Music fans are likely familiar with T Bone Burnett for his behind-the-scenes work. He’s first and foremost a gifted record producer. The list of albums he’s orchestrated for other musicians, often contributing his own talents as a multi-instrumentalist, is extraordinary, among them the Counting Crows’s August and Everything After, the Wallflowers’ Bringing Down the Horse, and Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’s Raising Sand. Besides those standouts, he’s produced albums for B.B. King, Steve Earle, Elton John, Los Lobos, Elvis Costello, John Mellencamp, Gillian Welch, Tony Bennett, Willie Nelson, Roy Orbison—even Spinal Tap.
Still, others might know Burnett exclusively for his TV and movie soundtracks. He’s worked on three Coen Brothers films: The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?and Inside Llewyn Davis. Then there’s Crazy Heart and Walk the Line. Not to mention the TV series True Detective and Nashville, created by his second wife, Callie Khouri.
But what many people don’t know is that Burnett, an Oscar and Grammy winner, has had a brilliant solo career, spanning around a dozen releases since 1980. Bringing that to light was part of the inspiration for the new book T Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit, by the Chicago-based journalist Lloyd Sachs, who will host a talk at BookPeople on Saturday.
“In certain cases, T Bone was his own worst enemy in the studio on his own stuff,” Sachs says. “None of his albums were commercially successful, and I think he really wanted to be considered among the Jackson Brownes and Warrens Zevons of the singer-songwriter generation. And a lot of times his self-consciousness got to him. On the production end of it, he would just play with the stuff and he wouldn’t leave it alone.”
Burnett did not make himself available for the book but Sachs, who has written extensively for the Chicago Sun-Times and No Depression and has a previous book titled American Country: Bluegrass, Honky Tonk and Crossover Sounds, has interviewed him in the past. Each of the chapters in T Bone Burnett, published by the University of Texas Press, addresses a different identity of the enigmatic subject.
This includes Burnett as Svengali to his first wife, the singer-songwriter Sam Phillips, as she transitioned from a Christian to a secular musician. The book also refers to Burnett as a “Dylanologist,” because of his shared history with Bob Dylan, from playing guitar in Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour in ’75 and ’76 to recording Dylan songs on Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes, in 2014. Then there’s Burnett’s life as an activist, fighting against licensing legislation and advocating for musicians to get their proper monetary dues.
T Bone Burnett was born Joseph Henry Burnett III in St. Louis, in 1948, but he grew up in Fort Worth. As a teenager during the British Invasion, he gravitated to the Beatles because they experimented with sounds. He was also a blues hound, scarfing down Jimmy Reed and Muddy Waters. Perhaps his biggest influence, though, was his childhood schoolmate and friend Stephen Bruton, best known for playing in Kris Kristofferson’s band. Bruton was a guitar whiz whose skills informed Burnett’s.
“T Bone’s guitar playing tends to get overlooked, because it’s not about flashy solos,” Sachs says, “It’s all about feel, rhythmic feel. He’s got Texas blues seeped into his system.”
The impact Bruton had on Burnett extended to Bruton’s dad, who owned a record store called Record Town. At the store, Burnett got hip to arcane acts like the pre-blues singer Dock Boggs, whose song “Oh Death” would become a lynchpin for the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, which was a hugely influential album that more or less birthed the Americana genre. The two old friends would pair up again later in life, when Bruton was gravely ill, to collaborate on songs for Crazy Heart.
After graduating from Paschal High School, Burnett attended Texas Christian University for a spell, where he was in the ROTC, but dropped out to start working as a producer at Sound City, also in Fort Worth. He plucked the Legendary Stardust Cowboy off the streets and recorded his novelty hit “Paralyzed.” He also helmed the cult album The Unwritten Works of Geoffrey, Etc., by the psych-folk band Whistler, Chaucer, Detroit and Greenhill. (A former member of the group, David Bullock, will join Sachs in discussion at BookPeople.) These early experiences laid the foundation for the singular approach Burnett adopted later in his career as a producer.
“He makes everybody incredibly comfortable, and he doesn’t push his ideas on anyone,” Sachs says. “He actually sets up the studio in a kind of living room setting where he brings in couches and soft chairs and soft lamps and just creates this environment. He has some special incense that he burns too—some Peruvian incense that supposedly has great properties.”
Burnett eventually moved to Los Angeles, where in 1972 he released his first solo album, The B-52 Band & the Fabulous Skylarks, under J. Henry Burnett. A couple of years later he went on tour with Dylan. After that he formed the Alpha Band, featuring fellow players in Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue. The Alpha Band had a religious sensibility that would inhabit Burnett’s future work. In 1980, under the now well-known moniker T Bone Burnett, he released Truth Decay, which many consider his proper debut. With a combination of blues, folk, and country, Burnett served up parables and tales of personal struggles.
“Early on there was a certain religious underpinning to a lot of his stuff,” Sachs says. “He was kind of tagged a born-again artist, which is oversimplified and really probably not accurate. But there’s a definite spiritual drive to the songs he wrote, which had in many cases to do with belief and the difficulties of that life.”
As time wore on, elements of noir, spawned by the works of the mystery writers Raymond Chandler and James Ellroy, pervaded Burnett’s work. And surrealism and biting social commentary in his lyrics became the standard. However, an exception to that is his eponymous 1986 album. Stripped down and recorded over a few days in an all-acoustic setting with some Nashville session players, the album features Burnett singing from the heart. Songs like “River of Love” showcase Burnett’s ability to deliver deeply felt songs of his own.
“I wanted to expose this side of his talent that a lot of people weren’t aware of, even as they were proclaiming him one of the great geniuses of modern music,” Sachs says. “There are just so many dimensions to him.”
BookPeople, April 1, 2 p.m., bookpeople.com