[29 May 2008]
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
The man born Joseph Henry Burnett - better known as T Bone - has been busy the last few years.
The Fort Worth-raised Burnett earns his keep as an in-demand, award-winning producer; before 2008 is done he will have worked with John Mellencamp, B.B. King, Elvis Costello and the Who.
“I’ve been working hard, man,” Burnett says, laughing.
He’s also touring with Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, whose stunning collaboration “Raising Sand” was one of 2007’s best records.
When the 60-year-old Burnett is not putting his stamp on the work of others, he finds the time to further his own recording career. His latest solo effort - the dark, cerebral “Tooth of Crime” - hits store shelves earlier this month.
We talked by phone to Burnett, who was in Chattanooga, Tenn., a stop on the ongoing “Raising Sand” world tour. He chatted about “Tooth of Crime,” his musical background and his quest for “pure sound.”
You worked on “Tooth of Crime” for several years - can you take me through the project’s origins?
I wanted it to somehow be of a piece with the (Sam Shepard) play it came from. Hopefully, it tells a little bit of the story. ... I think it was about `96, Sam called up and said he’d re-written the play and wanted me to write some new songs for it. I moved to New York for four, five months and worked with Sam. ... Things kept getting moved around (and) by the end of the process, I had a lot of material recorded but there was nothing cohesive about it, so it took 10 years of going back and sorting through things.
What do you feel you bring to the table as a producer?
I bring a lot of experience, I have to say. I have absolutely the best sound team in the world, by light years. It’s like (the TV series) “Monster Garage,” we can take anything and make it sound like anything. ... These guys work so hard - not that I don’t work hard (laughs) - and I’ve tried to make records myself, so I can empathize with what they’re going through as artists.
With all the various projects you’re involved in, what is it exactly that you’re looking for?
These days, I’ve gone into a world of pure sound. With Robert and Alison, what I was looking for (was) what we could do with their voices. They obviously have two of the great(est) voices of anybody living - they open their mouths and the sounds they make are so evocative and chilling, really, I knew I had these extraordinary instruments to front the thing. ... Also, I’ve been reacting to digital sound for 20 years - I’ve just begun to really conquer it. Digital sound has been problematic, because it was a massive downgrade from the analog sound we had previously.
So is it fair to say that atmosphere is a crucial element for you?
I would call it “place.” I wouldn’t use the word “atmosphere” exactly, but the answer’s yes, atmosphere’s completely important to me. When I’m listening to a piece of music, I want to feel like I’m sitting in the room with the musicians, and I can almost see where I am and I can see them (and it) evokes some sense of place.
Speaking of “place,” a lot of musicians are returning to the lost art of cutting albums live. As a proponent of the practice, are you glad it’s coming back?
Everything we do is like that. When I was a kid (in Fort Worth), there was a place out on the Jacksboro Highway called the Skyliner Ballroom that Jack Ruby owned. I used to go out there and hear music - that’s where I first heard music. I heard Ike and Tina Turner out there recording live. It was deeply arousing, to say the least. One of the things I realized is that the sound of that room affected me so profoundly that every record I’ve made since has essentially been trying to reproduce the sound I heard at the Skyliner back in 1963 or whatever.
After all you’ve accomplished, what keeps pushing you forward?
I’m still on this quest - this sonic quest to find the grail - to find the thing, to make the record that does for me or does for other people what hearing Jimmy Reed did to me when I was 15. (American painter) Barnett Newman said “Time washes over the tip of the pyramid.” I want to make things that sit right on the very tip of the pyramid.