T Bone Burnett – The invisible man
The last time T Bone Burnett was spotted in his own spotlight was way back in 1992. That’s the year his most recent album, The Criminal Under My Own Hat, came out — and the year he dropped out as a solo recording artist. Criminal had some oddly arresting moments, wicked commentary and choice twists of hate — notably “Humans From Earth”. It was good enough to get nominated for a Grammy. But the artist, who had been “slowing down on the recording thing — I hated the whole deal,” hit the wall with the album, which he said he had to be talked into doing.
“I had reached a point where I couldn’t tell why one note should be there and another shouldn’t,” he said. “I think John Cage found himself in the same place when he began experimenting with silence.”
He also thought he had run out of things to say, that his lyrics suffered from pretentiousness and “silly schoolboy attitudes” — and, in the case of hard-boiled Hollywood rants such as “Baby Fall Down” (from his 1983 album Proof Through The Night), a lack of truth. “I was writing about self-deception and deceiving myself while I was doing it,” he says.
If T Bone quit the business every time he felt like it — or everytime the business made him feel like quitting — he would head a cult for the perpetually displeased. But this time, he tabled his own good works and concentrated on helping other people with theirs.
“I got behind the scenes as far as I could,” he said. With his stature as a producer — at that time he had produced records for Los Lobos, Roy Orbison, Marshall Crenshaw and Elvis Costello, with breakout efforts from Counting Crows and the Wallflowers still to come — he could stay hidden in plain sight as long as he wanted.
How far was far? Oh, brother, if you’re asking that, you were probably picking your toes in Poughkeepsie when the Burnett-produced soundtrack for O Brother, Where Art Thou? turned the middling Coen Brothers comedy into a launching pad for forgotten American music. The disc sold multimillions and won multiple Grammys, including Album of the Year (and Producer of the Year for Burnett) — in the process elevating artists such as bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley to American icon status.
O Brother also spawned a series of Grand Ole Opry revue-style shows, the first of which was actually held a few months before the movie was released. That concert, at Nashville’s storied Ryman Auditorium, was filmed by D.W. Pennebaker for a documentary, Down From The Mountain; its soundtrack also won a Grammy. Finally, there was a new record label, DMZ, founded by Burnett and the Coens in cahoots with Columbia.
The moral of the story, as it were, is that our man T — as in his native Texas — fought the law of averages in the music biz and won with barely a hoot of radio support. Suddenly, Burnett’s “behind the scenes” days were over and out.
So now here he was in his present-day home of Los Angeles, having gone on to produce Tony Bennett, fer cryin’ out loud, trying not to go crazy (which, you have to admit, some of his photos suggest is his natural state) as he sweated out the final details of the music for another, bigger movie, Cold Mountain.
A Christmas Day release, Cold Mountain carries huge expectations. It is based on Charles Frazier’s rapturously received first novel. It stars the Hollywood actress of the moment, Nicole Kidman, as Ada, the lovestruck southern beauty waiting for her Inman (Jude Law) to return from the atrocities of the Civil War. It was adapted and directed by the estimable Anthony Minghella, whose other historical epic, The English Patient, was an Oscar-winning masterpiece. And it has a Brotherly assortment of songs to carry it, including new ones written for the occasion by Elvis Costello and Sting — plus, in a crossover coup of sorts, four traditional staples sung by Jack White, on loan from his garage-rocking White Stripes.
“When you spend people’s money, a whole lot of voices enter the picture,” said Burnett with a weary laugh. Even though the songs were recorded many months ago — the musically minded Minghella, who treated The English Patient to the popular music of the 1930s and ’40s, and The Talented Mr. Ripley to ’50s jazz, had been working on this film for a good four or five years — there were agonizing decisions to make. Like which songs stayed in the film, and how, and which ones had to be cut. The final version has less music than some people may have wanted — including Burnett and possibly Frazier, in whose 1997 book songs and song references play a major role — but there is more music than there was in a previous edit.
The makers of Cold Mountain actually were a bit hesitant to play the T Bone card, conscious of the potential pitfalls of playing a hand that had already been played. But ultimately, choosing him was a no-brainer. “It was right in my wheelhouse,” said Burnett, whose work on O Brother gave him a leg up on his research for Cold Mountain, and whose work plumbing the decades for songs to use in the 2002 film Divine Secrets Of The Ya-Ya Sisterhood had further demonstrated his ease with the medium.
T Bone — a.k.a. Joseph Henry Burnett III — was about 14 when he first began hearing the music showcased in O Brother and Cold Mountain: bluegrass, spirituals, pre-country, field hollers. At the time, growing up in Fort Worth, he was a blues hound hooked on people like Jimmy Reed and Muddy Waters. Then his school pal Stephen Bruton, who was in a band called the Brazos River Ramblers (and has carved out a notable career of his own as a singer, songwriter, sideman and producer) played him “O Death” on the banjo (the Dock Boggs version), and “Hello Stranger” by the Carter Family, and the bluegrass tune “Ocean Of Diamonds”.
“I loved those songs,” said Burnett, who went on to produce the Ramblers. “For me, though, the kinds of distinctions people make between styles didn’t exist. The Beatles, John Lennon doing ‘I’ll Cry Instead’, was cut from the same cloth as the Carter Family, and it came from the same place as ‘Turn On Your Love Light’ [by Bobby Blue Bland].
“I think most musicians hear things like that. Record companies, who put out music for people who don’t like music — you turn on the radio and you hear a lot of engineered sound with people sort of singing — want to drive categories between everyone. But to people who listen to each other and play with each other, it’s all about tone and overtone. It doesn’t matter where it comes from. Kiowa Indian music sounds just like bluegrass. It has the same tonality.”