Author Archives: Lloyd Sachs



On Books
Life in Pursuit: Author’s take on T Bone Burnett
By Philip Martin

It used to be, in the ’60s, when people said that all [rock ‘n’ roll] music sounded alike, they were wrong. But now, when people say that, they’re right. That’s because it all comes out of a big machine, and everybody uses the same machine.”
— T Bone Burnett, April 2001

Well, I got the Bruce Springsteen book.

It’s, um, really good: generous, humane and honest. The guy can write. He’s sounded the human heart. It’s exactly what I expected it to be.

But it’s No. 1 on the best-seller lists and has been heavily reviewed already. I’d rather take my time and read it. Other people have used words I’d probably use. “Solemn” is one. “Tender” is another. That’s what Richard Ford said — and that’s why I try never to read reviews before I write my own.

Besides, sometimes it’s wise to counter-program. Not nearly as many people have heard of Lloyd Sachs’ new book T Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit (University of Texas, $26.95) as Springsteen’s Born to Run, but it might be argued that Burnett is nearly as important in American culture as the Boss.

A case can be made for Burnett as one of the founders of the Americana movement and he has produced some of the most compelling and profound (yes, profound) pop music of the past 40 years. He may be best known for his work in producing the soundtrack for the Coen brothers’ 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou? (which is widely credited with restarting the American roots music movement). Just as impressively he helped the Coens capture the feeling of the pre-Bob Dylan Greenwich Village folk scene in 2013’s Inside Llewyn Davis.

He’s also a tremendously effective singer-songwriter, although he has never achieved the commercial success that some (including me) predicted for him. Over the past 35 years I’ve talked to Burnett a few times and have written plenty about him; I consider myself well-versed in his story. But Sachs’ book — which covers Burnett’s career from his days as a 17-year-old with his own studio in Fort Worth (where he was one of the co-conspirators behind the Legendary Stardust Cowboy) to his recent work for HBO and his problems with digitalized music — told me plenty I didn’t know.

So I contacted the Chicago-based Sachs to have a conversation about the book.

Q. While you address this in the book, can you talk about why you thought this book was necessary?

A. For starters, no one previously had written a book about one of the major figures in American popular culture of the past few decades. I also was increasingly impatient with the large percentage of self-professed fans who were unaware of his distinguished work as a singer and songwriter. I mean, when a club owner friend in Chicago who butters his bread with roots artists confessed to me that he didn’t know T Bone had recorded his own music, I knew there was at least one compelling reason to write the book.

Q. A friend of mine knew and recorded with “Terry” Burnett in Fort Worth in the ’60s. He says that the young T Bone was a completely formed and nonimitative musician by the time he was 19 and that he had no illusions about the marketplace or pop music’s role in it. (Apparently he used to lecture starry-eyed idealists.) This wised-up character seems a little at odds with the 68-year-old T Bone, who expresses an unalloyed belief in the transformative power of art. (“He was so much older then …”) Does this seem to jibe with the Burnett you know?

A. I don’t see those two outlooks/approaches as opposing, and neither does Burnett. Like Alfred Hitchcock, to name a visionary in another field, Burnett recognizes that the lines that get drawn between “art” and “entertainment” are flimsy. The greatest art can appeal to the commercial masses and the greatest entertainment can rise to the level of art. Burnett got into trouble when he compromised and in some ways overcalculated his work in the studio to make it more salable — only to achieve no such commercial breakthroughs. As discussed in the book, he was far more successful making other artists, the ones he produced, successful.

Q. Around the time O Brother was coming out, Burnett told me he was moving away from producing in order to concentrate on his own songwriting and recording. While he never obtained the kind of breakthrough success as a performer that he sought, I wonder if he hasn’t actually been more influential behind the scenes; there are literally dozens of records I think of as T Bone Burnett records.

A. Yeah, I have never thought of [2007’s] Raising Sand as a Robert Plant-Alison Krauss album; without his contribution it would have been a far different album, and likely a less remarkable and successful one. As great a talent as [Burnett’s ex-wife, singer] Sam Phillips is, obviously her contribution on her [Virgin] recordings is inseparable from his. Who knows? Maybe she would have been more commercially successful with another producer, but likely at the cost of several masterpieces.

It’s hard to gauge influence. I can say with great certainty that Joe Henry would not have become the distinguished producer he is had he not been mentored by Burnett. Henry himself says as much. But there are any number of artists who have done their best work with Burnett and chosen not to work with him again — or, as in the case of BoDeans, learned their lesson and attempted to return to the T Bone fold. You know, if Diana Krall was so happy with the album she did with him, why did she subsequently run into the arms of one of the slickest Hollywood producers for her follow-up record?

What Burnett represented and represents still to many so-called roots artists is the gold standard of authenticity. The last thing they’re going to get working with him is compromised or taken out of their natural element. Some of his experiments don’t translate into commercial success, but for artists like Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Gillian Welch, pushing the envelope with him in the studio was a valuable and enriching experience.

Q. I’ve only seen T Bone play live once — he played a show with Phillips at Hendrix College and it was tremendous, though under-rehearsed; there was some confusion over who would sing what parts. But I’ve heard conflicting reports — he’s been described as a terrific showman and as suffering from stage fright.

A. Burnett is never comfortable appearing before the public in any guise. And that excess in his early performances likely was a matter of overcompensating for his shyness. But as he has matured, he has thrived as a performer in the company of musicians he’s close to and as the leader of a rock band. He just played the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco, which he does every year. I would love to have seen those sets.

Q. Production aside — and I rather like the way it sounds, possibly because it’s what I heard first — Burnett’s 1983 album Proof Through the Night is at least a great collection of great songs. “Shut It Tight,” “Fatally Beautiful” and “Baby Fall Down” are just wonderful and even something like “Hefner and Disney” still manages to hold my interest 33 years on. I honestly think it’s one of the best records of the ’80s — and I don’t really understand why he seems to dislike it so much. You touch on this in the book, but can you expand on it?

A. Who can explain why certain artists are perpetually dissatisfied with efforts other people embrace, the way you and others embraced Proof? Why does Spielberg feel the need to tweak, re-edit or add footage to films that were perfectly fine in their original theatrical release? In this case, a lot of his dissatisfaction may owe to the fact that he didn’t have control of the finished work and was at the mercy of studio executives who had no clue what was best for the music. Keep in mind that the album started out as more of an acoustic live-in-the-studio effort along the lines of his 1986 Dot album T Bone Burnett, which some people hold above all others. In the end, you have to go with what T Bone himself said about the album, that he was unhappy with the production, particularly certain cloying echo-ey effects.

Q. Reading the book, I got the feeling Burnett was sitting right beside you — not interfering, and being helpful to a point — as the book unspooled. It must have been strange not to interview him for the project. While I’ve always believed you should trust the work more than the artist, do you have any feeling as to why he preferred to demur? He’s a fascinating talker, and as far as I know, he has never been microphone shy.

A. Yeah, that’s the $64,000 question. Having interviewed him several times and been in his company on other occasions, I can attest to his warmth and charm. I have to believe what Sam said: that he is skittish taking a backward view of his life and work at a time when he has got so much yet to accomplish and a diminishing amount of time to do it.

Q. The concept of pursuit — as reflected in the book’s title — is really wonderful. Can you delineate the difference between a pursuit and a career?

A. I wouldn’t presume to speak for Burnett, but the way I view it is that a pursuit is open and endless and continually [self-] renewing, true to the Zen concept mentioned in the introduction. You exist in the moment, in constant pursuit of truth and other high ideals. Whereas a career is defined by events that largely exist in the past and are viewed in terms that don’t have anything to do with the spiritual/creative flow that produced them.

Q. Much of the book deals with the seismic shifting of options for those trying to be heard and possibly sell their music in today’s market. Are there any new successful models Burnett’s observed in his research and experience?

A. On a panel at this year’s AmericanaFest, he said he’s working on a new storage system that will provide a breakthrough alternative to analog and digital; he wasn’t yet at liberty to discuss, he said.

He has a new video series coming on Spotify, an interesting wrinkle considering his warnings to young musicians to avoid the internet like the plague. He reserves his animosity for YouTube and Google.

Source: Life in Pursuit: Author’s take on T Bone Burnett


Lloyd Sachs, onetime voice of “Sachs and the Cinema” on Chicago’s long-running alternative rock station WXRT, joined old pals Marty Lennartz and Bill Cochran to discuss his book “T Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit.” You can hear the chat in its entirety here:

Source: Talking T Bone Burnett’s Vast Influence On XRT’s Sound



For those who aren’t affected by the Journal’s pay wall, go here

And for those who aren’t bothered by an imperfect scan:


How great to get such coverage, no matter what platform it takes you to!



Oh, what a night!

Celebrating the release of Lloyd Sachs’ “T Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit,” the first book about the Texas-born legend, a band of distinguished leaders including Steve Dawson, Kelly Hogan, Nora O’Connor, John Abbey and Gerald Dowd raised the roof of Chicago’s Hideout with beautiful and fascinating covers of songs written, recorded and/or produced by Burnett. Choice tunes by Sam Phillips, Freedy Johnston and Elvis Costello held serve with great originals by T Bone.

lloyd-hideoutReading from the book, Sachs highlighted Burnett’s work with Robert Plant and Alison Krauss on the classic, “Raising Sand.”

“If Plant and Krauss had any second thoughts about softening or departing from their signature styles to level the interpretive playing field,” Sachs read, “the relaxed atmosphere Burnett created in the studio enabled them to get past their doubts. Both were rewarded by finding sides of their talents of which they themselves had perhaps been unaware.”

“That was fun as hell,” posted Hogan. Couldn’t agree more.




By Hedy Weiss
October 4, 201

Just how and why you are familiar with T Bone Burnett, that tall, gangly Texan with a guitar, very likely depends on your age, your musical tastes, and even your movie-going habits.

Is he the guy who served as a guitarist with Bob Dylan’s touring band, the Rolling Thunder Revue, in the mid 1970s? Or is he the musician who subsequently struck out with friends to form The Alpha Band, and by 1980 issued his first solo album?

Or is he the masterful producer who brought out the best in such artists as Elvis Costello, Jackson Brown and Diana Krall, as well as his first wife, Sam Phillips, and such bands as Los Lobos, the BoDeans and The Wallflowers, and the unlikely duo of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss (who collaborated on the 2007 duet album, “Raising Sand”)?

When: Oct. 10 at 7 p.m.
Where: The Hideout, 1354 W Wabansia
Tickets: $10

Is Burnett the uniquely inspired source behind the soundtracks for such films as “Walk the Line,” “The Big Lebowski,” “Inside Lllewyn Davis,” and, most importantly of all, his scoring of the Coen Brothers’ “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” whose brilliant use of a catalogue of “roots-based” songs won him a Grammy Award and is widely credited with introducing a vast new audience to what is now referred to as “Americana”?

Or, is he the rebel artist who has made it his mission to champion analog sound and fight for musicians’ rights in an age of technology in which Internet monopolies too often reap the profits that artists rarely see?

As it turns out, Burnett, now 68, is all of these things, and more. A complex character to be sure. And in a new book, “T Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit” (University of Texas Press, $26.95), Lloyd Sachs – the nationally known, Chicago-based writer on popular culture, who was a music critic and award-winning editorial writer at the Chicago Sun-Times from 1984-2008 – captures the complexities of the man over the many decades of his career. (A book release event is set for Oct. 10 at The Hideout, where Sachs will be joined by performers Kelly Hogan, Steve Dawson and Nora O’Connor, who will perform some of the songs written, recorded and/or produced by Burnett.)

As Sachs notes in the book: “[T Bone’s] success is particularly amazing because, in many ways, he is an outsider playing an insider’s game. A fierce intellectual, he finds cultural enrichment in a paradise of anti-intellectualism. A man of deep religious faith, he thrives in a den of moneylenders. Burnett is part Don Quixote, charging at digital windbills in his quest to restore analog truth, and part Southern politician, crossing palms with hyperbolic play money: He says that Justin Timberlake is ‘the closest we have to Bing Crosby,’ claims the mandolinist Chris Thile [Garrison Keillor’s replacement on “A Prairie Home Companion”] is ‘the Louis Armstrong of his time,’ and calls Alison Krauss ‘the one’…[just as] Ray Charles was ‘the one’.”

Although Burnett chose not to participate in Sachs’ chronicle of his music-making, he made it clear he had no problem with his interviewing dozens of people (including Sam Phillips) who have worked with him (or lived with him), so the resulting book is something of a multi-perspective, Rashomon-like appraisal. And as a journalist, Sachs had interviewed him over the years, had lunch with him a couple times, and hung with him after a few shows.

“In those interviews it was easy to feel a real connection,” said Sachs. “T Bone is a larger-than-life character, but also a warm and funny man. With the book, I wanted to delve more fully into the many dimensions of his artistry, and write about the impact of ‘O Brother’ which really upended the notion of what pop music could be.”

“A lot of people know who Burnett is, and how the words ‘visionary’ and ‘legendary’ are so often used to describe him. But they have no idea what a great singer-songwriter he was, even if he was self-conscious and insecure about himself as a performer. For example, his self-named acoustic album on the Dot label, released in 1986, contains some of his best work – the closest thing he did to a country album, with great playing and a mix of heartbreaking songs and hymnal-like meditations. And I believe he is writing songs again, and there will probably be a new album at some point.”

As for the “Americana” tag now so often appended to Burnett’s name, Sachs believes the word, which has become kind of an umbrella for country, R&B, folk and blues, is in many ways antithetical to Burnett’s idea that no such lines should be drawn.

“He is someone who believes all music exists on a continuum that includes Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, as well as Frank Sinatra’s ‘In the Wee Smal Hours’ album, and the albums of Merle Haggard. He has studied composers like Bartok and Stravinsky, and he thinks the score for the movie ‘Dr. Zhivago’ was brilliant in the way it advances the story.”

As for Sachs’ next story: “It might be a book about baseball, and how we follow sports.”

“Sachs artfully weaves together news clips and original interviews to create a valuable context for the musician-producer’s work” – Texas Monthly

From Texas Monthly’s The Checklist (October 2016)




“First, and likely definitive, portrait of the prolific and enigmatic producer/artist.” – MOJO


We’re over T Bone’s “Killer Moon” with this much appreciated review from the British publication, this SPECIAL edition of which soon will be available in U.S.

“A welcome addition to the living history of American music and a delightful read”– Booklist


Lloyd Sachs’ “T Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit” draws glowing praise from the book review specialists! Thanks, Booklist!

Here’s the full review:

Burnett, though not quite a household name, is among the most important figures on the pop-music scene. Many readers will know the music he produced for the television series Nashville and True Detective and as producer of the O Brother, Where Are Thou? soundtrack. Veteran journalist and music-writer Sachs presents the first book devoted to Burnett’s career, a critical “appreciation rather than a biography,” though he does illuminate Burnett’s background, the source of his nickname, and his restless spirit. Sachs covers Burnett’s career as a singer-songwriter (his 1982 hit “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” is a pop-music treasure) as well as his collaboration with John Mellencamp and Stephen King on the musical Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, his role in Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, and his contributions to the soundtracks of The Big Lebowski, Cold Mountain, and Crazy Heart. With a list of Burnett’s many musical associates, Sachs’ fine book is a welcome addition to the living history of American music and a delightful read. — June Sawyers


cs-ib43wgaqvtj0(Photograph courtesy of Chad Cochran)

What a swell time was had Thursday at Howlin’ Books, part of the Grimey’s record store empire in Nashville. A great crowd including Milk Carton Kids’ Kenneth Pattengale, Ernie K-Doe biographer Ben Sandmel and Dwight Yoakam biographer Don McLeese responded warmly to Lloyd Sachs’ comments about his subject, his reading from A Life in Pursuit (“a vibrant and colorful portrait” – No Depression) and his Q&A with Joe Henry.

And how could those in attendance not be lifted by Henry’s heartfelt salute to his great mentor and friend via performances of two classic Burnett compositions: “Kill Switch” and “Shake Yourself Loose”?

Here is a link to video of “Shake Yourself Loose” taken from the audience and posted on Facebook by Chris Willman.

Next up: A really big Chicago shew Monday/October 10 at the Hideout to continue the book’s launch. The mind-bogglingly good featured performers will be Kelly Hogan, Steve Dawson and Nora O’Connor.

T Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit officially releases October 4 from University of Texas Press. but is on the shelf at Howlin’ Books and Parnassus in Nashville and is orderable or pre-orderable now from online sites including Amazon and UT Press.

An excerpt of “T Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit,” as featured in No Depression

On top of the world (or close)

SEPTEMBER 19, 2016

elvis-tb-2Burnett with Elvis Costello at McCabe’s Guitar Shop, Santa Monica, California, 1984. Photo by Sherry Rayn Barnett

Fish were jumpin’ when T Bone Burnett conducted his first conference call with Alison Krauss and Robert Plant to discuss making an album together. The famed producer was up in Vancouver, British Columbia, at the Capilano Salmon Hatchery, perhaps thinking of Lou “The Salmon King” Kemp, the tour manager of Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue. Surrounded by God’s wonders–steep granite cliffs, lush rainforest vegetation, roaring waterfalls–the spiritual seeker who some people think led Dylan down the path of Christianity was in an elevated state when he connected with Krauss, who was in Nashville, and Plant, who was in Bali–“or somewhere,” as Burnett would later say.

The geographical distance between the artists was a perfect metaphor for the vast stylistic distance between Krauss, a bell-toned sweetheart of modern bluegrass, and Plant, the leonine former wailer of Led Zeppelin. The thought of Krauss putting fiddle to the metal on “Black Dog” was only slightly odder than the thought of Plant going back porch. But Krauss, who grew up not in bluegrass country but in the university town of Champaign, Illinois, was a heavy metal fan. And Plant, a blues-loving native of England’s Midlands, was such a fan of hers that he had asked her to perform with him as part of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 2004 American Music Masters Tribute to Lead Belly.

“Singing that Lead Belly stuff wasn’t in the right range for us,” Krauss said in a 2008 press teleconference, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, but the encounter piqued the singers’ interest in further collaborations, and naturally led them to Burnett. He had recorded Krauss for O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the 2000 soundtrack album that ignited the roots music revival. And Burnett had been in talks with Plant about producing a sequel to The Honeydrippers: Volume One, the 1984 EP of fifties-era rock and R&B that the Brit recorded with his former Zep mate Jimmy Page. Krauss told Burnett that she wanted to do something darker than usual. Plant said he wasn’t interested in recording a conventional duo album. Leave it to Burnett to satisfy both their visions while surprising and challenging them with one of his own.

For Burnett, who with his vast knowledge of American music redefines the old throwaway line (and Dylan cover title) “I forgot more than you’ll ever know,” everything starts with the song. He went into full scuba mode, diving down deep into the vast stream of recorded history for tunes he envisioned Plant and Krauss covering. He came up not with a mere handful of singles and the like but with stacks of them. Listening to playlists ranging from the 1950s R&B group Li’l Millet and His Creoles’ tune “Rich Woman” to the prototypical alt-country artist Townes Van Zandt’s “Nothin’,” Plant felt as if he were attending a master’s class in spinology. “I thought I was pretty knowledgeable about American music, but I’d missed out on an entire area,” he told Jon Pareles of The New York Times. “I now know that American music is a total panorama. I was cutting it off and thinking it was redneck hell down there.”

Collaborations between well-known artists frequently go awry either because their styles don’t jibe (as with Eric Clapton & Wynton Marsalis Play the Blues), because there is too much of one star and not enough of the other (as with All the Roadrunning, on which Emmylou Harris disappears for long stretches opposite Mark Knopfler, who produced the recording), or because there no chemistry between them (as with virtually all the cuts on Frank Sinatra’s phoned-in Duets). Burnett, however, heard Raising Sand less as a collaboration than as a convergence — a meeting of open-minded artists for whom one plus one equaled not two but one. If Plant and Krauss had any second thoughts about softening or departing from their signature styles to level the interpretive playing field, the relaxed atmosphere Burnett created in the studio enabled them to get past their doubts. Both were rewarded by finding sides of their talents of which they themselves had perhaps been unaware.

“I now know that American music is a total panorama. I was cutting it off and thinking it was redneck hell down there.” – T Bone Burnett
Plant was an obvious choice to sing Little Milton’s “Let Your Loss Be Your Lesson,” a mid-1970s B-side delight from the blues and R&B artist’s years with the Stax label. But Burnett asked Krauss to sing it instead. She initially begged off, feeling “too white” to do it (as she told National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Sunday). Prodded by the producer, however, she rose to the challenge, bringing a soulful depth to what became a plucky, Loretta Lynn–type vehicle. Plant, rock’s quintessential lead singer, had rarely sung harmony, but opposite Krauss, a skilled arranger who showed him how to sing his parts, he sounds as pure as a choirboy. Their hushed communion on “Killing the Blues,” on which Greg Leisz’s sighing pedal steel arches over the singers like a rainbow over gold, is spine-tingling. Burnett first heard that song decades earlier when its composer, Roly (Rowland) Salley, Chris Isaak’s longtime bassist, played it in the Bay Area home of the Chicago-born bluesman Nick Gravenites.

As we will see, great music producers approach their work as uniquely as great film directors approach theirs, employing different methods to get the best performances out of their actors, different levels of formality to frame the performances, and different conceptions of the imprint they should or shouldn’t leave on the finished product. Burnett now carries such weight in the entertainment capitals of Hollywood and Nashville that the title “record producer” can contain him no more than “film director” could contain Orson Welles. His O Brother soundtrack altered the landscape of American music so markedly that it may well have affected our culture as significantly as Citizen Kane did. From his own critically acclaimed work as a singer and songwriter to his close associations with Bob Dylan and Sam Shepard — one of the greatest songwriters of our time and one of the greatest playwrights–to his outspoken efforts to overhaul digital recorded sound, Burnett’s accomplishments have made the musician-producer one of the most significant figures in popular culture during the past forty years.

His success is particularly amazing because, in many ways, he is an outsider playing an insider’s game. A fierce intellectual, he finds cultural enrichment in a paradise of anti-intellectualism. A man of deep religious faith, he thrives in a den of moneylenders. Burnett is part Don Quixote, charging at digital windmills in his quest to restore analog truth, and part Southern politician, crossing palms with hyperbolic play money: he says that Justin Timberlake is “the closest we have to Bing Crosby,” claims the mandolinist Chris Thile is “the Louis Armstrong of his time,” and calls Alison Krauss “the one . . . [just as] Ray Charles was the one.”

For all that, Burnett has never been able to get past his own self-consciousness and self-doubt as a recording artist. While scoring success after big-time success for others — whether breaking bands, such as Counting Crows, or reviving legends, such as Elton John — he is stuck as a singer-songwriter on the mezzanine level of critics’ favorite. As acclaimed as some of his albums are, they have all withered on the commercial vine. That the once rail-thin, six-foot-five Texan has never been comfortable performing before crowds hasn’t helped.

That isn’t to say he hasn’t invested each of his own albums with high hopes. Such was the case with his 2006 effort, The True False Identity — his first album under his own name in fourteen years, and, alas, his most recent one at this writing. Standing in an alley outside Chicago’s Vic Theater that May, a few hours before launching his first concert tour in nearly twenty years, he was wired with expectation. With a newspaper photographer preparing to take aim, he fidgeted against a brick wall, tugging at a pesky nose hair, a study in spasmodic motion. Gone for a fractured moment was the fastidious image the once scrawny, mop-topped Burnett had created for himself with his Miles Davis sunglasses, perfectly parted and tossed hair, and regal, high-button outfits. Gone was the music industry sophisticate, chased by a minor eruption of what Sam Shepard once called his “peculiar quality of craziness.” I imagined the competing aspects of his outsize personality speeding through him like the notes of his favorite Charlie Parker solo, the one on “Night in Tunisia.”

Lloyd Sachs is the author of T Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit, from which this article is excerpted. The book will be available in October 2016 from the University of Texas Press.

For No Depression article, go here.