T Bone Burnett – The invisible man
Burnett, who turns 56 in January, has thwacked a giant tuning fork of tones and countertones over the course of his colorful career. He has sailed through the maelstrom of rock, stealing Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue (in some people’s opinion) from its grand poobah with his guitar playing and spidery presence. After that, he dabbled in country-rock as a member of the Alpha Band, which scrapped the usual peaceful easy feelings for a Christian-spiritual agenda that favored caustic statements as much as sweet surrenders.
Burnett’s first proper solo album, Truth Decay (1980), recorded for the late John Fahey’s Takoma label, pulls thumping rockabilly, hook-filled power-pop, inspirational country and stark midnight ruminations into a stirring cohesive whole. (Under the name J. Henry Burnett, he had released The B-52 Band & The Fabulous Skylarks in 1972.) His other great solo endeavor, a self-titled album in 1986 recorded in Nashville for Dot Records, is like a collection of personal hymns bottled under glass.
Will the real T Bone Burnett, all six-feet-four and more of him, please stand up? Survey his four Alpha Band albums and 7 solo records (including the 1982 EP Trap Door, which includes his insouciant cover of “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend”), and you get a portrait of an artist caught between the sacred and the insane, cynicism and charity, belief and bitter disbelief. You also get a self-portrait, he might say — and has — of “the most embarrassed person I’ve ever met in my whole life.”
As avidly anti-corporate as he may be, Burnett is, let’s face, a pop operator of the first order. He knows how to move among the people who control the purse strings like a spy in the house of lovelessness, his anti-commerciality and resistance to received wisdom adding to his attractiveness so long as he scores such a high percentage of successes.
“T Bone has the kind of charisma that makes you feel like things can happen,” says Peter Case, who asked him to produce his self-titled 1986 solo debut out of admiration for Truth Decay and the feeling that his fellow L.A. traveler would understand the direction he wanted to take. They had run into each other during Case’s days with the Plimsouls, a band Burnett admired. “He was always dreaming up all sorts of things — you know, like, ‘Yeah, let’s start a record company!'” Case recalls. “And even if a lot of stuff didn’t happen, the excitement of feeling like it could stayed with you.”
“If he hadn’t come along and shown me an alternative artistic path, I would have quit,” says pop artiste extraordinaire Sam Phillips, Burnett’s wife of thirteen years. “I would have stopped writing music and gone back to school at 24. I would have done something completely different.”
When they met, she was enjoying considerable success as a Christian pop artist under her given name of Leslie Phillips. He produced her final religious effort, The Turning (1987), and supported her when she rejected the oppressive rules being laid down on the milieu by the religious right in favor of going secular with 1988’s The Indescribable Wow.
A passionate promoter of her work, and her work ethic, Burnett has produced all five of Phillips’ pop albums. After she was dropped by Virgin and was feeling as loath to pursue a record deal as he was, he got her to record a home demo before invited guests (he’s known for having singers and songwriters over the house to toss tunes back and forth). Delivered to Nonesuch executive David Bither, a friend of theirs, the demo led to Fan Dance, her spare and brilliant 2001 debut for the label.
Before that turn of events, in the fall of 1999, Phillips had joined her husband in a newfangled/old-fashioned revue on the main stage of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater, where Burnett has an ongoing relationship. Earlier in the year, he appeared there with playwright Sam Shepard, an old Rolling Thunder compadre, in an evening of readings and music. (Burnett had written songs for a revised version of Shepard’s Curse Of The Starving Class and would do the music for Shepard’s The Late Henry Moss, playing it live in San Francisco with a cast including Nick Nolte and Sean Penn.) Burnett also wrote songs for a 2001 Steppenwolf production of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage And Her Children.
For the ’99 show, he acted on his promise to “rip up everything and start in on something that has nothing to do with rock ‘n’ roll.” Burnett convened a company that included Gillian Welch and David Rawlings (having produced their first two albums), cutting-edge guitarist Marc Ribot, Nashville mandolinist Mike Compton, and bassist Barry Bales to perform a cycle of original songs. Much of the material was bleak: “You are my darkness/I crawl through you,” “You think I look like hell/I am hell.” But the collective high spirits of the players, who were cozily spread across the stage on couches and chairs, almost made you feel like you were at a hootenanny.
Burnett unofficially dubbed the company Void, as if to signify its utter lack of commercial aspiration. Though he hasn’t yet gotten around to bringing it to more than a few towns (a Fort Worth show is planned for March) or capturing it on record, he remains enthralled by the ideal it represents.
“I realize this is completely insane,” he said, “but at this stage of my life, if I’m not doing something to change the world, to at least attempt to hold back the tide a split second, what am I doing? Show biz has nothing left for me at all. I don’t need anything from culture. If I got it, it would be like, where were you when I needed you?”
The O Brother juggernaut didn’t change the world any more than Buena Vista Social Club did when it was mamboing its way into mainstream America’s heart. It was even attacked in certain circles for the way it commodified a strain of American history. Burnett was unhappy with Mercury/Universal’s labeling of the O Brother soundtrack as “The Ultimate American Roots Music Collection.” Not only is there nothing “ultimate” about it, but for him, “Roots music is a dead word. It has burst into all meaninglessness. People are just interested in hearing what they want to hear.”
The idea to cast Jack White as the nameless boy from Georgia came from Phillips, with Burnett’s instant approval. “Of all the young singers out there, he has done the most homework,” Burnett says. “It’s not easy to do those songs, to make them new. You have to really metabolize them somehow. They have to mean something to you. Like all storytelling, you have to believe them, believe in what you’re singing.”
White, whose numbers in Cold Mountain include “Wayfaring Stranger” (the musical centerpiece of the novel) and “Sittin’ On Top Of The World”, was on the same page. “The most important part of a song is what the story is,” White says. “Everything else around it — the melody, the harmonies — is just a trick to get you to listen to the story. The best musicians are the best magicians in that sense.”