T Bone Burnett epitomizes cool. The former Joseph Henry Burnett, with his omnipresent sunglasses, is so cool, in fact, that he makes the name “T Bone” sound hip! He’s the producer as rock star, an artist whom superstars and fresh-faced talents alike seek out for a shot in the arm. He’s also the man who made bluegrass trendy. And lest his cool credentials be in doubt, the man toured with Bob Dylan on the Rolling Thunder Revue! Raised in Texas, by way of Missouri, Burnett relocated to Southern California as the seventies began, fronted a couple of bands and gained major notice in 1980 with Truth Decay, an album bearing little relation to anybody else’s music at the dawn of that decade. It was during the 1980s that the musical revivalist began making significant inroads as a producer for other artists, eventually amassing a resume dotted with names like Roy Orbison and Elton John, John Mellencamp and Robert Plant. And oh yeah, he picked up an Oscar, too. The career of T Bone Burnett, producer, is the subject of a most unique new compilation from Starbucks Entertainment, available now at the ubiquitous coffee shops. The simply-titled T Bone Burnett: The Producer collects fifteen of his finest productions as well as a booklet with track-by-track notes by Burnett recalling the stories behind the songs.
Journalist Bill Flanagan has suggested that Burnett is “the conscience of the music industry,” if such a thing is possible, opting instead that he’s “a one-man counterculture.” The story of the one-man counterculture began in Texas where he was running a studio at an early age. (He even cut a number of pop songs with future Broadway star Betty Buckley there!) Always a man of mystery, he appeared on a 1968 album by a group with a name that could only have come out of that era: Whistler, Chaucer, Detroit and Greenhill. Which was T Bone? Productions for another group, The Case Hardy Boys, followed, as eventually did another album, The B-52 Band and the Fabulous Skylarks. Burnett began frequenting the clubs of New York’s hallowed Bleecker Street, where he reportedly met Bob Dylan. Whatever the circumstances, it wasn’t long before Burnett was appearing alongside Mick Ronson and Bobby Neuwirth on the Rolling Thunder Revue. He then formed The Alpha Band at the behest of Arista’s Clive Davis, though the charts were hardly bothered by the band’s albums. It was on 1980’s solo Truth Decay (ironically not produced by its singer and songwriter but by Reggie Fisher that Burnett’s “voice” became evident via its collection of what Rolling Stone termed “mystic Christian blues.” The songs were inspired by Sun Studios, and old blues and folk records, and despite the title, arguably had more truth in them than much of the synthesized popular music storming the charts. Burnett was on his way. Hit the jump to join T Bone in 1987!
The earliest track on The Producer dates from 1987. Burnett had guided Los Lobos through three consecutive albums, honing their blend of rock, blues, jazz and Latin rhythms. “One Time, One Night” is taken from their acclaimed album By the Light of the Moon. There’s an emphasis over these fifteen tracks on the variety of Burnett’s productions, encompassing numerous genres and sounds. It’s immediately clear, though, that in any genre, Burnett has worked with the best. For Elvis Costello’s 1989 “God’s Comic,” Costello and Burnett – who once joined forces as The Coward Brothers – are joined by Marc Ribot, Michael Blair and Mitchell Froom. Costello reappears as songwriter of “The Comedians,” given a dramatic performance by Roy Orbison from his posthumous 1989 album Mystery Girl. Though there’s nothing from the chart-topping soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? , Americana is still present on tracks by Gillian Welch as well as Robert Plant and Allison Krauss. Burnett’s Oscar-winning country anthem “The Weary Kind” is heard as performed by its co-writer Ryan Bingham. His former wife Sam Phillips is heard on “Baby, I Can’t Please You,” and Jakob Dylan appears twice, once going solo and once with the Wallflowers.
Another specialty of the producer is an ability to reconnect great artists with their roots. From 2011 comes Gregg Allman’s foray into the blues songbook on Nehemiah James’ “Devil Got My Woman.” Also from this year is Steve Earle’s “Waitin’ on the Sky,” described by the producer as “avant-garde hillbilly music.” John Mellencamp is represented with 2010’s “Save Some Time to Dream,” recorded at Sun Studios with vintage equipment, and Elton John and Leon Russell get back to basics with “If It Wasn’t For Bad” from their triumphant The Union.
Burnett’s liner-notes description of Russell could almost apply to the producer himself: “Leon combined many diverse elements into what is one of the great styles of rock ‘n’ roll piano: gospel, to be sure, but also classical, country and rhythm and blues. He also studied and understood the incredible work that Henry Mancini was doing out in Los Angeles in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Leon put a lot of things together – he advanced things.” The Producer shows how, between 1987 and 2011, T Bone Burnett has been putting a lot of things together to create a sound that’s uniquely American, and uniquely Burnett.
T Bone Burnett, The Producer (Starbucks Entertainment B0015772-02, 2011)
- Pass You By – Gillian Welch
- One Headlight – The Wallflowers
- Baby I Can’t Please You – Sam Phillips
- The Comedians – Roy Orbison
- If It Wasn’t For Bad – Elton John and Leon Russell
- See That My Grave is Kept Clean – B.B. King
- Devil Got My Woman – Gregg Allman
- Nothing But the Whole Wide World – Jakob Dylan
- Waitin’ on the Sky – Steve Earle
- Save Some Time to Dream – John Mellencamp
- Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us – Robert Plant and Allison Krauss
- The Weary Kind – Ryan Bingham
- One Time, One Night – Los Lobos
- God’s Comic – Elvis Costello
- Where Is Love Now – Jimmie Dale Gilmore
Track 1 from Revival, Acony ACNY-0101, 1996
Track 2 from Bringing Down the Horse, Interscope INTD-90055, 1996
Track 3 from Martinis & Bikinis, Virgin 724383943821, 1994
Track 4 from Mystery Girl, Virgin 7910581, 1989
Track 5 from The Union, Decca 80014840-02, 2010
Track 6 from One Kind Favor, Geffen 00602517812413, 2008
Track 7 from Low Country Blues, Rounder 1166122152, 2011
Track 8 from Women + Country, Columbia 88697 50524 2, 2010
Track 9 from I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive, New West NW-165, 2011
Track 10 from No Better Than This, Rounder 116613284, 2010
Track 11 from Raising Sand, Rounder 11661-9075-2, 2007
Track 12 from Crazy Heart: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, New West NW-6181/6184, 2009
Track 13 from By the Light of the Moon, Slash/Warner Bros, W2-25523, 1987
Track 14 from Spike, Warner Bros. 25848, 1989
Track 15 from Braver Newer World, Elektra 618362, 1996