Clip: Jon Parles on T-Bone Burnett
O Brother, Here Art Thou (Where Have You Been?)
By JON PARELES
Published: May 14, 2006
T BONE BURNETT looked out at his invited audience. "We're all in show
business," he said with a rueful smile, to an approving murmur from a
few dozen listeners.
He was performing at the Magic Castle, a venerable West Hollywood club
where pronouncing "open sesame" opens a hidden door to a warren of
bars and lounges. Inside, magicians perform card tricks and displays
commemorate vaudeville and movie illusions. On one of the club's small
stages, Mr. Burnett cradled a vintage Kay K161 guitar with a
tiger-striped pickguard and played a handful of songs from his new
album, "The True False Identity" (Columbia) and from an anthology
being released simultaneously, "Twenty Twenty: The Essential T Bone
Burnett" (Columbia/DMZ/Legacy), that sums up his long career in 40
songs full of questions, tribulations, sly humor and down-home
Chatting before he went onstage, he flinched slightly at the word
"career." A tall but not overbearing man with understated, almost
old-fashioned clothes, he has the reassuring presence of a country
doctor in a black-and-white western.
"I never thought of it as a career," he said. "I've always just been
completely occupied taking care of the thing that's right under my
nose. I had no plan, no arc, no retirement plan. It was just the thing
that came along and attacking it with my whole heart. That would be my
career if I had one."
He was playing for a gathering of Hollywood insiders: illusion
manufacturers. Many of his listeners were music supervisors for film
and television, the people who choose songs for soundtracks and shows
like "The O.C." Mr. Burnett was promoting himself but not pandering.
The songs he performed were bluesy, droll indictments of human nature
and media delusions.
In his own way, Mr. Burnett, 58, is a Hollywood insider, too. He has
lived in Los Angeles since the early 1970's and works in Los Angeles's
top studios. The hits he has produced — like the multimillion-selling
soundtrack for "O Brother, Where Art Thou" — have bought him a
comfortable house in Bel Air. He has a personal assistant.
Yet he is anything but a slick Hollywood type. He's a voracious reader
who casually quotes the Bible, Andy Warhol and the Chinese philosopher
Lao Tse. He still pays his way into clubs and concerts, remembering
his own days as a working musician. He tries not to say an unkind word
about anything except, when pressed, the longtime business practices
of recording companies. "Honesty is the most subversive of all
disguises," he sings in "Hollywood, Mecca of the Movies" on his new
album. "I said goodbye a long time ago/You must not have heard me."
In the many projects Mr. Burnett has worked on through the years —
from backing up Bob Dylan on the Rolling Thunder Revue tour to
producing Elvis Costello, Los Lobos and Gillian Welch to assembling
soundtracks for films — there's a consistent streak of what might be
called American magical realism. The music he makes is deeply rooted
but never simply a throwback. He prizes the simplicity and audacity of
classic Americana, from blunt heartbreak songs to surreal tall tales.
But he has no interest in recreating the past. Instead, he's mapping
old-time integrity into the complicated present tense.
"I want the music to be authentic, but I want it to be authentic in
the moment you're doing it." he said. "I want to be honest to God in
the moment of the thing when it's happening. So you do toy with it, or
play with it. It's not replicating something, it's breathing new life
into it — being true to the thing without trying to duplicate it."
Even the homey sound of "O Brother" was untraditional. "That record,
and that movie, they were never intended to be an authentic
traditional bluegrass album," he said. "That was intended to be a rock
'n' roll record. The feel of 'Man of Constant Sorrow,' for instance,
is very much a rock 'n' roll feel, it was an exciting, jazzed-up
version. Whether you have a guitar playing the backbeat or a snare
playing the backbeat, it doesn't really matter. It's just where it's
Mr. Costello, in a phone conversation, described Mr. Burnett's
approach as "making a sense of time and place, but at the same time
dislocating it slightly to give a sense of the unease that we're
Mr. Burnett has held onto the courtly manners and leisurely drawl of
his Texas upbringing. He grew up in Forth Worth, where T-Bone was his
childhood nickname. After being derided by Texas musicians who thought
he was comparing himself to the great blues guitarist T-Bone Walker,
he at first used his given name, J. Henry, then returned to T Bone
minus the hyphen. He bounced between the coasts, playing with Bob
Dylan in Bleecker Street clubs and then with the Rolling Thunder
Revue. The revue's band turned into the Alpha Band and made three
albums featuring Mr. Burnett's songs in the 1970's.
On his first visit to Los Angeles, Mr. Burnett happened into a jam
session with Taj Mahal and Delaney Bramlett that lasted all night
long. Right there, he decided that Los Angeles was less cliquish than
Fort Worth and a good place for a musician. He's settled, but still
ambivalent, three decades later.
"I absolutely can't stand the hierarchy of show business," he admits.
"One of the things that happens in this town is that every day some
really bad guy gets some big deal. And it's frustrating, and there are
really beautiful artists who can't ever work in town because all these
people are eating up every bit of attention and money. That stuff is
awful. But on the other hand, there always is a large group of
incredible artists in town. And there's a whole group of down-to-earth
artists in town. Yet at the same time, it's a dangerous place and will
"The True False Identity" is Mr. Burnett's first album of his own
songs since 1992. "I've been waiting to hear from him," Mr. Costello
said. "I wondered whether we had lost him as a recording artist to the
world of production and film." To make the album, he assembled a band
around three drummers and the spiky, twangy guitarist Marc Ribot, who
has worked regularly with Tom Waits. With the drummers constantly
knocking the beat around, the songs ride vamps that shuffle and lope,
steeped in blues and reggae. His voice echoes Bob Dylan and John
Lennon as Mr. Burnett sings absurdist rhymes, sociopolitical
observations and haunted lost-love songs, sparing neither himself nor
the flawed world around him.
Mr. Burnett is openly Christian, though decidedly nonfundamentalist.
In "Blinded by the Darkness" on the new album, Mr. Burnett declares,
"In seven days God created evolution" shortly before the song explodes
into a vertiginous jam.
The long gap between albums was partly the result of his many other
projects: not just films but a Grammy-winning duet album by Tony
Bennett and K. D. Lang and Cassandra Wilson's new album "Thunderbird."
For "Cold Mountain," he wrote the Oscar-nominated song "The Scarlet
Tide" with Mr. Costello, and he remade Johnny Cash and June Carter
songs with Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon for "Walk the Line."
He is now working on "Across the Universe," a Julie Taymor film built
around Beatles songs.
The delay between albums was also a response to the times, he said.
"There was an honest-to-God revolution in the 1960's, or what was
called the 1960's, though it began before then," he said. "The world's
a lot better place for it. And we've been living for the past 30 years
through a classic Maoist counterrevolution, trying to undo and take us
back to some time in the past. But the counterrevolution has run out
of gas, literally."
"I felt the brick wall crumble that we've all been facing, and I felt
freedom rushing in on me," he added. "Freedom with my instrument,
freedom with my voice, freedom with my words." He sequestered himself
for two weeks in Northern California, near Big Sur, and "I wrote 200
pages of stuff, just solid," he said. "There was no effort whatsoever,
no force. One of the things I've learned is that if you cooperate with
the universe it will cooperate with you."
The next morning began a typical T Bone day in Hollywood: doing final
radio edits (shorter verisons) for songs from "The True False
Identity," having lunch with the virtuoso, genre-crossing bassist
Edgar Meyer, and a business meeting with the Edge from U2, then
attending a Writers Guild of America gala where Mr. Burnett's
girlfriend, the screenwriter and director Callie Khouri, would accept
an award for writing "Thelma and Louise," which had been voted one of
the 101 best screenplays by the guild.
Mr. Burnett's studio, in one of his house's parlors, centers on the
old 24-track console that recorded the Doors and Led Zeppelin's fourth
album (or "Zoso"). A photo of the bluesman Jimmy Reed, holding a
tiger-striped K161 guitar, is always in view from the producer's
chair. "It's missing a knob," Mr. Burnett pointed out.
There's an analog tape machine on the right, and an old telephone
operator's switchboard with patch cords plugged in. A Pro Tools
computer setup is on the left. Bookshelves hold collections of
Shakespeare, Noël Coward, Hank Williams and Leonardo da Vinci, as well
as LP's and master tapes. On one wall are strips of white masking
tape, annotated "GTR" or "BS" or "Mandocello," that show which
instrument was on which track of Mr. Burnett's most recent
"It's very Rube Goldberg," he said. "I think of this place like that
show, 'Monster Garage,' as a custom shop where we can pretty much bend
sound into anything we want. Of course, the best way to bend it is for
the musician to bend it in the room while it's happening. Those are
the really profound calculations."
Mr. Burnett calls himself "a nontechnical person," but he is almost
mystical in his determination to capture what he calls "overtone
complexity": the richness of natural sounds. "He has a very broad
understanding of the science of sound," Ms. Wilson observed in a phone
interview. On tour, he is playing small theaters chosen for their
acoustics, among them Town Hall in New York City on June 1.
In his productions, what sounds like unadorned realism may not be. "I
put a lot of stuff on records you can't hear," he said. "On Gillian
Welch's record, we would record a couple of guitars and a vocal, and
we would record another little orchestra behind that that you wouldn't
hear, and then we would record buzzes and clicks and physical noises
behind that, and then maybe there would be a machine" — he made a
whooshing sound — "that you don't hear. And when you put it on, all
you hear is two guitars and a voice, but all of these other things are
pushing the sound out of the speaker."
He's pushing himself now, something he has rarely been comfortable
with. In the weeks before the album release, he played not only for
the music supervisors, but also in the offices of Amazon.com and Best
Buy and for radio stations. "When I was a kid, I resisted all of this
with my whole being," he said. "And now I look at it as an incredible
privilege. Oh, you're going to let me be on the radio for 30 minutes
and say whatever I want to? I don't feel like I have to prove anything
to anybody. I'm just telling the truth. I figure, if somebody doesn't
like me, at least they don't like me for the truth."
That evening Mr. Burnett slipped out of his meeting with the Edge just
in time to get to the Writers Guild Theater in time for Ms. Khouri's
acceptance speech. She had been nervous about it, and George Lucas's
cellphone rang midway through her speech. But she had the crowd of
fellow writers laughing as she joked about how many people are willing
to "help" with a screenplay, and then applauding a final touch of
humility. "She was real," Mr. Burnett said afterward, while
glad-handers approached him to proffer movie projects. "I always find
if you're at a loss, just be real, and you can find your way through