Great Producers: T Bone Burnett
In my opinion, the producer is the most under-acknowledged person involved with an album. Perhaps they bring this upon themselves, because like a referee or an umpire, one should not notice them if they do a good job. Yet when one person is responsible for dozens of great albums, people begin to take notice.
There are two producers in the history of recorded music that overshadow all others: Sam Phillips and Phil Spector. The latter was famous for his “Wall of Sound”, a technique using very large numbers of instruments, orchestras and string sections, as well as background vocalists. Only two other people have ever been able to master this technique (albeit temporarily): Brian Wilson and Bruce Springsteen.
The Sam Phillips school of production, on the other hand, really isn’t a new method at all. In fact, it extends back to the era of field recordings in the ’20s and ’30s. Phillips’ style was simply to make the artists comfortable in the environment, then to record them. He may record them doing one song 20 times, but he would not use strings, background vocalists, and especially overdubs, which he one credited for the downfall of good music.
To elaborate, if Phil Spector had produced country, it would have sounded a lot like the “Nashville Sound/Countrypolitan” movement of the ’60s or the “Urban Cowboy” crap of the ’80s that was barely country at all. Sam Phillips did produce country, but had he made a career of it, his work would have likely sounded like the outlaw country of the ’70s and the Americana music of today.
Spector was a musical genius and a great producer (and given his personal life, I must also add that I say that in the same way that I say O.J. Simpson was a great football player). However, Spector is to be blamed for the increasing overproduction of music since the ’60s and especially the ’70s: bubblegum pop, disco, New Wave, hair bands, boy bands, and on and on. On the other hand, Phillips is at least partly responsible for garage rock, country rock, punk rock, outlaw country, Americana, and just about any other genre that focused on less production (not to mention that if the definition of “indie rock” is taken literally, Sam Phillips is undoubtedly its founder.
I aplogize for the long introduction and promise I will get to the point soon (maybe I need to hire an editor), but I feel that I must give you a little bit of background on what I think constitutes a great producer before I discuss my main topic. This will be the first in a series of posts detailing the work of great producers which I plan to post over the next few months. I have chosen to start with T Bone Burnett because he is the modern day version of Sam Phillips, cutting away all the bs and leaving just good music.
I am willing to guess that everybody reading this site is at least familiar withsome of Burnett’s work, but hopefully you will be able to discover something new here as well. I have chosen not to include any of his own work as a recording artist and not to rank these albums, which are listed chronologically. I also will not even attempt to bore you by trying to review this many albums at a time, but some of Burnett’s best work is pictured below.
How Will the Wolf Survive, Los Lobos, 1986
King of America, Elvis Costello, 1986
Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams, BoDeans, 1986
Peter Case, 1986
La Pistola y El Corazón, Los Lobos, 1988
Mystery Girl, Roy Orbison, 1989
Shuffletown, Joe Henry, 1990
Bringing on the Weather, Jackopierce, 1994
Braver New World, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, 1996
Bringing Down the Horse, The Wallflowers, 1996
Revival, Gillian Welch, 1996
Hell Among the Yearlings, Gillian Welch, 1998
Blue Days, Black Nights, Freedy Johnston, 1999
O Brother, Where Art Thou, 2000
Motherland, Natalie Merchant, 2001
Time (The Revelator), Gillian Welch, 2001
Ralph Stanley, 2002
A Wondeful World Tony Bennett & k.d. lang, 2002
A Distant Land to Roam, Ralph Stanley, 2006
Thunderbird, Cassandra Wilson, 2006
Raising Sand, Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, 2007
Life, Death, Love and Freedom, John Mellencamp, 2008
One Kind Favor, B.B. King, 2008
Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, Elvis Costello, 2009
Upcoming releases for Burnett include the soundtrack for Crazy Heart, an album by Willie Nelson, the album No Better than This by John Mellencamp, as well as the “radio play” project Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, a collaboration between Mellencamp and Stephen King with an all-star Americana cast.
So, what Burnett albums do you think I overlooked in compiling the list of his best and what are your opinions on what I did pick?
I believe the above list is undeniable proof that T Bone Burnett is the best living music producer.