Pursuing T Bone Burnett
“Fish were jumpin’ when T Bone Burnett conducted his first conference call with Alison Krauss and Robert Plant to discuss making an album together.” Lloyd Sach’s opening sentence of his critical appreciation of T Bone Burnett, T Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit (University of Texas Press) pulls us in with a magnetic force, or, better, like a fisherman pulling in a catch that’s bigger than life. With his first masterful sentence, Sachs, former senior editor at No Depression, sets the hook deep, and we can’t let go until we find out what happened after that phone conference and why T Bone Burnett thought musicians with two apparently disparate musical styles might really work together to produce some interesting sounds.
Though many people might know Burnett only by his work on the music for the television show Nashville, or for his work on the soundtrack for the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?, music fans know that Burnett and his work as a producer, musician, and songwriter lie behind work by artists as diverse as Los Lobos, Elton John, the Wallflowers, Striking Matches, Rhiannon Giddens, B.B. King, and Sam Phillips, among many others. Burnett played with Dylan in the Rolling Thunder Revue in 1974, and in the ‘80s he performed with Elvis Costello, Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, and Jennifer Warnes.
Uninterested in writing a pedestrian, flat-as-pavement biography of Burnett—who told Sachs, “we can have lunch any time you’re not writing a book about me”—Sachs offers in his new book a vibrant and colorful portrait of a man who continues to redefine the boundaries of music and who follows his own vision of the beauty and force of music. Sachs observes that “few people understood what a crucial role he had played in furthering the larger cause of American music, which he views not through the museumy lens of Ken (Jazz) Burns but as a collection of living and breathing documents of who we are.” With animated prose, Sachs vivaciously explores every facet of Burnett’s life and work from “spiritual gumshoe,” “mentor,” and “hit man” to “reluctant artist,” “lead actor,” “blues man,” and “alchemist.”
Burnett’s ex-wife, Sam Phillips, sums up Burnett’s fiery vision for the music he loves: “T Bone is always advocating for musicians and artists. He’ll never stop. A lot of people come to mind who don’t like him because he is kind of a wild man. He’s always fighting to make things better, to achieve breakthroughs … .”
How appropriate that on the day this column appears, T Bone Burnett will be delivering the keynote address at the Americana Music Association’s annual conference and festival. Burnett, as Sachs so cannily and gracefully points out, remains one of the driving forces behind what has become known as Americana music. What would Burnett make of the phrase “Americana music,” whose overuse has robbed it of its force and meaning? Sachs reminds us that Burnett always looks forward to discover the most interesting artists whose music flows powerfully into the roiling stream of American music. As Sachs points out so memorably, Burnett continues to live out a “life in pursuit.”
I chatted by phone with Lloyd Sachs recently about his new book.
Henry Carrigan: What prompted you to write this book now?
Lloyd Sachs: Well, I think it was pretty long in gestation. I’ve always been fascinated with T Bone, going back to his singer-songwriter days; I did a piece on him for No Depression about the time he was doing the Cold Mountain soundtrack. I’ve always liked him a lot, and I find him to be a fascinating figure as a musician, a songwriter, and a producer. I wanted to illustrate the many facets of his life and work, though this was never meant to be a tell-all life story. It probably took me about a year to write it.
Were there any particular books you used as models for writing this one? What writers have influenced your own writing?
I grew up at the time that rock criticism was starting to take off. I was completely energized by the whole rock criticism movement. I would just pore over reviews by Greil Marcus. In those days, a new Van Morrison album wasn’t just a record to be listened to; we’d pore over it and discuss what it meant. Some of those great rock reviews barely touched on the album in question but touched on many aspects related to it, like politics and culture, and the writing was so great. The writers I love are the lovers of language: Stanley Elkin, it was an adventure to read every book he wrote; Mordecai Richler, especially his novel Joshua Then and Now; Philip Roth; John Leonard, his allusions could get so deep, and I loved that he wrote about television and then moved on to write about music and movies and books.
What are T Bone’s greatest strengths?
One of his greatest strengths is as a producer and a facilitator of other artists’ desires and visions. They will tell you that he’s great to work with; he possesses a very deep and abiding intent to bring out the best in an artist. As a producer, he has a vision about the way a certain artist should be recorded. Album after album he’s produced, I’ve thought are the best albums of that musician’s career, such as Elton John’s The Diving Board or Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ Raising Sand. T Bone is a very intuitive and forceful producer who surrounds himself with amazing musicians in order to make an album.
His greatest weaknesses?
You can almost list his insecurities he feels about himself as an artist. He never became known. Jackson Browne, Elvis Costello, or Warren Zevon, though, he of course played with all of them; at the same time, he was being recognized as one of the greatest songwriters of our time.
You write a good deal about T Bone’s religious sensibilities and his spiritual vision in the book.
Religion has been an important part of his life and his songwriting and his music. However, he’s hasn’t stood still in that regard; I think he has gone through changes in his practice of his religion. He’s obviously a very spiritual guy; he’s well-read in spiritual matters, referring to Thomas Merton in his writing. His ex-wife Sam Phillips broke away from the fundamentalist, right-wing establishment, because of its need to control, and T Bone broke away from them as well. He’s an upstart; he’s a social critic who takes pleasure in skewering the bloviators and hypocrites. Looking back at a lot of writing about his music, I found that a lot of the religious subtexts of it were overlooked. Even Bono admired T Bone as an artist with religious faith. Religion is simply one of the many layers of his life and reflects his complexity.
What will readers be surprised to learn about T Bone from your book?
A lot of readers are going to be surprised that he had such a distinguished career as a singer-songwriter. Many will be surprised that he played with the Rolling Thunder Revue. He’s so famous as a visionary and a producer; people may not realize he is a musician, too. He doesn’t get much credit for his guitar playing, but Cassandra Wilson had him on her last album. He’s one of those artists who people think they know very well, but they don’t know him at all.
What would you like readers to take from the book?
I would hope that people would get a wider sense of what Americana music means; I hope this book helps them broaden their view and to listen to the incredible range of American music. One of the reasons I wrote the book (laughs) is that I knew I’d be getting the chance to listen to all these albums that T Bone produced or that he recorded or on which he was somehow involved. One example: I’ve never been a huge Roy Orbison fan; his music never really grabbed me. But for this project I revisited his music, and that was a revelation. I finally recognized what it was about him—his ability to start in one range in a song and finish it in a completely different one—that all the guys like Dylan, and Harrison, and Petty heard in him. I hope this book, like T Bone’s overall achievement, inspires readers to appreciate and to listen to the incredible stream of music we benefit from: Allen Toussaint to Tom Petty to the blues.