T Bone Burnett

This Little Life of Crime

Music Features T Bone Burnett
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It’s the morning after the 2006 Oscars and T Bone Burnett is feeling “groggy and smoked out.”

He has to swallow a cup of tea to clear his head and adjust to the new day. “They smoke cigarettes at the Oscar parties,” he says in a tone that suggests he’s letting me in on one of the biggest secrets of contemporary Hollywood debauchery.

He hadn’t been at the awards ceremony as a nominee—adapted scores are no longer recognized—but as support for Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix, the two actors he coached through the soundtrack for Walk the Line. In the end Witherspoon won Best Actress for her vivacious performance as June Carter. “I was thrilled for her,” says T Bone. “I thought it was so well deserved. She did a beautiful, beautiful job.”

Today Burnett is best known as a producer of movie soundtracks and albums but it wasn’t always so. During the 1980s and early ’90s he was primarily a singer and songwriter who produced a unique body of work that was witty, poetic, intelligent, musically inventive and deeply rooted in American folk music. It attracted a prestigious group of admirers, some of whom (like Pete Townshend, Elvis Costello, Ry Cooder, Richard Thompson and Bono) sealed their friendship with Burnett by co-writing a song with him. His uncompromising vision was never one likely to catapult him into the Top 10 or make him a regular at the MTV Awards, but it made him cool amongst the cool.

But in 1992 he made his last record, played his last tour and then turned to producing. His prestigious list of clients included then-wife Sam Phillips, Counting Crows, The Wallflowers, Gillian Welch, Elvis Costello and Los Lobos. In 2000, he switched his focus to movie soundtracks, the most successful being O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which has since sold over seven-million copies and is credited with reviving mainstream interest in American roots music. But after 14 years in the background, Burnett is back not only with a new album, The True False Identity, but with a retrospective, Twenty Twenty, that collects 40 of his earlier solo tracks. There’s even a theater tour planned for April and May.

So what brought Burnett back to making his own music? “I think it got to the point where there was no longer any challenge,” he says. “There was nothing challenging in producing another rock ’n’ roll record for another rock ’n’ roll band, and I had seen so many people make mistakes. Also, I’d gone past 50, which was the age my father had given me permission to go ahead and start.”

As a child growing up in Fort Worth, Texas, he used to write all the time. At eight years old his father asked him if he thought he’d be a writer one day. Young Joseph Henry said he thought he might be. “Don’t publish anything until you’re 50,” his father advised him, a statement that perplexed him for years. It was only long after his father died that he began to understand what he’d meant; that only in maturity do you have something to say and the confidence to say it.

“At the time I thought, ‘well, thanks Dad!’ But that thought was always in the back of my head. So there was a part of me that was always standing back from what I was doing and being self-critical rather than really giving myself over to it. If I had been more generous and less self-conscious I could have done a lot better job with many of my songs.”

Because of this he’s returned to several of his old songs, giving them the benefit of the last 14 years of hard-won wisdom—re-singing a few and even re-cutting others without the “superfluous stuff.” Most performers treat their songs like snapshots. The shortcomings are left in because that’s the way things were back then. But Burnett sees his songs as living things that require nourishment and tending.

“At some point they’re all gonna be finished,” he says. “A lot of them are finished now. Some of them aren’t. Many of them are works in progress. The only reason we ever put out albums was because record companies wanted 20 minutes a side, which amounted to five or six songs a side. The technology decided the medium. Now we have open-ended technology and open-source technology, there is no arbitrary deadline on when a song is finished.”

The new album was mostly written near Big Sur, Calif., during a self-imposed exile in the woods. Burnett took with him only pencils, paper, a guitar, some books and some music. He says he can’t remember what the books were, but the music was Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Charlie Patton, the Stanley Brothers and regional material from Mississippi, New Orleans, the Appalachians and Haiti. What he came away with was not so much a collection of songs, but more a spontaneous discharge of ideas that filled over 200 pages. “I didn’t edit myself or censor myself or even think about it,” he says. “I just wrote.”

Back at his home studio in L.A., he mined lyrics from the stream-of-consciousness writing and started laying rhythms beneath them. The luxury of working at home with no time restrictions gave him space to improve, explore and develop interesting textures and sounds. He says the record is about crime but that it’s also “a comedy record.” I point out that in terms of comedy records about crime he’s probably cornered the market. “I hope so,” he says, before bursting out laughing. “I got more coming behind it!” But by “comedy” he doesn’t mean gags and punch lines. He means that people today interpret their lives in comic rather than tragic terms.

“Comedy is all that’s left for us now in the West because tragedy demands conscience, regret, repentance and things like that. We don’t have that any more. We have ‘Kill ’em and let God sort ’em out.’ That’s nothing but raw comedy. One of the things I’ve learned from working in the theater is that events would take place that some people would laugh at and some people would gasp at. Some people would be horrified at the same thing that other people found amusing. It made me realize that there really isn’t a line between comedy and tragedy. Both things are happening at once in life at the same moment. Tragedy depends on whether or not you feel like there’s some redemption to be had from the moment. If you feel that, it’s tragedy. If you don’t, you perceive it as comedy.”

The new record is dense and rhythmically complex. Burnett theorizes about an axis between Haiti and New Orleans that he believes informs the music of the South, and it certainly informs The True False Identity. It sounds swampy. You can feel the heat of a muggy summer night emanating from it, see the long shadows and smell the gumbo. Anyone familiar with Burnett’s back catalog will immediately see the lyrical continuity—truth vs. falsehood, image vs. reality, righteousness vs. morality.

The stepping-off point was not his last solo album but the soundtracks and songs he’s written for two Sam Shepard plays (The Tooth of Crime and The Late Henry Moss) and a Steppenwolf Theatre Company production of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children. Shepard—a musician, poet, playwright and actor—reintroduced Burnett to the work of legendary bluesman Skip James, and this directly impacted at least two of the tracks.

“Skip James played in this E-minor tuning,” Burnett explains. “For ‘There Would be Hell to Pay’ I identified this eight-bar melody that could be harmonized in hundreds of different ways. This was the first piece of music I wrote for this record and the last lyric. It’s a sort of rewrite of five or six different blues songs. There are a few words from Bo Diddley—a couple from ‘Stagger Lee’ and some from ‘Delilah.’ “Earlier Baghdad” is another song in the Skip James mode. I started that back in 1997.

“Working in films and theater has given me a lot of freedom. It gives you freedom from the record business because in the record business, everything has to fit into the same little slot. You have a certain sonic palette that you can work with, and if you go outside it they get scared. I’m not trying to please anybody or win the American Music Awards. I’m doing it because I want to.”

And it’s this very attitude that makes Burnett such an unlikely candidate for Hollywood success. His songs have poked fun at the pretensions of Walt Disney, Hugh Hefner and Michael Cimino to name but three, and his version of “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” was an object lesson in irony. Yet he’s been able to survive in the jungle with his soul intact. He manages to be in Hollywood without being of it.

“I absolutely love Hollywood,” he admits, “although I hate things about it. It seems to reward bad guys like no other place I’ve ever seen. I have a bit of a jaundiced view of it, but I’ve been around long enough that it’s like Mayberry to me now. But I know it can be a daunting and uninviting place to someone who just shows up. It’s one of the seats of all this comedy. The other seat, I would say, is Washington D.C.”

Hollywood has provided Burnett with the opportunity to explore his lifelong musical passions in depth, and then to present his findings before a massive audience. Exposure on the soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou? revitalized the careers of old-timers like The Fairfield Four and Ralph Stanley, and introduced the roots of American music to a new generation.

“I’ve spent five years immersed in this history of music,” he says. “O Brother was the music of the last century. Cold Mountain was the music of the century before and The Ladykillers was all about gospel music. O Brother Where Art Thou? was like the story of my life because I could point to every one of those songs and know where I first heard it and who played it first for me.”

Hollywood has also provided him with the unique opportunity of recreating the music of Sun Records-era Memphis. In 1989 he worked on the soundtrack to Jerry Lee Lewis biopic Great Balls of Fire and last year he completed Walk the Line, having convinced Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon that they could not only look like but sound like Johnny Cash and June Carter.

It was an ambitious project, and he remembers the moment when he knew that Phoenix could do it. “At one point he stood up and said, ‘I can’t do this man. I can’t do it because not only do I have to sing and play but I have to be Johnny Cash—he would take his guitar and put it on his back like this…’ Suddenly, he took his guitar and put it ’round his back and he absolutely evoked Johnny Cash. It was as if lightning flashed. It was mind-blowing. When an actor evokes something, to me, it’ s a mystical and sacred thing. And I saw him do it and right after that I said, ‘Yeah. You can do this.’ He still quit every day and Reese quit every day because it was such a daunting job. And every time they would quit, I would quit, too.”

Appropriately the final track on The True False Identity, “Shaken Rattled and Rolled,” is a song Burnett wrote with Johnny Cash in mind, although Cash passed away before he had a chance to send it to him. You wouldn’t know it unless you heard the author explain, but it’s a eulogy to what he calls “the whole rock ’n’ roll experiment.” He thought that Cash, who started recording in Memphis during the mid ’50s, would be the perfect person to deliver the eulogy. His broken but soul-filled voice would’ve had exactly the right gravitas.

“Rock ’n’ roll was a beautiful thing,” he says. “It’s amazing to think that back in the early 1950s there were four kids—Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash—who completely changed the world, with Sam Phillips in the lead. I’m incredibly grateful to them. I wouldn’t have had a reason to live if it weren’t for them. I don’t mean that in any hyperbolic or sentimental way. I just wouldn’t have. I was raised under the cloud of the fear of nuclear annihilation, which has since been replaced by the cloud of the fear of terrorism. I found through these people—through Johnny Cash—a bravery to escape that, to walk out from under that cloud and live in the wide open world. I guess that’s what this lament is at the end of the record. OK, I’m going to go ahead and hold onto that and bury that and keep it.”