T-Bone Burnett: Musical Conjurer

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By Bradley Bambarger <2006>

When T Bone Burnett describes his ideal for music-making, “conjuring” is one of his signal words.

Burnett — one of today’s top record producers, having helmed the O Brother, Where Are Thou? soundtrack, among many other dark-horse hits — has stepped from behind the scenes for his first solo recording in 14 years and first tour in 20.

To get in the mood for the studio, Burnett and his band watched DVDs of hair-raising bluesman Howlin’ Wolf, and they listened to the ecstatic rhythms of Haitian music. Even when he wrote a bunch of the songs on a solitary, mostly silent camping trip, Burnett had the unearthly Delta sound of Skip James’ 1931 recordings in his head.

“That incantational aura of Skip James songs like ‘Devil Got My Woman’ was an inspiration,” Burnett recalls. “He conjured this world with the music, one that appears every time you put the record on.”

True to his muse, Burnett’s resulting new album — The True False Identity (Columbia) — captures a primal vibe. There are three drummers in the mix, with even the guitar sounding like a percussion instrument. Burnett deemed standard chord changes taboo, and his vocals are versifying chants. The atmosphere is one of dark, hoodoo drone — “no beats, just overtones, a rumble,” he rhapsodizes, “the music not arriving on the time-table of any machine.”

For all its channeling of rhythmic spells, True False Identity is a forward-looking, bracingly articulate product of the 21st century. The ever-modern plagues of fundamentalism, corruption and war, passed on via the germ of politics and “the black mass media,” are what agitated Burnett the lyricist.

The album is divided into sections labeled “The Art of the State” and “Poems of the Evening,” with the former including the hard-grooving rap of “Palestine, Texas.” Burnett intones, “Presidents come and presidents go / They rise like smoke and fall like snow / Do you believe the things you say? / Your lofty thoughts are filled with hay / What is this faith you profess / That led to this colossal mess . . . When you come out of this self-delusion / You’re going to need a soul transfusion.”

Reminded of Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s line about George W. Bush being “not a fellow Texan, just another Texan,” Burnett laughs loudly, having been born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1948. Burnett has enough natural modesty — and media savvy, living near Hollywood for decades — to let his songs do most of the talking. The Texan in him, he says, strives to abide by the golden rule, “Live and let live, and mind your own business.”

Burnett’s new song “Blinded by the Darkness” has the line, “In seven days, God created evolution.” Asked if he’s a “liberal believer,” the aficionado of gospel music replies, “I wouldn’t use that phrase, but I will say that I believe in God like I believe in Einstein, like I believe in a tree, like I believe in music. I’m filled with belief.”

Christened Joseph Henry Burnett, T Bone came by his nickname “honestly,” around the age of 5, he says. The fact that he shared a moniker with famous Texas guitarist T-Bone Walker caused some wincing when he first started to perform, but he stuck with it. He always loved recordings, moved that “The Beatles’ records were composed as much as their songs. The sound of their voices or the way Ringo hit the drums was part of the composition. Take those away, and the music loses some of its magic.”

Burnett got his start in recording as a teenager in a Fort Worth studio, buying into it with friends just to get their own band on disc. He was seduced by the process, he recalls, and ended up taping “everything from Tex-Mex bands and R&B groups to country acts and church organists.”

It wasn’t until he joined the famous touring party of Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975–76 as a guitarist that he renewed his stage experience. (“That was something that’ll never leave me,” he says. “It was like a medicine show.”) He formed the Alpha Band with fellow Rolling Thunder players, making three discs with that outfit before going solo through the early ’90s.

Along with Burnett’s new disc has come a two-CD retrospective of his solo work, Twenty-Twenty (Columbia/Legacy). The highlights include “Humans from Earth,” in which Burnett catalogs our ugly potential as interplanetary tourists, in a style — to steal a phrase from his new album — best defined as “dead-pan alley.” The set’s recent, sublime covers of J.B. Lenoir’s “Don’t Dog Your Woman” and the old Cajun tune “Bon Temps Rouler” point to that rumbling, off-kilter edge in Burnett’s new material.

Embarking on his producer’s career in the mid-’80s, Burnett soon became the go-to guy for an alternative brand of Americana rock, including Elvis Costello’s King of America, Marshall Crenshaw’s Downtown and Los Lobos’ How Will the Wolf Survive? Burnett also oversaw Roy Orbison’s comeback. And he met his wife, singer/songwriter Sam Phillips, while helming an album for her; they have collaborated ever since, with her disc Fan Dance among those that led to Burnett winning Grammy Award for 2002 producer of the year.

Burnett became a platinum hit-maker in the ’90s, producing the Counting Crows’ August and Everything After and the Wallflowers’ Bringing Down the Horse. With the remakes of traditional American music for the Coen Brothers film O Brother, Where Are Thou?, he created an unprecedented success; featuring the likes of Ralph Stanley, Emmylou Harris and Alison Krauss, the soundtrack sold some 7 million copies, as well as spawned a hit tour and live album.

The gospel-infused soundtrack to The Ladykillers was another Burnett production for the Coen Brothers, and he wrote songs for the Civil War-era film Cold Mountain. That’s not to mention the musical direction that Burnett provided Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon for their lauded roles in the Johnny Cash bio-pic Walk the Line.

Once convinced that he had the inspiration and impetus to revive his solo career, Burnett vowed to resist the producer’s chair, except for special opportunities — and one presented itself immediately. He co-produced the new Cassandra Wilson album, the mod-sounding Thunderbird (along with Keefus Ciancia, the keyboardist in his solo band). Burnett calls Wilson “one of the last truly great jazz singers.” She calls him a “genius.”

“Being able to play music is one thing, commanding it is another,” Wilson says. “Not only does T Bone possess an encyclopedic knowledge of the timbre, texture and nuance of American music; he’s blessed with an uncanny gift for processing the ethos and pathos of everything and everyone around him. I’ve never witnessed such an ability to gather, digest, analyze every aspect of the moment, then manifest it in the music.”

Drummer Jim Keltner, a griot of rock’n’roll rhythm who has played on thousands of records from John Lennon to John Hiatt to The True False Identity, met Burnett in the late ’60s, impressed even then by “this super-tall cat who had a presence, like someone that you should pay attention to.”

Keltner insists that the key to Burnett’s worth as a producer is that “the records T Bone produces don’t have a ‘T Bone Burnett sound,’ in the way that a lot of producers impose their sonic personality on an artist. The Wallflowers album doesn’t sound like Cassandra Wilson’s, which doesn’t sound like O Brother, which doesn’t sound like Autolux [a My Bloody Valentine-inspired noise-pop combo]. They sound like these artists sound, just in the best possible way.

“But like a lot of people who are as successful as T Bone, he has his detractors,” Keltner adds. “Some say he’s too much of a multi-tasker. But T Bone’s problem isn’t that; it’s that he makes doing all those things look too easy. He has a magic touch, but he doesn’t phone anything in, no coasting. He’s the kind of guy I’d like to be but never will: He goes to bed late and gets up early, then does it all over again.”

Even in an interview about his new album, Burnett will enthuse about other artists, such as Jesca Hoop, whom he describes as “Tom Waits’ nanny and a wonderful singer/songwriter.” Then there’s the Dylan family. Bob’s son Jesse took the cover photo for The True False Identity. Jakob (of the Wallflowers) is playing solo sets to open the shows on Burnett’s tour. “Jakob Dylan has such a beautiful, honest voice, and he’s a soulful songwriter,” Burnett says. “I’m sticking with him.”

If Jakob’s father called to do a record, Burnett says he would put his producer’s hat right back on. Until then, he has the 15-city tour with players drawn from The True False Identity sessions: Keltner (endeavoring to make the noise of the album’s three drummers with his limbs alone), Ciancia, double-bassist Dennis Crouch and avant-jazz/rock guitarist Marc Ribot.

Although he played behind Dylan and sang duets with Costello, Burnett the studio guru insists that he has never been a natural for the stage.

“I’m just getting past feeling self-conscious, wondering if I’m good enough,” he says. “But I’m excited to be performing with these guys, who make this big boom — while playing quietly. I’m eager to see if we can groove an audience the way we groove ourselves. I’d like to be able to do that thing, that conjuring thing, that so many great artists have moved me with through the years.”

(Originally published in May 2006 in The Star-Ledger of New Jersey.)

Longtime music journalist, from Billboard to Gramophone to DownBeat to Medici.tv, etc. Founder/curator of the Sound It Out jazz concert series in New York City.

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