Production Notes: T Bone Burnett

Go Tell it On The Mountain

Music Features T Bone Burnett
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Filmmaker Anthony Minghella (The English Patient) had good reason to call on T Bone Burnett to produce the music for Cold Mountain, his cinematic adaptation of Charles Frazier’s acclaimed Civil War novel. The radical methodology Burnett employed for the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack brought the film’s rustic music to life with startling vividness and accuracy—an achievement that brought the producer an Album Of The Year Grammy in 2001—and Minghella required a similar level of authenticity for his movie.

“Most of the time when people record period music, they get the form of it right, but they completely miss the content because they record it with transistors, digital equipment and digital echo, close-mic-ing and separation,” says Burnett, a Texas-bred iconoclast whose studio career has been characterized by adventurous choices and left-field hits (Los Lobos, Counting Crows, The Wallflowers). “With O Brother, we went in the opposite direction—we used all the ’30s technology, but we recorded it like a rock ’n’ roll band, rather than use new technology and record it like an old-timey band.”

Burnett had his production approach nailed down, but the subject matter of Cold Mountain was something else again. “To do the Civil War is difficult because it’s been done so often—Ken Burns, all the reenactments and movies,” he points out. “I knew I needed to dig a lot deeper, and for that I needed a guide.”

Burnett found his man: John Cohen, a onetime member of the New Lost City Ramblers who has devoted his life to the exploration of American traditional forms. “John is an extraordinary person who’s been diggin’ around in the music and doing field recordings for half-a-century,” Burnett explains. “He brought a tremendous amount to it.”

With Cohen’s help, Burnett uncovered a batch of arcane songs and assembled the musical ensemble that would perform the material, in various configurations. This crew was composed primarily of little-known singers and players who share an uncanny feel for antique forms—musicians like hardcore punk-turned-ethnomusicologist Tim Eriksen, whose craggy, world-weary voice sounds as old as the hills; the Reeltime Travelers from rural Tennessee, who are “as authentic as it gets,” according to Burnett; Dirk Powell, a fiddle, banjo and mandolin virtuoso; and bluegrass guitarist Riley Baugus.

“They’re an extraordinary group of young musicians,” Burnett marvels. “They’re new traditionalists who are digging into this old music in a really vital and exciting way. There’s a whole community out there of people who care about keeping the flame alive. Ralph Stanley’s bus driver told us about the Reeltime Travelers.”

Also on board were Alison Krauss, the lone O Brother returnee, bluegrass cult hero Tim O’Brien and, significantly, The White Stripes’ Jack White, who plays a musician in the film and contributed five tracks to the album. Among those who initially auditioned for the role were Jakob Dylan and Justin Timberlake, who surprised Burnett with his soulfulness but lacked the prerequisite of “roughness.”

“I was saying to my wife [artist Sam Phillips] that we needed to find this guy,” Burnett remembers, “and she just said, ‘Jack White.’ Exactly right. I’d been listening to his stuff and I’d heard the knowledge in his music. He had really listened to the blues, country music, gospel music. I got very excited about Jack; then we met and discovered we both wear white socks all the time. He got the part, and he acted great. Jack White is gonna do well.”

In October, Burnett brought all the musical participants together for the recording sessions at Nashville’s Sound Emporium, which he insists is “the best-sounding room in the world to record acoustic instruments.” The vibe was intense as the participants alternated between performing and watching the others perform; it was precisely the vibe Burnett had hoped to precipitate. “I’m very interested in this idea of community and collaboration,” he says. “The people I’m signing up to DMZ [his Sony-affiliated label, on which the soundtrack has been released] all know each other, they all collaborate, they write together.”

Burnett was particularly gratified by the experience of working with Cassie Franklin, a 20-year-old Alabaman whose passion is shape-note, or sacred-harp, choral singing, two astounding examples of which appear on the album. Franklin’s hushed performance of the ballad “Lady Margaret” brings the antique song to life so hauntingly that it seems to come from beyond the grave. It was the first time she’d sung in front of a microphone.

“When you can find this extraordinary singer and record her very first performance and put her on a record—that’s interesting to me,” Burnett says of the experience, “and I think people will be interested in it. I’d much rather do that than try to make people famous for however many minutes.”

The sessions were completed in about a week, partly because of the communal energy and partly because the musical and technical components of the recordings, like those of O Brother, were so basic.

“Both albums were recorded with very, very old technology—old ribbon mics, old machines,” Burnett explains. “We’re also using the new technology, in that we were able to make it sound incredibly big and brawny. Back then, this kind of music was never pushed to the extremes that we’re pushing it. The bass is louder than it ever was in those days, for instance. So they’re both absolutely rock ’n’roll records.

“The funny thing is, it’s the same story,” Burnett says of O Brother and Cold Mountain. “It’s The Odyssey, and it’s set in the South once again—except this is the dark side of Christmas. The O Brother album was very light; this is a very serious record.”