My chat with two former XRT colleagues is
here temporarily unavailable. Check back soon.
My chat with two former XRT colleagues is
My chat with two former XRT colleagues is
here temporarily unavailable. Check back soon.
Here’s the blurb:
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
(Photograph courtesy of Chad Cochran)
Here is a link to Facebook video of “Shake Yourself Loose” taken from the audience and posted on Facebook by writer Chris Willman.
On top of the world (or close)
BY LLOYD SACHS
SEPTEMBER 19, 2016
Burnett 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.
The Reading Room
Writing about writing about music.
Henry writes about music and music books for ND, The Bluegrass Situation, Country Standard Time, Publishers Weekly, and more.
Pursuing T Bone Burnett
“Fish were jumpin’ when T Bone Burnett conducted his first conference call with Alison Krauss and Robert Plant to discuss making an album together.” Lloyd Sach’s opening sentence of his critical appreciation of T Bone Burnett, T Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit (University of Texas Press) pulls us in with a magnetic force, or, better, like a fisherman pulling in a catch that’s bigger than life. With his first masterful sentence, Sachs, former senior editor at No Depression, sets the hook deep, and we can’t let go until we find out what happened after that phone conference and why T Bone Burnett thought musicians with two apparently disparate musical styles might really work together to produce some interesting sounds.
Though many people might know Burnett only by his work on the music for the television show Nashville, or for his work on the soundtrack for the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?, music fans know that Burnett and his work as a producer, musician, and songwriter lie behind work by artists as diverse as Los Lobos, Elton John, the Wallflowers, Striking Matches, Rhiannon Giddens, B.B. King, and Sam Phillips, among many others. Burnett played with Dylan in the Rolling Thunder Revue in 1974, and in the ‘80s he performed with Elvis Costello, Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, and Jennifer Warnes.
Uninterested in writing a pedestrian, flat-as-pavement biography of Burnett—who told Sachs, “we can have lunch any time you’re not writing a book about me”—Sachs offers in his new book a vibrant and colorful portrait of a man who continues to redefine the boundaries of music and who follows his own vision of the beauty and force of music. Sachs observes that “few people understood what a crucial role he had played in furthering the larger cause of American music, which he views not through the museumy lens of Ken (Jazz) Burns but as a collection of living and breathing documents of who we are.” With animated prose, Sachs vivaciously explores every facet of Burnett’s life and work from “spiritual gumshoe,” “mentor,” and “hit man” to “reluctant artist,” “lead actor,” “blues man,” and “alchemist.”
Burnett’s ex-wife, Sam Phillips, sums up Burnett’s fiery vision for the music he loves: “T Bone is always advocating for musicians and artists. He’ll never stop. A lot of people come to mind who don’t like him because he is kind of a wild man. He’s always fighting to make things better, to achieve breakthroughs … .”
How appropriate that on the day this column appears, T Bone Burnett will be delivering the keynote address at the Americana Music Association’s annual conference and festival. Burnett, as Sachs so cannily and gracefully points out, remains one of the driving forces behind what has become known as Americana music. What would Burnett make of the phrase “Americana music,” whose overuse has robbed it of its force and meaning? Sachs reminds us that Burnett always looks forward to discover the most interesting artists whose music flows powerfully into the roiling stream of American music. As Sachs points out so memorably, Burnett continues to live out a “life in pursuit.”
I chatted by phone with Lloyd Sachs recently about his new book.
Henry Carrigan: What prompted you to write this book now?
Lloyd Sachs: Well, I think it was pretty long in gestation. I’ve always been fascinated with T Bone, going back to his singer-songwriter days; I did a piece on him for No Depression about the time he was doing the Cold Mountain soundtrack. I’ve always liked him a lot, and I find him to be a fascinating figure as a musician, a songwriter, and a producer. I wanted to illustrate the many facets of his life and work, though this was never meant to be a tell-all life story. It probably took me about a year to write it.
Were there any particular books you used as models for writing this one? What writers have influenced your own writing?
I grew up at the time that rock criticism was starting to take off. I was completely energized by the whole rock criticism movement. I would just pore over reviews by Greil Marcus. In those days, a new Van Morrison album wasn’t just a record to be listened to; we’d pore over it and discuss what it meant. Some of those great rock reviews barely touched on the album in question but touched on many aspects related to it, like politics and culture, and the writing was so great. The writers I love are the lovers of language: Stanley Elkin, it was an adventure to read every book he wrote; Mordecai Richler, especially his novel Joshua Then and Now; Philip Roth; John Leonard, his allusions could get so deep, and I loved that he wrote about television and then moved on to write about music and movies and books.
What are T Bone’s greatest strengths?
One of his greatest strengths is as a producer and a facilitator of other artists’ desires and visions. They will tell you that he’s great to work with; he possesses a very deep and abiding intent to bring out the best in an artist. As a producer, he has a vision about the way a certain artist should be recorded. Album after album he’s produced, I’ve thought are the best albums of that musician’s career, such as Elton John’s The Diving Board or Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ Raising Sand. T Bone is a very intuitive and forceful producer who surrounds himself with amazing musicians in order to make an album.
His greatest weaknesses?
You can almost list his insecurities he feels about himself as an artist. He never became known. Jackson Browne, Elvis Costello, or Warren Zevon, though, he of course played with all of them; at the same time, he was being recognized as one of the greatest songwriters of our time.
You write a good deal about T Bone’s religious sensibilities and his spiritual vision in the book.
Religion has been an important part of his life and his songwriting and his music. However, he’s hasn’t stood still in that regard; I think he has gone through changes in his practice of his religion. He’s obviously a very spiritual guy; he’s well-read in spiritual matters, referring to Thomas Merton in his writing. His ex-wife Sam Phillips broke away from the fundamentalist, right-wing establishment, because of its need to control, and T Bone broke away from them as well. He’s an upstart; he’s a social critic who takes pleasure in skewering the bloviators and hypocrites. Looking back at a lot of writing about his music, I found that a lot of the religious subtexts of it were overlooked. Even Bono admired T Bone as an artist with religious faith. Religion is simply one of the many layers of his life and reflects his complexity.
What will readers be surprised to learn about T Bone from your book?
A lot of readers are going to be surprised that he had such a distinguished career as a singer-songwriter. Many will be surprised that he played with the Rolling Thunder Revue. He’s so famous as a visionary and a producer; people may not realize he is a musician, too. He doesn’t get much credit for his guitar playing, but Cassandra Wilson had him on her last album. He’s one of those artists who people think they know very well, but they don’t know him at all.
What would you like readers to take from the book?
I would hope that people would get a wider sense of what Americana music means; I hope this book helps them broaden their view and to listen to the incredible range of American music. One of the reasons I wrote the book (laughs) is that I knew I’d be getting the chance to listen to all these albums that T Bone produced or that he recorded or on which he was somehow involved. One example: I’ve never been a huge Roy Orbison fan; his music never really grabbed me. But for this project I revisited his music, and that was a revelation. I finally recognized what it was about him—his ability to start in one range in a song and finish it in a completely different one—that all the guys like Dylan, and Harrison, and Petty heard in him. I hope this book, like T Bone’s overall achievement, inspires readers to appreciate and to listen to the incredible stream of music we benefit from: Allen Toussaint to Tom Petty to the blues.
For No Depression article, go here.