O T Bone: Famed producer reclaims his songwriting roots

By Mark Guarino

The life of T Bone Burnett is flush with myth.

His name references T-Bone Walker, the great blues guitarist from his native Texas. Burnett is pencil thin and tall, choosing to dress in antiquated black and white suits. His music straddles studio realism and old-time antiquity. In his four decades as a back-up musician, then songwriter, then Grammy-winning producer, he has collaborated and performed with iconic musical figures who themselves refuse categorization: Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Elvis Costello, Ralph Stanley.

Yet despite his accolades and insider status in the recording industry, Burnett says he owes much of what he has done to someone from rock’s earliest days: “Sam Phillips is the true north for me.”

Phillips, the Memphis producer and label owner, is best known for discovering a truck driver named Elvis Presley. But before Elvis, Phillips was recording black blues and R&B musicians like Howlin’ Wolf, Rufus Thomas, James Cotton and Ike Turner with an eye for making hits and another eye for knocking down the walls of segregation through music. In Elvis — a white performer who sounded black — he found a way for his utopian dream to turn into reality. Burnett says that Philips embodied his contention that “art and religion and science are the same thing.”

“In retrospect, (Phillips) emerges as an important civil rights leader. And he did it by never saying a word. He did it by his willingness to be in a room with people who didn’t look just like him and to stand up to the repressive, hypocritical religiosity that wanted to control people for their own end,” he said.

As a producer, Burnett, 58, considers that struggle still salient. On “The True False Identity” (Columbia), his first album in 14 years, Burnett approaches recent events in the Middle East and at home as metaphors, casting them in atmospheric blues songs that bristle with spooky textures, firebrand spirituality and Biblical themes. “When you’re out for revenge, dig two graves/when you run from the truth, it comes in waves,” he sings (“Every Time I Feel the Shift”).

The album is in stores Tuesday, along with “Twenty Twenty: The Essential T Bone Burnett” (Columbia/DMZ/Legacy), a two-disc retrospective that spans his solo recordings and rarities. The same day he kicks off a solo tour at the Vic Theatre. His band will include some of the players on the new album including drummer Jim Keltner and the guitarist and frequent Tom Waits collaborator Marc Ribot.

Burnett grew up in Forth Worth where he set up a recording studio, intending to follow his dream to become a producer. “I never had the view of going out and being a performer,” he said.

Then Bob Dylan called and, in 1975, he joined Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue. Soon after Burnett became the primary songwriter of the Alpha Band, which led to successive solo albums. In the years to come, he steadily built a reputation as a prolific producer who understood how to help young bands and new artists (Los Lobos, The Wallflowers, Counting Crows, Gillian Welch) find their sound.

None of his past work prepared him for the music that he is currently making than the assignment he received to score music to two successive Sam Shepard plays for Steppenwolf Theatre Company.

“When I started performing, there was a very, very strong tide that ran towards being louder and more treble and there was this whole aural assault. And after working in the theatre you begin to see that there are many, many, many other ways to approach music. Because you’re essentially underscoring this story that’s being told,” he said. “And that’s what music is as its core: Storytelling. It opened up pure universes of sound to me.”

They can be heard in a multitude of tones on his new album, disguising the songs as old-time Americana but underneath telling a richer and often far weirder story. Through performances that seem to play around ideas and beats rather than taking a more straightforward approach, the songs drape the droll humor of Burnett’s lyrics with a creeping, almost sinister backdrop of sounds, forcing the listener to feel the music rather than passively listen. The music connects the mystery and rough edges of old-time blues and country with the insistent pulse of the modern era.

Burnett insists that even though the performances sound raw, he is not a Luddite when it comes to studio technology.

“The technology should always be completely transparent unless you have a really good reason for showing it,” he said. “We try to be high tech enough so you don’t know what’s happening at all.”

The 14-year wait to play the role of a songwriter and performer again was due to his left turn as a successful composer and producer for film. The pinnacle came the night he took home four Grammys at the 2001 awards for his work as the composer and music producer for the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” The film, which turned into a concert tour and then a tour documentary, became a cultural phenomenon, leading Burnett to similar roles on films “Cold Mountain” and “Walk the Line.”

One thing the “O Brother” phenomenon demonstrated was that the American public is hungry for music outside the realm of “American Idol.”

“I think the audience has been underestimated and … is much more sophisticated than it ever has been. When I was a kid, if you found a Skip James record, it was like finding an amulet from another dimension. There weren’t many of them, you couldn’t find them all and a lot of those guys you only heard about through some kind of misty legend. ‘There was this blues musician named Charlie Patton and he taught Howlin’ Wolf.’ You hear a story like that and you would think he was lost in time,” he said. “Now two clicks and you have Charlie Patton’s complete recorded history. So the audience, because they have so much more to draw from, they are much more savvy than they are given credit for.”

“O Brother” was recorded no equalizers, meaning no studio manipulation, he said. “It was all just really good microphones, placing them well and really good singers and really good musicians. (It) was a venture I was absorbed in for three years and nothing went wrong. It was an incredible time,” he said.

He is preparing for his upcoming tour — his first in two decades — by practicing songs he hadn’t listened to in years. “There are a lot of words. I noticed how many words I write. I might try to pare that down next time,” he said, laughing. This current retrospective and tour is also forcing him to look back at his long and busy life. “I’m deeply grateful,” he said. “I’ve had this long life in music.”

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