O Hyphen Where Art Thou?
From the press release packet for Twenty Twenty: The Essential T Bone Burnett:
“PLEASE NOTE: The correct spelling of the artist’s name at this point in his career is ‘T Bone Burnett’. No hyphen between ‘T’ and ‘Bone’.”
Everyone’s still going to use the hyphen, though. Why? Because that’s what we remember. On the back of the mega-selling Grammy-winning soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou?, we clearly see that the album was produced by “T-Bone Burnett.” That hyphen also appeared on the ballots for the 2003 Best Original Song Oscar, when he was nominated for co-writing “The Scarlet Tide” for the film Cold Mountain, as sung by Alison Krauss. This is also the way his name appeared in the credits for the classic pop albums he produced, like the Counting Crows’ August and Everything After and the Wallflowers’ Bringing Down the Horse. The hyphen, ultimately, is irrelevant, as the name is the same: T Bone Burnett – one of the most talented music producers living today.
So what’s the deal with the death of the hyphen?
It seems that Burnett is moving into a new phase of his career. With Grammys, an Oscar nomination, and a wealth of acclaim at his side, he’s launching his solo career … for a second time. The truth is, Burnett started out as a critically acclaimed singer-songwriter, releasing material with his group, the Alpha Band, and then a staggering seven (!) solo albums (eight if you count his Trap Door EP) between 1972 and 1992. As great as critical acclaim is, one can’t make a living off it, as his solo career was not a great source of income. He only had one charting album (1983’s Proof Through the Night peaked on the pop charts at #188), and no charting singles. Producing not only brought him acclaim, but a steady income as well. Corresponding with the release of his new solo LP (The True False Identity), the Twenty Twenty compilation is a two-disc overview of the career of a man whose solo output has been criminally neglected … until now.
As the collection opens with the alien-invasion rocker “Humans From Earth”, you realize early on that Burnett isn’t easy to file into any category. Though a majority of the songs are still based in the expected roots-rock style he’s famous for producing, it’s his more pop-oriented songs that work the best, even the joking pop cover of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend”, not sounding out of place on late-‘80s Top 40 radio. Truth be told, there are only a few clunkers, like the Sun Records-styled “Driving Wheel”, which – though stylistically dead-on – has absolutely pedestrian lyrics (“All I want / Is a driving wheel / All ‘round love / My ideal”). Some songs are fairly drab (“East of East”), but these are few and far between.
The highlights are so abundant and so very different from each other, it’s almost overwhelming. “Hula Hoop” features hammered dulcimer work, ritualistic backing vocals, and a Hawaiian slide-guitar over Burnett’s gritty-fun lyrics. Pure pop-radio pandering like “I Wish You Could Have Seen Her Dance” is lifted by a unique and funny character study (“I asked ‘Are you an actress?’ / She said, ‘No, but don’t you think I’m good enough?’ / She said, ‘You look like you belong on Monty Python, Eric Idle’”). Curveballs come in the form of songs like “Image”, featuring a small orchestra, accordions, and multiple opera singers. When you contrast that with from-the-heart voice-and-guitar exercises (like the gorgeous “Over You”), you realize that you’re in for a treat, rubbing up next to folk (“After All These Years”), New Orleans blues (“Man Don’t Wrong Your Woman”), genuine country (“Kill Switch” – the most O Brother-like song on here), and unabashed Top 40 pop (“Trap Door”, with the brilliant opening zinger, “It’s a funny thing about humility / As soon as you know you’re being humble / You’re no longer humble”). One could go on and on about other surprises, like the Elvis Costello duet (“The People’s Limousine”) or the last song that ever had Roy Orbison listed with a writer credit (“Kill Zone”), but the best idea is just to buy the album and find out these joys for yourself.
Though it’s impossible to say if his new LP will live up to the rest of his criminally underrated solo career, it almost doesn’t matter: retrospectives are rarely this good, this surprising, or just flat-out fun. It doesn’t matter if you know any of the songs: hyphen or not, good music is simply good music. Here’s to a career that’s been full of it.