the man and his earthy approach as producer on these great records. Lloyd Sachs’s book called T Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit (U of Texas) tells that story and reveals much more about this versatile artist. His short but concise biography, released last year, tells the story of Burnett with a critical eye on his output as a producer, but also focuses on his own life in music. The “pursuit,” as Sachs puts it, is a little vague but no less a driver for how Burnett’s approach to music creation makes him so special. Says Burnett, who’s quoted extensively throughout the book, “All Art comes out of community and when communities can get together and not fight over who gets what piece and instead can say ‘this is ours, let’s make it great’ it just ends up being better . . . so to get to the spirit of a piece of art right, everyone has to be generous.” So it goes for Burnett, who has been a part pf a music community over the past 50 years, since he was kid growing up in Texas.

Burnett was born in St. Louis, MO in 1948. His father worked for the Tandy Corporation and moved to Fort Worth, TX when Joseph Henry Burnett III  was four. According to Sachs, Burnett acquired the nickname “T-Bone” but can’t recall how and removed the hyphen when he became an adult. Sachs explains in his introduction that, after he first met Burnett in 2008 as an editor at No Depression magazine, Burnett wasn’t interested in reflecting on his life in a book because he didn’t want to “look backward.” Burnett trusted Sachs, but felt better about not participating in the telling of his own story, beyond the sharing of some personal photographs contained in the book. Once the University of Texas in its American Composer Series commissioned him, Sachs went ahead with a full-length biography with Burnett’s endorsement.

Sachs reports that the word “career” is the one that most offends his subject. He says that “pursuit” best describes Burnett’s journey through music, quite possibly with no end in sight, a very Zen-like quality that Burnett carries with him on every project. Sacha writes: “[F]or all his successes, for all his clout, he is still finding his way, still stopping and starting over in pursuit of a higher truth in art and life.”

Sachs takes a chronological approach to telling Burnett’s story and it works best for his subject, a man who’s constantly on the go, often literally, from city to city and to different recording sessions. His critical point of view stands out as good as Burnett’s musical history. I thoroughly enjoyed the author’s extensive knowledge matched by Burnett’s extraordinary knowledge of American music, so as an economical tome Sachs’s biography was a great book to read for its deep research and critical POV. The book was based on an extended essay for No Depression going back to 2008, but at no time did I feel cheated by the brevity of the chapters. Sachs uses language in a good reporter’s fashion: the economy of copy doesn’t have to suffer with a poor vocabulary and blasé descriptions. Sachs name-drops all along the way, having interviewed so many songwriters, musicians and engineers associated with Burnett’s body of work, which goes farther to enriching the text and reinforcing the strength of Burnett’s contribution to American music. His albums are of a kind: often bottom-heavy and swampy but not for their own sake but because of Burnett’s keen sense of music history and his passion for blues, country and mountain music. As Sachs concludes, Burnett isn’t interested in staying in one place, musically speaking. He’s about re-inventing old sounds: “He draws greater personal rewards from elevating gifted young artists and seeding the future with singers and songwriters who will carry our great music tradition forward than he does from massaging his own reputation.”

T Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit is recommended reading for anyone interested in learning more about “the man behind the curtain” of so many great records these past 20 years. Burnett’s solo records are given consideration by the author as well. Unfortunately Sachs doesn’t include a complete discography of Burnett’s output, offering up instead a handful of “selections” and a few words about some of the musicians Burnett hires to create his sound. Considering the extensive source material for the book listed in the bibliography, I was disappointed Sachs didn’t go the extra mile and offer readers a detailed list of Burnett’s remarkable body of work in one section. A complete discography would have been a useful addition to this concise biography.

John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, and musician. John is also the author of Frank Zappa FAQ: All That’s Left To Know About The Father of Invention (Backbeat Books).
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“In telling this story, Sachs has done roots music a great turn, in fine style” – From Songlines’ four-star review for “T Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit”

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Writes Jeff Kaliss in the new issue of the fine British magazine, Lloyd Sachs’ critical bio is “an impressively deep and broad look at Burnett’s career.”

Here’s the full review:

 

Lloyd Sachs Talks T Bone on WGN with Rick Kogan

with KoganA great time was had discussing T Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit with WGN Radio host and Chicago Tribune luminary Rick Kogan, who deemed it a fascinating book and one that filled him in on things about Burnett that he never knew. You can hear the show in its entirety here.

 

“New biography of T Bone Burnett is fascinating, revealing”

That’s what book columnist Lauren Dailey wrote in the Massachussetts newspaper South Coast Today about Lloyd Sachs’ milestone biography, T Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit. Her piece, linked below, also includes a brief Q&A with Sachs.

http://www.southcoasttoday.com/news/20170507/booklovers-new-biography-of-t-bone-burnett-is-fascinating-revealing

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“An admirable, comprehensive, relatively quick read through the life and times of a musical force whose journey is far from over” – PopMatters

Writing for PopMatters, Christopher John Stephens adds to the widespread acclaim for Lloyd Sachs’ milestone biography, T Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit:

http://www.popmatters.com/column/t-bone-burnett-a-life-in-pursuit-lloyd-sachs/

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“The best resource on the life and work of Joseph Henry Burnett III”

That’s what Texas Music reviewer Madison Searle declared in a two-page spread in the Spring 2017 issue, calling Lloyd Sachs’ T Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit an “informed and generous sampling of T Bone Burnett’s life in music.” Hear, hear!

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“I wish all books on music were like this” – Lloyd Sachs’ T Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit, Reviewed in Leading Spanish Rock Mag Ruta 66

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Here are (loosely) translated highlights of Jordi Pujol Nadal’s fantastic review, part of a T Bone package in the March issue of Ruta 66:

“A precise and detailed portrait of Burnett’s work that, for those who enjoy thoughtful  studies, works more as a thesis than a biography.”

“The story, rich in details and anecdotes, engages as well as impresses, with previously unpublished information, commentaries from friends and revelations on what happened in the studio.”

“Sachs, a skilled rat of digital libraries, shines in the contextualization – he always has juicy statements that help us to understand this subject or that disc.”

“Read it. You will be amazed at how much you learn. I wish all books on music were like this.”

Thank you, Jordi!

“I wanted to expose a side of his talent that a lot of people weren’t aware of, even as they were proclaiming him one of the great geniuses of modern music” – Lloyd Sachs, author of T Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit, talking to Texas Monthly

A Bone to Pick

A NEW BOOK ON THE LEGENDARY PRODUCER REVEALS A PERFORMER WITH CHOPS OF HIS OWN.

MARCH 31, 2017 by  

T Bone Burnett at the 17th Annual Americana Music Festival and Conference in 2016, in Nashville.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ANNA WEBBER/GETTY IMAGES FOR AMERICANA MUSIC

Music fans are likely familiar with T Bone Burnett for his behind-the-scenes work. He’s first and foremost a gifted record producer. The list of albums he’s orchestrated for other musicians, often contributing his own talents as a multi-instrumentalist, is extraordinary, among them the Counting Crows’s August and Everything After, the Wallflowers’ Bringing Down the Horse, and Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’s Raising Sand. Besides those standouts, he’s produced albums for B.B. King, Steve Earle, Elton John, Los Lobos, Elvis Costello, John Mellencamp, Gillian Welch, Tony Bennett, Willie Nelson, Roy Orbison—even Spinal Tap.

Still, others might know Burnett exclusively for his TV and movie soundtracks. He’s worked on three Coen Brothers films: The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Inside Llewyn Davis. Then there’s Crazy Heart and Walk the Line. Not to mention the TV series True Detective and Nashville, created by his second wife, Callie Khouri.

But what many people don’t know is that Burnett, an Oscar and Grammy winner, has had a brilliant solo career, spanning around a dozen releases since 1980. Bringing that to light was part of the inspiration for the new book T Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit, by the Chicago-based journalist Lloyd Sachs, who will host a talk at BookPeople on Saturday.

“In certain cases, T Bone was his own worst enemy in the studio on his own stuff,” Sachs says. “None of his albums were commercially successful, and I think he really wanted to be considered among the Jackson Brownes and Warrens Zevons of the singer-songwriter generation. And a lot of times his self-consciousness got to him. On the production end of it, he would just play with the stuff and he wouldn’t leave it alone.”

Burnett did not make himself available for the book but Sachs, who has written extensively for the Chicago Sun-Times and No Depressionand has a previous book titled American Country: Bluegrass, Honky Tonk and Crossover Sounds, has interviewed him in the past. Each of the chapters in T Bone Burnett, published by the University of Texas Press, addresses a different identity of the enigmatic subject.

This includes Burnett as Svengali to his first wife, the singer-songwriter Sam Phillips, as she transitioned from a Christian to a secular musician. The book also refers to Burnett as a “Dylanologist,” because of his shared history with Bob Dylan, from playing guitar in Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour in ’75 and ’76 to recording Dylan songs on Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes, in 2014. Then there’s Burnett’s life as an activist, fighting against licensing legislation and advocating for musicians to get their proper monetary dues.

T Bone Burnett was born Joseph Henry Burnett III in St. Louis, in 1948, but he grew up in Fort Worth. As a teenager during the British Invasion, he gravitated to the Beatles because they experimented with sounds. He was also a blues hound, scarfing down Jimmy Reed and Muddy Waters. Perhaps his biggest influence, though, was his childhood schoolmate and friend Stephen Bruton, best known for playing in Kris Kristofferson’s band. Bruton was a guitar whiz whose skills informed Burnett’s.

T Bone Burnett opening for the Who at the International Ampitheater on October 5, 1982, in Chicago.

PHOTOGRAPH BY PAUL NATKIN/WIREIMAGE

“T Bone’s guitar playing tends to get overlooked, because it’s not about flashy solos,” Sachs says, “It’s all about feel, rhythmic feel. He’s got Texas blues seeped into his system.”

The impact Bruton had on Burnett extended to Bruton’s dad, who owned a record store called Record Town. At the store, Burnett got hip to arcane acts like the pre-blues singer Dock Boggs, whose song “Oh Death” would become a lynchpin for the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, which was a hugely influential album that more or less birthed the Americana genre. The two old friends would pair up again later in life, when Bruton was gravely ill, to collaborate on songs for Crazy Heart.

After graduating from Paschal High School, Burnett attended Texas Christian University for a spell, where he was in the ROTC, but dropped out to start working as a producer at Sound City, also in Fort Worth. He plucked the Legendary Stardust Cowboy off the streets and recorded his novelty hit “Paralyzed.” He also helmed the cult album The Unwritten Works of Geoffrey, Etc., by the psych-folk band Whistler, Chaucer, Detroit and Greenhill. (A former member of the group, David Bullock, will join Sachs in discussion at BookPeople.) These early experiences laid the foundation for the singular approach Burnett adopted later in his career as a producer.

“He makes everybody incredibly comfortable, and he doesn’t push his ideas on anyone,” Sachs says. “He actually sets up the studio in a kind of living room setting where he brings in couches and soft chairs and soft lamps and just creates this environment. He has some special incense that he burns too—some Peruvian incense that supposedly has great properties.”

Burnett (right) with Elvis Costello (left) at McCabe’s Guitar Shop, in Santa Monica, California, in 1984.

PHOTOGRAPH BY SHERRY RAYN BARNETT

Burnett eventually moved to Los Angeles, where in 1972 he released his first solo album, The B-52 Band & the Fabulous Skylarks, under J. Henry Burnett. A couple of years later he went on tour with Dylan. After that he formed the Alpha Band, featuring fellow players in Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue. The Alpha Band had a religious sensibility that would inhabit Burnett’s future work. In 1980, under the now well-known moniker T Bone Burnett, he released Truth Decay, which many consider his proper debut. With a combination of blues, folk, and country, Burnett served up parables and tales of personal struggles.

“Early on there was a certain religious underpinning to a lot of his stuff,” Sachs says. “He was kind of tagged a born-again artist, which is oversimplified and really probably not accurate. But there’s a definite spiritual drive to the songs he wrote, which had in many cases to do with belief and the difficulties of that life.”

As time wore on, elements of noir, spawned by the works of the mystery writers Raymond Chandler and James Ellroy, pervaded Burnett’s work. And surrealism and biting social commentary in his lyrics became the standard. However, an exception to that is his eponymous 1986 album. Stripped down and recorded over a few days in an all-acoustic setting with some Nashville session players, the album features Burnett singing from the heart. Songs like “River of Love” showcase Burnett’s ability to deliver deeply felt songs of his own.

“I wanted to expose this side of his talent that a lot of people weren’t aware of, even as they were proclaiming him one of the great geniuses of modern music,” Sachs says. “There are just so many dimensions to him.”
BookPeople, April 1, 2 p.m., bookpeople.com

L.A. and Austin Cheer “T Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit”

Embarking on a whirlwind tour of the West Coast and South Coast, Lloyd Sachs presented his biography of music legend T Bone Burnett to enthusiastic crowds at Book Soup in Hollywood and BookPeople in Austin. The latter stop was highlighted by an appearance by David Bullock, onetime member of Whistler, Chaucer, Detroit and Greenhill, whom Burnett produced in his Sound City studio in the late ’60s.

Bullock’s lively commentary included a little-known tidbit: The cover of the group’s cult album, The Unwritten Works of Geoffrey, Etc. (coveted by drummer Lane on Gilmore Girls) , was taken by design student Guy Clark – who, with only three members of the ad hoc band present, inserted himself into the frame as the fourth player! This was before he began writing songs, on his way to legendary status.

Bullock chat

David Bullock and Lloyd Sachs at BookPeople

 

Those in attendance at the Book Soup event included film producer and T Bone collaborator Albert Berger, who first worked with Burnett on Cold Mountain; A&R and music publicity icon and writer Bill Bentley, who worked at Slash and Warner Bros. during the post-punk era that spawned Los Lobos and Burnett’s Trap Door EP; documentary makers Annika Iltis and Timothy Kane (The Barkley Marathons:The Race That Eats Its Young), and actor and Hollywood Beauty Detective creator Holly Fulger.

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Sachs at Book Soup

Talking T Bone in L.A. and Austin

book soup

Lloyd Sachs will talk about the writing of T Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit, sign copies and read from it at two great bookstores. On March 30 at 7 PM, he’ll be at BookSoup in Hollywood, not far from Burnett’s West Coast manse. And on April 1 at 2 PM, he’ll be at BookPeople in Austin, Texas. There will be musical surprises – details to come. Come on out and hear about one of the great figures in American culture.