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For those who aren’t affected by the Journal’s pay wall, go here
And for those who aren’t bothered by an imperfect scan:
How great to get such great coverage whatever platform it takes you to!
For those who enjoyed the all-time best (and only?) T Bone Burnett cover band’s versions of songs by and associated with him Monday night at the Hideout, and for others interested in diving into his work as a singer, songwriter and producer, here’s an annotated playlist I put together – loaded up on Spotify for your listening pleasure!
Touring T Bone: A personal playlist primer
It’s well neigh impossible these days to come across a mention of T Bone Burnett that doesn’t begin with “great” or “visionary” or “legendary.” No argument here. Unlike so many of the artists hoisted in today’s 24-hour Twitter cycle – how about that reissue by the great Milli Vanilli? – Burnett fully deserves the encomiums.
But it’s not just as a record producer – the role for which he is best known – that the Texas native deserves to be considered in such rarified terms. To gaze back at his 40-plus years in the business is to be amazed not only by all the breakthrough albums that bear his signature, but also all his achievements as a singer and songwriter in his own right, as a sound artist and soundtrack auteur, as a theater composer and curator for projects big and small. As I proclaim in my book, T Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit, “record producer” can no more contain Burnett than “film director” could Orson Welles.
Can I get an “icon”?
It is fascinating to consider the different roles this man of many dimensions has played – and the contradictory sides of his personality that have frequently defined those roles. In calling attention to his multiple identities as an artist and individual, the chapter titles of A Life in Pursuit provide a great template for a playlist of songs he has recorded, produced or programmed. Feel free to hit shuffle. As someone raised on Texas blues, Burnett would take that as a compliment.
“Street in Paris” – Whistler, Chaucer, Detroit and Greenhill (from the chapter Sound Citizen): Written by young Burnett, who produced it at his own Sound City studio in Fort Worth, this melodramatic art-rock oddity by an ad hoc, fake-named band of young locals sounds like a psychedelic hangover from the Legendary Stardust Cowboy’s infamous T Bone production “Paralyzed.” Featured on The Unwritten Works of Geoffrey, Etc., a 1968 release regarded by some as a cult classic.
“We Have All Got a Past” – J. Henry Burnett (from The Outsider): On his first album, The B-52s and the Fabulous Skylarks, recorded in Los Angeles with a bunch of Texas homeboys, Burnett engaged in a full spectrum of styles. This rollicking, gospel-driven tune reflects his debt to the Leon Russell/Mad Dogs and Englishman school of blue-eyed soul.
“Hula Hoop” – T Bone Burnett (from Player in the Band): As a guitarist in Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, the largely unknown Burnett got to perform a song or two of his own each night. “Hula Hoop” (here taken from his 1983 album, Proof Through the Night) introduced him as an edgy upstart taking aim at the corporate world.
“You Angel You” – The Alpha Band (from Alpha Male): Best known for its fractious/righteous Christian statements, this collective trio of Rolling Thunder alumni played it sweet and straight on this lovely Dylan cover. With guest Ringo Starr on drums and harmony vocal, the song is transformed into a fetching rockabilly number.
“Boomerang” – T Bone Burnett (from Spiritual Gumshoe): There are deeper cuts on Truth Decay, regarded as Burnett’s real solo debut, but this Alpha Band leftover is the track with which I went all in on T Bone. The hookiest item in his catalog, it boasts a skewed narrative in which “thieves and debutants talked in italics.”
“Still the Night” – BoDeans (from Master Builder). This little Wisconsin band that could, and did, was one of the groups with which Burnett became known for his Midas Touch as a producer. “Still the Night,” from their 1986 debut, Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams, frames their quirky vocals and electro-acoustic sound to perfection.
“The People’s Limousine” – The Coward Brothers (from Co-Conspirator): A bonus attraction on Elvis Costello’s 1984 solo tour, for which Burnett was opening act, long-lost sibs Howard and Henry (Elvis and T Bone) ripped though old favorites like George Jones’ “Ragged But Right” and Bobby Charles’ “Tennessee Blues.” This boisterous original, their only single, is about a girl in crystal heels who becomes involved in some serious foreign intrigue.
“River of Love” – T Bone Burnett (from Seeker): This acoustic gem from Burnett’s self-titled 1986 album is as close to perfection as he has come as a writer and singer in espousing deep religious belief and the ongoing struggles required to attain it.
“Baby I Can’t Please You” – Sam Phillips (from Svengali): Martinis and Bikinis is a high point of Burnett’s work with Phillips, and this ravishing number, with its unshakable melody and seductive raga effects, is one of the reasons why. I inexplicably mistitled it in the book. Deep apologies to the artists.
“Image” – T Bone Burnett (from Imagist): Four people, each speaking a different language, repeat the same lines about their images letting each other down. I have gone from actively disliking this experiment to finding it oddly fascinating to considering it an essential piece of the T Bone puzzle. Van Dyke’s beautiful tango arrangement helps a lot.
“In Dreams” – Roy Orbison (from Native Son): Orbison’s career underwent a major revival after David Lynch prominently featured this 1963 classic in Blue Velvet and Burnett produced a new version of it for an album of Orbison remakes. The Big O lives!
“Make the World Go Away” – Joe Henry (from Mentor): The only non-original on Henry’s mercurial masterpiece, Shuffletown, this Hank Cochran tune reflects this singular artist’s appreciation of American song monuments in much the same way Burnett’s performances of “You Are My Sunshine” do.
“Great Big Love” – Bruce Cockburn (from Hit Man): Who knew how bright and breezy Cockburn could be? Bringing out the high-minded Canadian’s melodic gift in shimmering settings, Burnett revealed a side of the artist that hadn’t been heard before, without compromising his identity.
“Over You” – T Bone Burnett (from Reluctant Artist): You wouldn’t know from this infectious, slap-happy tune, featured on The Criminal Under My Own Hat, that Burnett had to be talked into making the first new record of his own in several years. This song, featuring bassist Roy Huskey, Jr. perfectly negotiates resignation and rebirth, hope and despair.
“6th Avenue Heartache” – The Wallflowers (from Starmaker): I had no idea who this song was by when I first heard it in a noisy bar, only that it completely commandeered my senses with its urgency, infectiousness and pop romanticism. It remains Jakob Dylan’s finest moment.
“Strike a Match” – Cassandra Wilson (from Company Man): Burnett introduced this song in a theatrical performance with Sam Shepard. The sublime Wilson’s version, heard on her Burnett-produced Thunderbird and his soundtrack for Wim Wenders’ Don’t Come Knocking, takes the song even deeper into the realm of mystery: “Strike a match so I can see if I’ve been down here before/Where is the floor/What is it for?”
“Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” – Chris Thomas King (from Coen Brother): The young blues star recorded this unheralded song from O Brother, Where Art Thou? live on set on a movie ranch near Los Angeles. “You can hear how loud the crickets are,” Burnett remarked. Was that a result of real-time engineering or a message from beyond from Buddy Holly and the boys?
“Trouble of this World” – Bill Landford and the Landfordaires (from Soundtrack Auteur): Thanks to The Ladykillers, the Coen Brothers’ remake of the beloved British comedy, there was a run on Google by people wanting to know who the heck these gorgeous harmonizers were. This 1949 recording plays a big role on Burnett’s soundtrack, both on its own and as remix-ready source material.
“The Fan Dance” – Sam Phillips (from Minimalist): Making her first record in several years, Phillips took a sparer approach with her words and music. Burnett, making a key advance in the development of his stripped-down, bottom-rich sound, was with her every understated step of the way.
“Earlier Baghdad (The Bounce)” – T Bone Burnett (from Lead Actor): A darkly glowing, blues-based reverie, narrated by a broken man who “lost sight of the light.” One of Burnett’s most affecting songs, it is seamlessly woven into his most convulsive album, The True False Identity.
“Fortune Teller” – Robert Plant and Alison Krauss (from Alchemist): There are so many great tunes on Raising Sand, and so little space to praise them, so let’s use this occasion to pay tribute to the ’60s hit “Fortune Teller,” which the late Allen Toussaint wrote under the name Naomi Neville. Everything about Burnett’s swampy treatment of it is on edge. It’s a sensory sensation.
“Throw It Away” – Betty Buckley (from Jazz Man): The long-belated reunion of Burnett and his old Fort Worth pal made for a great story, but who could have expected the Broadway diva to hit such poignant depths? Her rendering of this song by the late, great Abbey Lincoln is a vote in favor of certifying it as a new jazz standard.
“See That My Grave is Kept Clean” – B.B. King (from Blues Man): On what proved to be the blues legend’s final album, One Kind Favor, Burnett returned him to stellar songs and arrangements from early in his career. On this Blind Lemon Jefferson tune, King responds with a combination of raw truth and joyful energy that leaves you looking forward, not back.
“Voyeur” – Elton John (from Senior Advisor): In coaxing the British superstar to return to his acoustic roots on The Diving Board (2013), Burnett scored one of his great triumphs as a producer. This wistful ballad, a blend of tender vocal, rhapsodic piano lines and subtle atmospherics, is one of the album’s highlights.
“If I Die Sudden” – John Mellencamp (from Audio Activist): On which the Hoosier hero, recorded by Burnett in the most skeletal settings, traffics in the ghostly visions of Son House, Woody Guthrie and Dock Boggs. Burnett’s freakish electric guitar provides the kind of jolt an acid-tripping boom box would give to a graveyard in the middle of night.
“Please Mr. Kennedy” – Justin Timberlake, Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver (from Dylanologist): Burnett characterized this track, written by him and several others, as “a takeoff on a parody of a satire.” So why of all the music to come out of Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coens’ paen to the ’60s folk scene, does it stand out? Credit its cracked wordplay, manic energy and devil-may-care spirit.
“Far From Any Road” – The Handsome Family (from Televisionary): This rambunctious, dark-tinged tune had been out for several years when Burnett tapped it as the theme for True Detective, HBO’s hit serial killer series. It struck such a chord that many viewers had to be restrained from tossing their screens through the window when a Leonard Cohen song replaced it for season two.
“She’s Got You” – Rhiannon Giddens (from Back to the Futurist): On her fantastic debut album, “Tomorrow is My Turn,” this wondrous singer offered a personal survey of songs and styles that had strongly influenced her. With its lived-in emotion and easy authority, this interpretation of the Patsy Cline hit is a true revelation.
Oh, what a night!
Celebrating the release of Lloyd Sachs’ “T Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit,” the first book about the Texas-born legend, a band of distinguished leaders including Steve Dawson, Kelly Hogan, Nora O’Connor, John Abbey and Gerald Dowd raised the roof of Chicago’s Hideout with beautiful and fascinating covers of songs written, recorded and/or produced by Burnett. Choice tunes by Sam Phillips, Freedy Johnston and Elvis Costello held serve with great originals by T Bone.
Reading from the book, Sachs highlighted Burnett’s work with Robert Plant and Alison Krauss on the classic, “Raising Sand.”
“If Plant and Krauss had any second thoughts about softening or departing from their signature styles to level the interpretive playing field,” Sachs read, “the relaxed atmosphere Burnett created in the studio enabled them to get past their doubts. Both were rewarded by finding sides of their talents of which they themselves had perhaps been unaware.”
“That was fun as hell,” posted Hogan. Couldn’t agree more.
By Hedy Weiss
October 4, 201
Just how and why you are familiar with T Bone Burnett, that tall, gangly Texan with a guitar, very likely depends on your age, your musical tastes, and even your movie-going habits.
Is he the guy who served as a guitarist with Bob Dylan’s touring band, the Rolling Thunder Revue, in the mid 1970s? Or is he the musician who subsequently struck out with friends to form The Alpha Band, and by 1980 issued his first solo album?
Or is he the masterful producer who brought out the best in such artists as Elvis Costello, Jackson Brown and Diana Krall, as well as his first wife, Sam Phillips, and such bands as Los Lobos, the BoDeans and The Wallflowers, and the unlikely duo of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss (who collaborated on the 2007 duet album, “Raising Sand”)?
BOOK RELEASE FOR ‘T BONE BURNETT: A LIFE IN PURSUIT’
When: Oct. 10 at 7 p.m.
Where: The Hideout, 1354 W Wabansia
Is Burnett the uniquely inspired source behind the soundtracks for such films as “Walk the Line,” “The Big Lebowski,” “Inside Lllewyn Davis,” and, most importantly of all, his scoring of the Coen Brothers’ “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” whose brilliant use of a catalogue of “roots-based” songs won him a Grammy Award and is widely credited with introducing a vast new audience to what is now referred to as “Americana”?
Or, is he the rebel artist who has made it his mission to champion analog sound and fight for musicians’ rights in an age of technology in which Internet monopolies too often reap the profits that artists rarely see?
As it turns out, Burnett, now 68, is all of these things, and more. A complex character to be sure. And in a new book, “T Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit” (University of Texas Press, $26.95), Lloyd Sachs – the nationally known, Chicago-based writer on popular culture, who was a music critic and award-winning editorial writer at the Chicago Sun-Times from 1984-2008 – captures the complexities of the man over the many decades of his career. (A book release event is set for Oct. 10 at The Hideout, where Sachs will be joined by performers Kelly Hogan, Steve Dawson and Nora O’Connor, who will perform some of the songs written, recorded and/or produced by Burnett.)
As Sachs notes in the book: “[T Bone’s] success is particularly amazing because, in many ways, he is an outsider playing an insider’s game. A fierce intellectual, he finds cultural enrichment in a paradise of anti-intellectualism. A man of deep religious faith, he thrives in a den of moneylenders. Burnett is part Don Quixote, charging at digital windbills in his quest to restore analog truth, and part Southern politician, crossing palms with hyperbolic play money: He says that Justin Timberlake is ‘the closest we have to Bing Crosby,’ claims the mandolinist Chris Thile [Garrison Keillor’s replacement on “A Prairie Home Companion”] is ‘the Louis Armstrong of his time,’ and calls Alison Krauss ‘the one’…[just as] Ray Charles was ‘the one’.”
Although Burnett chose not to participate in Sachs’ chronicle of his music-making, he made it clear he had no problem with his interviewing dozens of people (including Sam Phillips) who have worked with him (or lived with him), so the resulting book is something of a multi-perspective, Rashomon-like appraisal. And as a journalist, Sachs had interviewed him over the years, had lunch with him a couple times, and hung with him after a few shows.
“In those interviews it was easy to feel a real connection,” said Sachs. “T Bone is a larger-than-life character, but also a warm and funny man. With the book, I wanted to delve more fully into the many dimensions of his artistry, and write about the impact of ‘O Brother’ which really upended the notion of what pop music could be.”
“A lot of people know who Burnett is, and how the words ‘visionary’ and ‘legendary’ are so often used to describe him. But they have no idea what a great singer-songwriter he was, even if he was self-conscious and insecure about himself as a performer. For example, his self-named acoustic album on the Dot label, released in 1986, contains some of his best work – the closest thing he did to a country album, with great playing and a mix of heartbreaking songs and hymnal-like meditations. And I believe he is writing songs again, and there will probably be a new album at some point.”
As for the “Americana” tag now so often appended to Burnett’s name, Sachs believes the word, which has become kind of an umbrella for country, R&B, folk and blues, is in many ways antithetical to Burnett’s idea that no such lines should be drawn.
“He is someone who believes all music exists on a continuum that includes Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, as well as Frank Sinatra’s ‘In the Wee Smal Hours’ album, and the albums of Merle Haggard. He has studied composers like Bartok and Stravinsky, and he thinks the score for the movie ‘Dr. Zhivago’ was brilliant in the way it advances the story.”
As for Sachs’ next story: “It might be a book about baseball, and how we follow sports.”
WHAT TO READ, LISTEN TO, WATCH, AND LOOK AT THIS MONTH TO ACHIEVE MAXIMUM TEXAS CULTURAL LITERACY.
We’re over T Bone’s “Killer Moon” with this much appreciated review from the British publication, this SPECIAL edition of which soon will be available in U.S.
Lloyd Sachs’ “T Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit” draws glowing praise from the book review specialists! Thanks, Booklist!
Here’s the full review:
Burnett, though not quite a household name, is among the most important figures on the pop-music scene. Many readers will know the music he produced for the television series Nashville and True Detective and as producer of the O Brother, Where Are Thou? soundtrack. Veteran journalist and music-writer Sachs presents the first book devoted to Burnett’s career, a critical “appreciation rather than a biography,” though he does illuminate Burnett’s background, the source of his nickname, and his restless spirit. Sachs covers Burnett’s career as a singer-songwriter (his 1982 hit “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” is a pop-music treasure) as well as his collaboration with John Mellencamp and Stephen King on the musical Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, his role in Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, and his contributions to the soundtracks of The Big Lebowski, Cold Mountain, and Crazy Heart. With a list of Burnett’s many musical associates, Sachs’ fine book is a welcome addition to the living history of American music and a delightful read. — June Sawyers
(Photograph courtesy of Chad Cochran)
What a swell time was had Thursday at Howlin’ Books, part of the Grimey’s record store empire in Nashville. A great crowd including Milk Carton Kids’ Kenneth Pattengale, Ernie K-Doe biographer Ben Sandmel and Dwight Yoakam biographer Don McLeese responded warmly to Lloyd Sachs’ comments about his subject, his reading from A Life in Pursuit (“a vibrant and colorful portrait” – No Depression) and his Q&A with Joe Henry.
And how could those in attendance not be lifted by Henry’s heartfelt salute to his great mentor and friend via performances of two classic Burnett compositions: “Kill Switch” and “Shake Yourself Loose”?
Here is a link to video of “Shake Yourself Loose” taken from the audience and posted on Facebook by Chris Willman.
T Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit officially releases October 4 from University of Texas Press. but is on the shelf at Howlin’ Books and Parnassus in Nashville and is orderable or pre-orderable now from online sites including Amazon and UT Press.
On top of the world (or close)
BY LLOYD SACHS
SEPTEMBER 19, 2016
Burnett with Elvis Costello at McCabe’s Guitar Shop, Santa Monica, California, 1984. Photo by Sherry Rayn Barnett
Fish were jumpin’ when T Bone Burnett conducted his first conference call with Alison Krauss and Robert Plant to discuss making an album together. The famed producer was up in Vancouver, British Columbia, at the Capilano Salmon Hatchery, perhaps thinking of Lou “The Salmon King” Kemp, the tour manager of Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue. Surrounded by God’s wonders–steep granite cliffs, lush rainforest vegetation, roaring waterfalls–the spiritual seeker who some people think led Dylan down the path of Christianity was in an elevated state when he connected with Krauss, who was in Nashville, and Plant, who was in Bali–“or somewhere,” as Burnett would later say.
The geographical distance between the artists was a perfect metaphor for the vast stylistic distance between Krauss, a bell-toned sweetheart of modern bluegrass, and Plant, the leonine former wailer of Led Zeppelin. The thought of Krauss putting fiddle to the metal on “Black Dog” was only slightly odder than the thought of Plant going back porch. But Krauss, who grew up not in bluegrass country but in the university town of Champaign, Illinois, was a heavy metal fan. And Plant, a blues-loving native of England’s Midlands, was such a fan of hers that he had asked her to perform with him as part of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 2004 American Music Masters Tribute to Lead Belly.
“Singing that Lead Belly stuff wasn’t in the right range for us,” Krauss said in a 2008 press teleconference, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, but the encounter piqued the singers’ interest in further collaborations, and naturally led them to Burnett. He had recorded Krauss for O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the 2000 soundtrack album that ignited the roots music revival. And Burnett had been in talks with Plant about producing a sequel to The Honeydrippers: Volume One, the 1984 EP of fifties-era rock and R&B that the Brit recorded with his former Zep mate Jimmy Page. Krauss told Burnett that she wanted to do something darker than usual. Plant said he wasn’t interested in recording a conventional duo album. Leave it to Burnett to satisfy both their visions while surprising and challenging them with one of his own.
For Burnett, who with his vast knowledge of American music redefines the old throwaway line (and Dylan cover title) “I forgot more than you’ll ever know,” everything starts with the song. He went into full scuba mode, diving down deep into the vast stream of recorded history for tunes he envisioned Plant and Krauss covering. He came up not with a mere handful of singles and the like but with stacks of them. Listening to playlists ranging from the 1950s R&B group Li’l Millet and His Creoles’ tune “Rich Woman” to the prototypical alt-country artist Townes Van Zandt’s “Nothin’,” Plant felt as if he were attending a master’s class in spinology. “I thought I was pretty knowledgeable about American music, but I’d missed out on an entire area,” he told Jon Pareles of The New York Times. “I now know that American music is a total panorama. I was cutting it off and thinking it was redneck hell down there.”
Collaborations between well-known artists frequently go awry either because their styles don’t jibe (as with Eric Clapton & Wynton Marsalis Play the Blues), because there is too much of one star and not enough of the other (as with All the Roadrunning, on which Emmylou Harris disappears for long stretches opposite Mark Knopfler, who produced the recording), or because there no chemistry between them (as with virtually all the cuts on Frank Sinatra’s phoned-in Duets). Burnett, however, heard Raising Sand less as a collaboration than as a convergence — a meeting of open-minded artists for whom one plus one equaled not two but one. If Plant and Krauss had any second thoughts about softening or departing from their signature styles to level the interpretive playing field, the relaxed atmosphere Burnett created in the studio enabled them to get past their doubts. Both were rewarded by finding sides of their talents of which they themselves had perhaps been unaware.
“I now know that American music is a total panorama. I was cutting it off and thinking it was redneck hell down there.” – T Bone Burnett
Plant was an obvious choice to sing Little Milton’s “Let Your Loss Be Your Lesson,” a mid-1970s B-side delight from the blues and R&B artist’s years with the Stax label. But Burnett asked Krauss to sing it instead. She initially begged off, feeling “too white” to do it (as she told National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Sunday). Prodded by the producer, however, she rose to the challenge, bringing a soulful depth to what became a plucky, Loretta Lynn–type vehicle. Plant, rock’s quintessential lead singer, had rarely sung harmony, but opposite Krauss, a skilled arranger who showed him how to sing his parts, he sounds as pure as a choirboy. Their hushed communion on “Killing the Blues,” on which Greg Leisz’s sighing pedal steel arches over the singers like a rainbow over gold, is spine-tingling. Burnett first heard that song decades earlier when its composer, Roly (Rowland) Salley, Chris Isaak’s longtime bassist, played it in the Bay Area home of the Chicago-born bluesman Nick Gravenites.
As we will see, great music producers approach their work as uniquely as great film directors approach theirs, employing different methods to get the best performances out of their actors, different levels of formality to frame the performances, and different conceptions of the imprint they should or shouldn’t leave on the finished product. Burnett now carries such weight in the entertainment capitals of Hollywood and Nashville that the title “record producer” can contain him no more than “film director” could contain Orson Welles. His O Brother soundtrack altered the landscape of American music so markedly that it may well have affected our culture as significantly as Citizen Kane did. From his own critically acclaimed work as a singer and songwriter to his close associations with Bob Dylan and Sam Shepard — one of the greatest songwriters of our time and one of the greatest playwrights–to his outspoken efforts to overhaul digital recorded sound, Burnett’s accomplishments have made the musician-producer one of the most significant figures in popular culture during the past forty years.
His success is particularly amazing because, in many ways, he is an outsider playing an insider’s game. A fierce intellectual, he finds cultural enrichment in a paradise of anti-intellectualism. A man of deep religious faith, he thrives in a den of moneylenders. Burnett is part Don Quixote, charging at digital windmills in his quest to restore analog truth, and part Southern politician, crossing palms with hyperbolic play money: he says that Justin Timberlake is “the closest we have to Bing Crosby,” claims the mandolinist Chris Thile is “the Louis Armstrong of his time,” and calls Alison Krauss “the one . . . [just as] Ray Charles was the one.”
For all that, Burnett has never been able to get past his own self-consciousness and self-doubt as a recording artist. While scoring success after big-time success for others — whether breaking bands, such as Counting Crows, or reviving legends, such as Elton John — he is stuck as a singer-songwriter on the mezzanine level of critics’ favorite. As acclaimed as some of his albums are, they have all withered on the commercial vine. That the once rail-thin, six-foot-five Texan has never been comfortable performing before crowds hasn’t helped.
That isn’t to say he hasn’t invested each of his own albums with high hopes. Such was the case with his 2006 effort, The True False Identity — his first album under his own name in fourteen years, and, alas, his most recent one at this writing. Standing in an alley outside Chicago’s Vic Theater that May, a few hours before launching his first concert tour in nearly twenty years, he was wired with expectation. With a newspaper photographer preparing to take aim, he fidgeted against a brick wall, tugging at a pesky nose hair, a study in spasmodic motion. Gone for a fractured moment was the fastidious image the once scrawny, mop-topped Burnett had created for himself with his Miles Davis sunglasses, perfectly parted and tossed hair, and regal, high-button outfits. Gone was the music industry sophisticate, chased by a minor eruption of what Sam Shepard once called his “peculiar quality of craziness.” I imagined the competing aspects of his outsize personality speeding through him like the notes of his favorite Charlie Parker solo, the one on “Night in Tunisia.”
Lloyd Sachs is the author of T Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit, from which this article is excerpted. The book will be available in October 2016 from the University of Texas Press.
For No Depression article go here.
The Reading Room
Henry writes about music and music books for ND, The Bluegrass Situation, Country Standard Time, Publishers Weekly, and more.
Pursuing T Bone Burnett
“Fish were jumpin’ when T Bone Burnett conducted his first conference call with Alison Krauss and Robert Plant to discuss making an album together.” Lloyd Sach’s opening sentence of his critical appreciation of T Bone Burnett, T Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit (University of Texas Press) pulls us in with a magnetic force, or, better, like a fisherman pulling in a catch that’s bigger than life. With his first masterful sentence, Sachs, former senior editor at No Depression, sets the hook deep, and we can’t let go until we find out what happened after that phone conference and why T Bone Burnett thought musicians with two apparently disparate musical styles might really work together to produce some interesting sounds.
Though many people might know Burnett only by his work on the music for the television show Nashville, or for his work on the soundtrack for the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?, music fans know that Burnett and his work as a producer, musician, and songwriter lie behind work by artists as diverse as Los Lobos, Elton John, the Wallflowers, Striking Matches, Rhiannon Giddens, B.B. King, and Sam Phillips, among many others. Burnett played with Dylan in the Rolling Thunder Revue in 1974, and in the ‘80s he performed with Elvis Costello, Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, and Jennifer Warnes.
Uninterested in writing a pedestrian, flat-as-pavement biography of Burnett—who told Sachs, “we can have lunch any time you’re not writing a book about me”—Sachs offers in his new book a vibrant and colorful portrait of a man who continues to redefine the boundaries of music and who follows his own vision of the beauty and force of music. Sachs observes that “few people understood what a crucial role he had played in furthering the larger cause of American music, which he views not through the museumy lens of Ken (Jazz) Burns but as a collection of living and breathing documents of who we are.” With animated prose, Sachs vivaciously explores every facet of Burnett’s life and work from “spiritual gumshoe,” “mentor,” and “hit man” to “reluctant artist,” “lead actor,” “blues man,” and “alchemist.”
Burnett’s ex-wife, Sam Phillips, sums up Burnett’s fiery vision for the music he loves: “T Bone is always advocating for musicians and artists. He’ll never stop. A lot of people come to mind who don’t like him because he is kind of a wild man. He’s always fighting to make things better, to achieve breakthroughs … .”
How appropriate that on the day this column appears, T Bone Burnett will be delivering the keynote address at the Americana Music Association’s annual conference and festival. Burnett, as Sachs so cannily and gracefully points out, remains one of the driving forces behind what has become known as Americana music. What would Burnett make of the phrase “Americana music,” whose overuse has robbed it of its force and meaning? Sachs reminds us that Burnett always looks forward to discover the most interesting artists whose music flows powerfully into the roiling stream of American music. As Sachs points out so memorably, Burnett continues to live out a “life in pursuit.”
I chatted by phone with Lloyd Sachs recently about his new book.
Henry Carrigan: What prompted you to write this book now?
Lloyd Sachs: Well, I think it was pretty long in gestation. I’ve always been fascinated with T Bone, going back to his singer-songwriter days; I did a piece on him for No Depression about the time he was doing the Cold Mountain soundtrack. I’ve always liked him a lot, and I find him to be a fascinating figure as a musician, a songwriter, and a producer. I wanted to illustrate the many facets of his life and work, though this was never meant to be a tell-all life story. It probably took me about a year to write it.
Were there any particular books you used as models for writing this one? What writers have influenced your own writing?
I grew up at the time that rock criticism was starting to take off. I was completely energized by the whole rock criticism movement. I would just pore over reviews by Greil Marcus. In those days, a new Van Morrison album wasn’t just a record to be listened to; we’d pore over it and discuss what it meant. Some of those great rock reviews barely touched on the album in question but touched on many aspects related to it, like politics and culture, and the writing was so great. The writers I love are the lovers of language: Stanley Elkin, it was an adventure to read every book he wrote; Mordecai Richler, especially his novel Joshua Then and Now; Philip Roth; John Leonard, his allusions could get so deep, and I loved that he wrote about television and then moved on to write about music and movies and books.
What are T Bone’s greatest strengths?
One of his greatest strengths is as a producer and a facilitator of other artists’ desires and visions. They will tell you that he’s great to work with; he possesses a very deep and abiding intent to bring out the best in an artist. As a producer, he has a vision about the way a certain artist should be recorded. Album after album he’s produced, I’ve thought are the best albums of that musician’s career, such as Elton John’s The Diving Board or Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ Raising Sand. T Bone is a very intuitive and forceful producer who surrounds himself with amazing musicians in order to make an album.
His greatest weaknesses?
You can almost list his insecurities he feels about himself as an artist. He never became known. Jackson Browne, Elvis Costello, or Warren Zevon, though, he of course played with all of them; at the same time, he was being recognized as one of the greatest songwriters of our time.
You write a good deal about T Bone’s religious sensibilities and his spiritual vision in the book.
Religion has been an important part of his life and his songwriting and his music. However, he’s hasn’t stood still in that regard; I think he has gone through changes in his practice of his religion. He’s obviously a very spiritual guy; he’s well-read in spiritual matters, referring to Thomas Merton in his writing. His ex-wife Sam Phillips broke away from the fundamentalist, right-wing establishment, because of its need to control, and T Bone broke away from them as well. He’s an upstart; he’s a social critic who takes pleasure in skewering the bloviators and hypocrites. Looking back at a lot of writing about his music, I found that a lot of the religious subtexts of it were overlooked. Even Bono admired T Bone as an artist with religious faith. Religion is simply one of the many layers of his life and reflects his complexity.
What will readers be surprised to learn about T Bone from your book?
A lot of readers are going to be surprised that he had such a distinguished career as a singer-songwriter. Many will be surprised that he played with the Rolling Thunder Revue. He’s so famous as a visionary and a producer; people may not realize he is a musician, too. He doesn’t get much credit for his guitar playing, but Cassandra Wilson had him on her last album. He’s one of those artists who people think they know very well, but they don’t know him at all.
What would you like readers to take from the book?
I would hope that people would get a wider sense of what Americana music means; I hope this book helps them broaden their view and to listen to the incredible range of American music. One of the reasons I wrote the book (laughs) is that I knew I’d be getting the chance to listen to all these albums that T Bone produced or that he recorded or on which he was somehow involved. One example: I’ve never been a huge Roy Orbison fan; his music never really grabbed me. But for this project I revisited his music, and that was a revelation. I finally recognized what it was about him—his ability to start in one range in a song and finish it in a completely different one—that all the guys like Dylan, and Harrison, and Petty heard in him. I hope this book, like T Bone’s overall achievement, inspires readers to appreciate and to listen to the incredible stream of music we benefit from: Allen Toussaint to Tom Petty to the blues.
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