If you had to pick a turning point in T-Bone Burnett’s remarkable 40-year-career, it was Feb. 27, 2002 - the night the 6-foot-6 producer ambled onstage at the Grammys to accept the trophy for “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” which had won for album of the year.
Before that night, he was fed up with money-grubbing music executives telling him how to do his job. After “O Brother,” he was suddenly free to do as he pleased.
“Nobody says anything to me anymore,” Burnett says with a laugh. “And if they do say something, I just ignore them.”
Such are the perks when your odd little soundtrack of old-time Americana sells 7 million albums and beats U2 for Grammy’s top award.
Since then, Burnett, 60, has cherry-picked projects with artists who hate to compromise almost as much as he does, such as Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, whose “Raising Sand” CD he produced.
Artists flock to him not because he’s a proven hit-maker - he isn’t - but for the way he cuts through to find the soul of a song.
“Everything he does sounds organic,” says Cary Pierce of Jackopierce, the Dallas band Burnett produced in the mid-‘90s.
“He’s almost Zen, like a safecracker,” says singer Peter Case. “But he also has this incredible enthusiasm where anything can happen. He’s constantly surprising himself.”
It’s an apt description for a man whose life has been a series of unexpected twists and turns.
Joseph Henry Burnett grew up in Fort Worth and stumbled upon an old Gibson guitar at a friend’s house when he was 9. Fifty years later, he remembers the moment with spiritual clarity.
“I hit the E string and I knew,” he says by phone from the Nashville stop of the “Raising Sand” tour.
“I don’t know what I knew. But it was an alchemy that changed my chemistry. I know that sounds pretty ‘California.’ But it did.”
While going to Paschal High School, he formed Loose Ends with future Texas music ace Stephen Bruton. The band needed a recording studio, so 17-year-old T Bone (a childhood nickname) and three buddies put together $20,000 and bought one. Just like that, a producer was born.
In the late ‘60s, Burnett cut records with countless acts, from Betty Buckley to Conway Twitty.
Some of the performers stumbled into his studio after gigs at Panther Hall. “These country musicians would drink a lot of whiskey, take a lot of speed, and want to stay up all night. They’d need a place to do it, so they’d end up at my studio,” he says.
In 1970, Burnett moved to Los Angeles to write songs and produce records, but wound up the proverbial starving artist.
“I was completely broke,” he says. “My roommate was a wedding musician, and he’d bring home wedding cake and we’d eat cake for three or four days.”
Eventually, he snared a record deal and released the 1972 LP “The B-52 Band & the Fabulous Skylarks.” It went nowhere fast, which was just fine with the stage-shy musician.
“I had no desire to be a public performer,” he says. “I wanted to be Burt Bacharach and write songs and do music for movies.”
Yet the spotlight kept chasing him. By chance, he met Bob Dylan’s pal Bob Neuwirth, which led to a guitar-playing job on Dylan’s 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue - a rock ‘n’ roll circus starring everyone from Joni Mitchell to playwright Sam Shepard.
Sporting aviator goggles and a lasso, the 27-year-old Burnett got swept up in the madness of the tour: “He has a peculiar quality of craziness about him,” Shepard wrote in 1978’s “Rolling Thunder Logbook.”
Today, Burnett remembers the revue as “a master class in life and art. I’ve lived the rest of my life on the fuel I got from the tour, and I learned a really important lesson from Bob: He did not look back, regardless of the consequences.”
Next, he formed the Alpha Band and signed to Arista Records, where Clive Davis inexplicably dubbed the group “the next Beatles.” But Alpha-mania wasn’t in the cards. The band split in 1979, and Burnett’s own career was soon eclipsed by his behind-the-scenes work.
He produced some of the best albums of the 1980s, including Elvis Costello’s “King of America” and “How Will the Wolf Survive?” for Los Lobos. In 1989, he married one of his clients, singer Sam Phillips (they divorced in 2004).
The ‘90s brought him to a crossroads. He’d produced multimillion-selling CDs for Counting Crows and the Wallflowers, but record-label bigwigs who couldn’t carry a tune kept telling Burnett how that tune should sound.
“You’d work for six months and, at the end of the process, they’d say ‘There are only two good songs on this record,’ when you knew full well there were 10 good songs.”
So he quit making records for a while until filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: total creative freedom. He produced the music for the Coens’ “O Brother” and “The Ladykillers,” which led to work on “Cold Mountain” and “Walk the Line.”
“Working in movies opened up a whole new way of being a musician for me,” he says. His approach - mixing old recordings with brand-new songs - is like “conjuring up a believable but nonexistent past. It’s a tremendous amount of fun.”
Invigorated, he revived his long-dormant solo career with 2006’s brilliantly creepy “True False Identity.” In May, he put out “Tooth of Crime,” an album of songs based on Sam Shepard’s play of the same name.
But his best-known production of late is “Raising Sand” by the odd couple of Plant and Krauss. Burnett’s stark, dark production is a key reason for its success, but in typical fashion, he gives all the credit to the stars.
“Alison’s one of the most beautiful singers I’ve heard, and Robert’s an incredible singer, too, which people don’t realize,” he says.
For the first time since the ‘90s, his plate is filled with jobs unrelated to movie production, including upcoming CDs by B.B. King, John Mellencamp and the Who. The difference between now and then is he only produces albums where there’s no meddling from record labels and no expectations of a gold album.
After all, he’s not King Midas - he’s just a guy “trying to make good records.”
“Making money isn’t an appropriate goal for making music,” he says. “If you want to print money, buy a printing press, not a guitar. The guitar is the wrong tool for that.”
// Notes from the Road
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