Author Archives: Lloyd Sachs

“I WANTED TO EXPOSE A 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” – LLOYD SACHS, AUTHOR OF T BONE BURNETT: A LIFE IN PURSUIT, TALKING TO TEXAS MONTHLY

A BONE TO PICK

A NEW BOOK ON THE LEGENDARY PRODUCER REVEALS A PERFORMER WITH CHOPS OF HIS OWN.

MARCH 31, 2017 by  

T Bone Burnett at the 17th Annual Americana Music Festival and Conference in 2016, in Nashville.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ANNA WEBBER/GETTY IMAGES FOR AMERICANA MUSIC

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 Depressionand 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 Burnett opening for the Who at the International Ampitheater on October 5, 1982, in Chicago.

PHOTOGRAPH BY PAUL NATKIN/WIREIMAGE

“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 (right) with Elvis Costello (left) at McCabe’s Guitar Shop, in Santa Monica, California, in 1984.

PHOTOGRAPH BY SHERRY RAYN BARNETT

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

L.A. AND AUSTIN CHEER “T BONE BURNETT: A LIFE IN PURSUIT”

Embarking on a whirlwind tour of the West Coast and South Coast, Lloyd Sachs presented his biography of music legend T Bone Burnett to enthusiastic crowds at Book Soup in Hollywood and BookPeople in Austin. The latter stop was highlighted by an appearance by David Bullock, onetime member of Whistler, Chaucer, Detroit and Greenhill, whom Burnett produced in his Sound City studio in the late ’60s.

Bullock’s lively commentary included a little-known tidbit: The cover of the group’s cult album, The Unwritten Works of Geoffrey, Etc. (coveted by drummer Lane on Gilmore Girls) , was taken by design student Guy Clark – who, with only three members of the ad hoc band present, inserted himself into the frame as the fourth player! This was before he began writing songs, on his way to legendary status.

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David Bullock and Lloyd Sachs at BookPeople

Those in attendance at the Book Soup event included film producer and T Bone collaborator Albert Berger, who first worked with Burnett on Cold Mountain; A&R and music publicity icon and writer Bill Bentley, who worked at Slash and Warner Bros. during the post-punk era that spawned Los Lobos and Burnett’s Trap Door EP; documentary makers Annika Iltis and Timothy Kane (The Barkley Marathons:The Race That Eats Its Young), and actor and Hollywood Beauty Detective creator Holly Fulger.

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Lloyd Sachs at Book Soup

Talking T Bone in L.A. and Austin

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Lloyd Sachs will talk about the writing of T Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit, sign copies and read from it at two great bookstores. On March 30 at 7 PM, he’ll be at BookSoup in Hollywood, not far from Burnett’s West Coast manse. And on April 1 at 2 PM, he’ll be at BookPeople in Austin, Texas. There will be musical surprises – details to come. Come on out and hear about one of the great figures in American culture.

AUTHOR LLOYD SACHS CHATS UP “T BONE BURNETT: A LIFE IN PURSUIT” ON MILWAUKEE PUBLIC RADIO’S “LAKE EFFECT” AND APPEARS AT BOSWELL BOOKS

Talking T Bone at the fantastic Boswell Books in Milwaukee, Lloyd Sachs was joined by ace rockers John Sieger and Mike Hoffmann of Semi-Twang. They performed Burnett’s “River of Love” and Sieger’s “The Strangest Kind,” recorded by the BoDeans on their Burnett-produced Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams.

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JOHN SIEGER

Sachs was interviewed on “Lake Effect” by co-host Bonnie North. “It wouldn’t be difficult to play a six degrees game with T Bone,” Sachs told her. “He really has rubbed up against so many artists in one way or another.”

To hear the program, which features John Sieger, go here.

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BONNIE NORTH

The Talking T Bone caravan continues in late March in Los Angeles and Austin. Details to follow!

NO DEPRESSION CHOOSES LLOYD SACHS’ “T BONE BURNETT: A LIFE IN PURSUIT” AS ONE OF THE TOP 10 MUSIC BOOKS OF 2016

From Henry Carrigan’s article: “Lloyd Sachs’ critical appreciation of T Bone Burnett pulls us in with a magnetic force, or, better, like a fisherman pulling in a catch that’s bigger than life.”

Read the piece in its entirety here.

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A strong review for Lloyd Sachs’ “T Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit” from Glide Magazine

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‘T BONE BURNETT A LIFE IN PURSUIT’ BY LLOYD SACHS (BOOK REVIEW)

December 1, 2016 by Doug Collette

Lloyd Sachs adopts just the right tone in his book on the life and times of eccentric genius T Bone Burnett. Writing A Life in Pursuit, the author remains ever cognizant of his subject’s idiosyncratic tendencies in both his personal life and his work. And, also knowing full well Burnett’s penchant for high-minded philosophical declarations, the author maintains a healthy detachment from the topics under discussion even with regular insertions of his own his well-considered opinions.

As a result Sachs’ book flows from the very start and maintains an infectious readable quality virtually throughout. His plain-spoken language acts as a catalyst to personal and artistic elements in discussion, directly or indirectly about Burnett, such as his taste(s) in recordings of his own and other artists. Thus, Sachs generates an indiscernibly fast pace through T Bone’s formative years, where he was equally enamored of roots music and the Beatles, to apocryphal phases right up to nearly modern times. Burnett’s period in Bob Dylan’s ‘Rolling Thunder Review, for instance, comes along before the reader realizes how much ground Sachs has covered.

There is a stall of sorts, however, as the author moves through the busy period where Burnett alternates efforts to generate momentum as a recording artist under his own name while producing others to essentially pay the bills. As with his own records, particularly early in his career, T Bone often opts to collaborate with those like (eventual) wife Sam Phillips or the singular Joe Henry, both of whom who are either on the outs with a label or choosing an obviously esoteric artistic path in an almost willful decision to maintain aesthetic purity at the sacrifice of commercial success. Kindred spirits indeed!

During this segment of A Life in Pursuit, the title takes on a new meaning or at least lends itself to a more broad interpretation. It’s almost as if the phrase reverses itself and, instead of T- Bone Burnett in pursuit, he is in fact the one being pursued, whether by his own personal demons, the hell-hounds of blues lore or, as he might himself consider, predators in the form of business leaders within the industries he chooses to work. It’s perhaps a reflection of Lloyd Sachs’ affinity with his subject that his immersion (and subsequent dissections) of Burnett’s work, such as The True False Identity, mirrors his subject’s devotion to his art and craft. But an extended interval of chapters, perhaps not coincidentally, appearing around “Hit Man,” consists of little more than record reviews, albeit discerning ones: Sachs is notably up to date in not only placing the albums in proper artistic perspective, but he also takes time to notes which titles have been reissued on CD since their original vinyl release.

By the time A Life in Pursuit is over, it might be difficult for more than a few readers to find T Bone Burnett a sympathetic figure. His doubts about his own worth as a recording artist sound hollow in the wake of his prodigious success as a producer–the soundtrack to O Brother Where Art Thou? Is just the first in a string of them–while his his disdain for the marketplace sounds particularly disingenuous when he engages in a bitter dismissal of the internet as a means of circulating music; there’s no doubting his well-schooled value judgment of sound quality, but it’s somewhat telling, particularly in the divergent perceptions of him as a collaborator, that his own pursuit of high fidelity in the form of CODE, comes to a quick and abrupt end.

At this juncture in the book, via lofty statements about the nature of art in society vis a vis commerce, Lloyd Sachs almost, but not quite, becomes an apologist for T Bone In fact, as he recounts Burnett’s series cinematic collaborations, it’s almost as if the writer is campaigning on behalf of his subject. With just cursory review of the cumulative effect of all he’s recounted of Burnett’s work to this point, neither he nor T Bone have anything to be embarrassed about—in purely objective terms, quite the contrary.

So, bringing in a string of references to movie history and literary allusions seems, at best, a stretch of the objectivity of this pedigreed contributor to Rolling Stone and Downbeat, among other highly-regarded publications. At worst, it’s a stance of pure pretension, but that’s no greater a blemish than some minor factual errors within the two-hundred sixty pages: the thought arises, again, that the author’s mirroring his subject’s eclectic interests and passions. In that light, Lloyd Sachs’ take Burnett’s work on soundtracks might rightly be interpreted as the latter’s own self-styled movie cum music projects, where he is producer, director and participant, with a cast of his own choosing and a script molded from his choices of material.

Very early in A Life in Pursuit, Lloyd Sachs mentions of Kris Kristofferson as means of introducing musician/composer Stephen Bruton as a long-time creative partner of T Bone Burnett’s and by the time the author concludes his account of his subject’s ‘non-career,’ some lines from another song by the writer of “Me and Bobby McGee,” (“The Pilgrim – Chapter 33,”) seem to accurately encapsulate the subject of this contemporary biography: ‘he’s a walking contradiction… partly truth and partly fiction…’ Whether or not T Bone Burnett ever resolves (at least some of) his contradictions, beginning with full authorization to Sachs for an updated version of this book, would seem to be fodder ripe for an updated edition.

Chicago’s WGN and WDCB are the latest radio outlets to join in on the discussion of Lloyd Sachs’ acclaimed “T Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit”

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Author Lloyd Sachs discussed what MOJO (in a four-star review) called a “definitive” book about legendary producer and songwriter Burnett, with WGN’s Dave Hoekstra on “Nocturnal Journal” and WDCB’s Brian O’Keefe on “The Arts Section.”

Go here to listen to “Nocturnal Journal.”

Go here to listen to “The Arts Section.”

“T Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit” highlighted on Shelf Awareness

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IMAGE OF THE DAY: TALKING T BONE

Bookends and Beginnings, Evanston, Ill., hosted author and music critic Lloyd Sachs (r.) in conversation with Henry Carrigan, contributor to the American roots music magazine No Depression, about Sachs’s new book, T Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit (University of Texas Press).

“A MUCH-NEEDED CRITICAL BIOGRAPHY OF AN INFLUENTIAL ARTIST BY A SUPERIOR CRITIC OF THE GENRE” – LIBRARY JOURNAL, STARRED REVIEW OF LLOYD SACHS’ “T BONE BURNETT: A LIFE IN PURSUIT”

Sachs_6438_F16Reviews don’t come any better than this:

“Record producer, singer/songwriter, and film and television soundtrack designer -Burnett’s work has influenced and in some ways defined American music in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Longtime popular music critic Sachs, whose outstanding work in the alt-country magazine No Depression deserves its own volume, tells Burnett’s story and deftly analyzes his output in this work. The account is filled with such -Burnett milestones as his Grammy Award-winning soundtrack for the Coen Brothers film O Brother, Where Art Thou? and collaborations with Jakob Dylan, Bob Dylan, Los Lobos, Sam Phillips, and Counting Crows. Written without Burnett’s participation, the book is nonetheless authoritative. Appendixes annotating his frequent collaborators and a select discography are invaluable. Sachs’s coverage of Burnett’s film and television work details his methods and astutely evaluates his achievements in these media. A particular highlight is the author’s consideration of his subject’s contributions to the HBO series True Detective. VERDICT A much-needed critical biography of an influential artist by a superior critic of the genre.-John Frank, Los Angeles P.L.

LLOYD SACHS DISCUSSES “T BONE BURNETT: A LIFE IN PURSUIT” ON TEXAS PUBLIC RADIO AND CHICAGO STATION WLUW

Here the entirety of Sachs’ conversation with David Martin Davies, host of “Texas Matters,” which originated on KSTX San Antonio, here

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Sachs also talked T Bone with host Michael James on “Live from the Heartland” on Loyola University station WLUW.

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