Box Full of Letters from Issue #50
T Bone Burnett:
An evening to remember
It was a great treat to finally see a piece on T Bone Burnett [ND #49, Jan.-Feb. 2004]. While there is no doubt about his track record as a brilliant producer, there are some of us who have been fans of his own recorded output for many years.
I became a fan with the release of Truth Decay, and a few years later, in 1984, he was picked by the Rolling Stone critics as their songwriter of the year. In May of that year, some local fans pitched in money and brought him to play at a small club here in Spokane called Ahab’s Whale. It was one of the most intimate, enjoyable concert experiences of my life. He played guitar and electric piano, performing much of his own material as well as covers; among them were “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” and an audience sing-along to “Michael, Row The Boat Ashore”. He told stories, laughed and joked with us, and gave us all a truly unforgettable evening.
Glad to hear he’s working on a new album that he wants to be working on.
— Eric Udland
T Bone Burnett:
The critic under his own hat
It’s great to get an in-depth article about T Bone Burnett. As an admirer of his work for many years, it’s great that he is getting his due as a great producer and musician. It was a thrill seeing him win the Grammy for O Brother.
It’s funny, but back in 1992, in Musician magazine, T Bone was lamenting that he didn’t like his album The Talking Animals much, that it was pretentious, and that he was feeling bitter about music etc. — very similar to what he was saying in this article about The Criminal Under My Own Hat.
An artist, of course, is entitled to feel about their music as they see fit, but I don’t know, I think The Criminal Under My Own Hat is pretty darn brilliant! The songs on that album are fantastic, as are the alternate folk/bluegrass and rock arrangements. It’s too bad it’s not in print.
Let me place my vote for some new music from T Bone soon. Until then, I am looking forward to Sam Phillips’ new album. Now there is someone who deserves a cover story!
— Robert DuPont
Albany, New York
Brooks & Dunn:
The crap factory that is Music Row has an eloquent defender in Bill Friskics-Warren [Critics’ Poll, ND #49]. I realize that we “alt-country” fans need to be careful about making sacred cows of our favorite artists, but to suggest that a pair of drugstore cowboys like Brooks & Dunn have outdone Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy is taking iconoclasm to a laughable extreme. And I could be wrong about this, but I doubt anyone who’s made an album as unfashionable as March 16-20, 1992 was in its day, or as challenging as Terroir Blues and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot are for any era, has serious aspirations of becoming “the next big thing.” Despite the O Brother phenomenon, the days when commercial success may have been commensurate with artistic merit are more or less over. And who in their right mind would want to be as big as Garth Brooks or the Eagles anyway?
“I don’t need no stinky pinky sing to me about the common man,” sang Terry Allen. If the title track is any indication, Red Dirt Road is just another attempt by Brooks & Dunn to concoct an illusion of earthiness around what essentially is more ear candy. Friskics-Warren can hawk that schlock all he wants to, but lovers of the real thing ain’t buying.
— Shawn Cote
Fort Fairfield, Maine
“Sacrificed principle for profit”
I would like to respectfully disagree with Don McLeese, who suggests in his article “Whistlin’ Dixie” [Critics’ Poll, ND #49] that “the [Dixie] Chicks have dissolved the distinction between alt-country and commercial country.” I think it would be more accurate to say that the Dixie Chicks embody everything that is repulsive about commercial country music, and that their behavior gives alt-country a reason to exist.
Furthermore, while he is skeptical about their musicianship and enthused by their bad-girl attitudes, perhaps he has it backwards. The Dixie Chicks came out with Home, a great album even if a bit opportunistic coming out just after the O Brother phenomenon. And then Maines, always thirsting for applause, made a brief political comment to a sympathetic London audience. But when she heard that angry Americans were driving over her records with bulldozers, she quickly made a tear-filled appearance with Diane Sawyer in which she all but recanted her heresy.
This was not an “embrace of ideals,” but rather an unsurprising episode in which a commercial country artist sacrificed principle for profit. The Dixie Chicks are fine musicians, and I’ll probably buy and be entertained by their future albums, but if I want to listen to artists with convictions, I think I’ll stick with Steve Earle and Billy Bragg.
— Ben Wise
A welcome addition
The January-February  issue is excellent, and I really appreciate the crtitics’ poll. I went so far as to print out the ballot info from your website. While I certainly don’t agree with all the choices, I am always interested to see what music the critics loved. Keep up the good work!
— Kris Rossmiller
“A musically irrational universe”
Like no other magazine, one with no first cousin, today’s No Depression often tries to reassure its increasingly less-hip audience that everything’s going to be cool. Downbeat, overanalyzing articles congratulate the reader in this genre for being better than suburban drones and other uninformed music fans; even the articles about interesting artists at some point usually turn inward toward someone’s navel or a reason to lament. The articles describe a musically irrational universe where cool bands never become popular enough and bad bands always rule the charts.
It’s a tiresome message, and it has the disadvantage of being disconnected from reality. All you have to do is read the catalog of Miles Of Music to find countless examples of good music being purchased and bad music being shunned — at least in this world.
— Paul Barr
Downers Grove, Illinois
From Russia with love:
A songwriter’s story
Three years ago I was hired to play at a nightclub in Siberia. I arrived at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport with a guitar, my suitcase, and a 70-pound duffel bag filled with gifts from an American grandmother to Russian granddaughters. I bullied these through security, customs, two five-hour layovers, countless time zones, and at least two languages, one of which I did not speak.
On my final flight from Moscow to Novasibirsk, I was dog tired but too overwhelmed by the experience to sleep. There happened to be only one passenger still up at that ungodly hour. He was a Russian gentleman who appeared to be around 70, dressed in what could only be called peasant clothes, bopping his bald head wildly to modern headphones.
The seat next to him was empty. I sat down and he offered me a pull off what seemed to be moonshine. After trying small talk, I realized all we had was insomnia in common, but no common language. He looked like my grandfather but was dancing in his seat like a teenager. I was filled with trepidation of playing for a foreign audience in a country I grew up fearing, and blush with fatigue.
After a few more pulls off the bottle, he offered me his headphones. Like a huge light at the end of a dark psychic tunnel I put on the headphones and was stunned to hear America’s favorite baritone sing, “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.” Johnny Cash as universal language.
I shook his hand, smiled, returned the headphones and fell soundly to sleep. Berlin Wall be damned.
— Paul Metsa