An Interview with Stephen Bruton

As featured by Fretboard Journal

The Saxon Pub is not the kind of bar you stumble into casually. In any other town, a nondescript, dark, wood-paneled joint such as this would serve steaks of dubious origin, throw an iceberg lettuce salad bar in the corner and tempt you with endless hot-wing specials. But here in Austin, Texas, where guitars and songwriters are ubiquitous, these understated digs on South Lamar are home to live music–really good live music. And it’s here where, every Sunday evening (and often other evenings, too), you can hear the Resentments play.

Depending on who may or may not be on the road, the Resentments consist of Jon Dee Graham, Bruce Hughes, “Scrappy” Jud Newcomb, John Chipman and, over on stage left, Stephen Bruton. No need to worry about who plays what; the group takes turns on bass, guitar, vocals, drums, songwriting and one-liners. It’s a fun night–not quite a guitar toss, not quite a full-fledged band. It’s just Bruton playing with friends. And that, more than anything, pretty much describes how Bruton has lived his life.

Stephen Bruton’s journey as a guitarist has enough twists and turns to make Hermann Hesse blush. He’s been an in-demand rock ‘n’ roll session player and sideman, a sometime actor, a voracious instrument collector, a producer, a student of jazz guitar and, most recently, a singer-songwriter. He’s one of those guys who always pushes himself, always shakes things up.

Talking about guitar trading, he tells me, “I think there’s this Rubik’s Cube kind of thing. You move something out and, all of a sudden, boom, something falls in that you can use.” It’s a useful metaphor for Bruton’s ever-changing life.

Rewind five decades, and it seems inevitable that Turner Stephen Bruton would end up a musician. His father, Sumter Bruton, was a highly regarded jazz drummer from New Jersey. After serving in the military, the elder Bruton put down roots in Fort Worth, Texas, and opened a record store in 1957.

“He always maintained that he was [from] the Duke Ellington school of music,” Bruton remembers of his sonically omnivorous dad. “There’s only two kinds of music: There’s good music and there’s bad music. He would say, ‘Well, the Kingston Trio is cool, but listen to this…,’ and he’d put on a Smithsonian album.”

Bruton would work at Record Town throughout his teens and 20s, and it’s where he got hooked on music. (He cites everything from roots music to electronica.) It’s also there where, as a 10-year-old, he got his first taste for the guitar.

“I walked in the record store one Saturday morning, and some kids were rehearsing for their talent show with a Brothers Four song,” he recalls. “And there was a guy playing guitar, and three kids singing. I’ll never forget that. I liked the way the guitar sounded. And then I really loved the fact that [when you] picked up a guitar like this and strummed it, you could feel it; you know, it just went right through you.”

Joseph Henry Burnett, Bruton’s junior high and high school classmate, has equally fond memories of hanging out at Record Town. “Sumter Bruton was a very fine jazz drummer and knew what was good,” remembers the classmate, better known these days as T Bone Burnett. “He was also very generous with us and would hip us to new music all the time. Of course, to us at 12 or 14, John Coltrane was new music, but he also played me Cream for the first time. The shelves of that record store were filled with music of the highest order from the four incredible decades of recorded music that had come before. I am so incredibly grateful.”

“T Bone and I became great friends,” Bruton says. “We used to always laugh at the wrong things together.” Bruton eventually procured an Epiphone Texan (a guitar he still plays regularly to this day) and took a half year’s worth of lessons from a local teacher named Charlie Pearson. Bruton was a quick learner who, by his own admission, “had a proclivity for it.” The gigs–thanks in part to Burnett, but also to Bruton’s innate ability–came soon.

Back in those days, Fort Worth was a musical hotbed, and Stephen Bruton became a historian of the region’s music. Burnett says he’s learned more from Bruton than from “just about anybody,” and he remembers plenty of after-hours listening sessions at the store where his classmate turned him on to local legends.

“He played me and told me about Huddie Ledbetter, who had been a street singer in Fort Worth; about Milton Brown, who had invented Western swing; about Bob Wills, who popularized it; about the first electric guitar being worked out in Weatherford, when one of the cats stuck a phonograph needle into the top of a guitar and played it through a phonograph player; about Ornette Coleman…”

By the time the British Invasion hit, Bruton had immersed himself in–what else?–the banjo. “I heard bluegrass and old-time music,” he says, “which I think is incredible. Still love it. The New Lost City Ramblers, all that stuff–that’s the stuff for me.” Bruton formed a bluegrass band, and ended up teaching himself mandolin and fiddle, as well. “No one played instruments,” he remembers. “I had to teach everybody how to play on my instruments–and then I’d go out and buy another one and learn how to play that.”

Upon graduating from high school, Bruton enrolled at Texas Christian University, hoping to stay out of Vietnam. There, he studied journalism, played as many gigs as he could get and continued to work at his father’s store. After college, he left Texas for Woodstock. “I wanted to play with Van Morrison,” he remembers. “He was in Woodstock. But the only time I ever saw him, he was getting his money out of the Ulster County Bank to move to San Francisco … as I was putting my only hundred dollars in.”

Bruton’s next brush with fame, however, turned out to be a bit more constructive. “I saw that Kris Kristofferson was playing at the Village Vanguard,” Bruton says. “I had met him several times before in Fort Worth. His songs had been doing really well, but I thought, I’ll go down and see Kris. I made my way in the middle of a storm, got down there, parked the car on some ice patch and opened the door right when he was opening it. He goes, ‘What are you doing here?’ And I said, ‘I just spent my last $2.50 coming down to see you.’ And he goes, ‘We just finished playing. Let’s go have a drink.’”

That beverage would jumpstart Bruton’s career and seal a relationship that lasts to this day. “That night, he said to me, ‘Are you interested in playing guitar?’ And I said, ‘Kris, that’s all I’m interested in.’ About three months later, he called me up and said, ‘What’ll it take to get you out to San Francisco?’ I said, ‘A hundred dollars and a new pair of boots.’” Upon buying his new boots, Bruton hit the road as Kristofferson’s guitarist.

“We’ve always had a good chemistry,” Kristofferson says of the partnership. “The first night he was on the road with me, we were staying at a place in Canada. Stephen got feeling sorry for the guy who was standing behind the desk, because, he said, he thought he was lonesome. He said, ‘We should each get fish costumes and carry two cans of spray paint to cheer him up.’ I thought, This guy is insane … but he’ll work!

In story after story, one thing becomes clear about Bruton’s life: He’s a magnet for chance encounters. “Me and Kris did the Merv Griffin Show in Philadelphia,” he says, “and John Raitt was on the TV show. He was saying, ‘You must meet my daughter, Bonnie. She’s a redheaded blues girl.’ And I’m going, Yeah, right! I’m from Fort Worth–there ain’t no redheaded blues girl! You can’t tell me anything.

Just a bit later, Bruton would have to eat those words, after Raitt had put out her acclaimed debut. “She opened the show for Kris–I was 21, she was 20,” he remembers of his future boss. “This is back in the old innocent days.… After it was over with, we all went back to our little Knotty Pine Motel, and I think me and Freebo and her watched black-and-white TV ‘til it went off at like 12:30, just talking about music–just kids.” (Raitt says of Bruton, “We’re soul mates as much for our shared history as our love of music, mischief and going deep.”)

A few years after he got the Kristofferson gig, he’d leave the singer-songwriter (by this time becoming a huge star) to begin a recording project with some other pals, Delbert McClinton and Glen Clark. “It was one those things,” Bruton explains. “It was fun–I went back home, and we were playing electric and not acoustic. But at the same time, man, I missed Kris and I missed everybody. The record deal that Delbert and Glen fell apart.”

Bruton soon found himself back home in Fort Worth, working, once again, at Record Town. A stroke of luck and an opening in Kristofferson’s camp brought him back on the road, right before the singer-songwriter began filming A Star Is Born. “I hated it when he quit the first time because he was going to play with Delbert,” Kristofferson remembers. “When he wanted to come back, I said ‘Hell, yeah!’”

And the road is where Bruton stayed, for pretty much two-and-a-half decades, playing guitars alongside songwriting greats and music heavy hitters. “When Kris and I would go to Nashville, we’d be at Roger Miller’s King of the Road Motel,” Bruton recalls. “My room was the party room. I walked into my room one night; there was Glen Campbell, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Kristofferson and Tom T. Hall–just a cloud of smoke and my guitar.”

Bruton would eventually grace studios and stages alongside Raitt, Little Feat, Lowell George, Bob Dylan, Geoff Muldaur, Leni Stern, Carly Simon and even Barbra Streisand.Bruton gets philosophical about his success as a sideman. “Playing guitar behind Kris Kristofferson or Bonnie–that’s when you’re getting into Zen,” Bruton says. “When they say something in two words, you better not step on it, but what you’ve got to come up with has got to move it. Years ago, I used to say I play ‘Zen guitar,’ because it wasn’t about chops. My job is to further what that song is doing.”

For many musicians, the story would end right here–continue to back up stars, play your theater and recording-studio dates, make a steady paycheck and get a nice house. But after years of backing up some of the country’s best songwriters, Bruton had a few of his own songs that he wanted to write and record.

And he’s lived up to the promise he made himself, releasing a handful of critically acclaimed blues and roots-rock records that boast heartfelt lyrics alongside stellar guitar tones. Much like the man himself, the tunes that Bruton writes (and co-writes with friends such as Kristofferson and Al Anderson) straddle that divide between Fort Worth blues-rock and Austin’s singer-songwriter scene. “He is seriously rooted in the tradition,” fellow musician Leni Stern says. “He’s like a musicologist but he gets one of the most beautiful tones. Very often you find guitar players who have a great sound, but not a feeling. He has it all. He’s a great poet.”

Bruton has also, almost by accident, become a record producer. He fortuitously ran into another singer-songwriter friend, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, just as the Flatlander was about to start recording After Awhile, his 1991 major-label debut. “I was in rehearsals, and Jimmie Dale was playing at the Bottom Line, I think. I went to see him. We were backstage, and he says, ‘Why don’t you produce my next record?’ And I went, ‘Well, gosh, Jimmie, have you ever heard anything I produced?’ I produced a couple little things, but that’s all.

“‘No, I just got a good vibe about it, man.’”

Since that auspicious hiring, Bruton has been tapped to produce several other albums, including the first three Alejandro Escovedo albums, the eye-opening Jimmie Dale Gilmore/Mudhoney collaboration (Buckskin Stallion Blues)and Marcia Ball’s recent Peace, Love & BBQ. He enjoys the challenges, and rewards, of the role.

“It was one of those things where you go from years of being on one side of the glass to being on the other side of the glass,” he says. “And there’s this enormous moment where you go, Oh, now I know why this guy did this. All of a sudden you have to make some really broad-stroke decisions.”

At his own studio, Bruton finds himself surrounded by friends of a different sort. There are guitars everywhere. The first couple that he pulls out even have nicknames: The ’58 Gibson 335 he loves is Sparky; one of his Dumble Overdrive Special amps is Honey O, and the other, also close by, is named Beautiful Sister. A PRS leans near John Monteleone’s 10th F-5 Master Model mandolin.

Bruton is a natural storyteller, and seemingly every guitar in his collection has a good tale behind it. Our conversation begins in the morning; by the evening, he’s A/B testing his Dumble amplifiers for me and arguing how ridiculous it’d be to buy a “clone” of an Alexander Dumble creation since they’re all so different. (After he shows me, quite loudly, just how different they are, I am convinced.)

He grabs a Chris Fleming-built Fender Custom Shop Esquire, plugs it in and exclaims, “I don’t know what Chris Fleming’s doing, but this kills me. It’s not thin; that’s not a thin-sounding instrument. That’s an Esquire that can take the paint off the walls.” He then sings the praises of the PRS McCarty that Bonnie Lloyd (of “Bonnie pink” fame, now working at Bourgeois Guitars) built for him. In nearly the same breath, he speaks just as highly about his Great Lakes Bill Keith model top-tension banjo and the Monteleone mandolin he got on trade years ago from Mandolin Brothers in New York.

But acoustic guitars, especially old acoustic guitars, really get Bruton excited. There’s a Gibson Super 400 that belonged to legendary Fort Worth musician J.B. Brinkley. The Epiphone Texan that survived his childhood (and many hazy hotel sessions with Kristofferson) is here–and still gets plenty of use–while a mid-‘20s Martin 000-42 sits out of its case. There’s a Gibson Roy Smeck (converted by Bill Asher for Spanish-style playing) along with a smaller-bodied, similarly sunburst, vintage 14-fret Gibson counterpart that he calls his “Baby Smeck.”

Also on hand is a Brazilian rosewood dreadnought (with Adirondack top) built by Earl S. Prince (another Fort Worth connection) in 1973, which boasts a gorgeous inlay that Bruton designed himself. “He was like a surrogate father to a lot of us kid musicians,” Bruton says of Prince. “He worked on Bob Wills’ and all of his band’s instruments, as well as Chet Atkins’ guitars that [Atkins] couldn’t get fixed in Nashville. He was top-notch. Before he died, he made two mandolins and 10 guitars. Mine is number 10.”

If you’re lucky enough to be his friend, Bruton might share some of his wares with you. “I was playing in Texas,” remembers Leni Stern, “and didn’t want to bring an amp–with all the airline stuff. Stephen said, ‘I can go out there with an amp.’ So I came to the gig and what did I find, but a Dumble 50-watt head with a 12” cabinet, with a rack with all kinds of guitars. I just felt like such a rock star! That was amazing.”

The raft of coveted guitars in Bruton’s studio is accompanied by some seriously offbeat choices. There are three Epiphone Recording guitars standing proudly on stands. Bruton grabs another oddball-shaped guitar, a Stromberg-Voisinet–the kind most players hang on the wall. “I think I bought it for $250,” he says. “It looks like an old Kay Kraft, but it’s not. It’s got mother-of-toilet-seat back and sides and fingerboard. It’s built like you could sit on it. But there’s a quality to that note that probably wasn’t there 30 years ago. It’s because it got dried out and it’s made out of toilet seat.”

He then enthusiastically grabs a Sovereign and a Sears Craftsman 11/16” socket and shows off his slide-guitar technique. “You start realizing that different instruments really do have different subtleties to them,” he says while playing. “I’ve told young guys starting out: ‘This is your guitar; this is your best friend; this is your shrink. This is the only girlfriend that won’t cheat on you. This is who you can go to in the middle of the night. It’s the one that you don’t play for a year, and she’s not going to be mad at you. Each one becomes kind of like a dog–a real section of your life.”

Bruton’s own life has had a lot more sections than most. After fighting throat cancer for a couple of years, the musician is now rejuvenated to take on new projects and record some new songs. He’s excited that he was tapped to play alongside Austin pals David Grissom and Eric Johnson on a recent Bobby Whitlock and CoCo Carmel album. He’s already planning a few trips back to L.A. to work on some sessions, and he’s beginning to think about songs for another solo album.

Bruton is also intent on improving his own playing. “I don’t want to be good,” he tries to explain. “That sounds silly to say, but the point of the matter is, if you’re not going for being good, what are you going for, man?”

Before I leave his studio late in the night, Bruton wants to show me some Ted Greene lessons, and commit to breakfast plans the next day. He has to be one of the nicest guitar virtuosos you’ll ever meet, and it’s easy to see why so many music luminaries want to play (and hang out) with him.

“I don’t want to be known as so-and-so’s guitar player,” Bruton reminds me. “It’s a wonderful thing to be said, but what you want to be known for is being who you are. I think you lead by example, in all aspects of your life.”