“You know, I don’t know anything about being T Bone Burnett,” says T Bone Burnett with a slight grin. “I usually tell people I’m a political consultant so I don’t have to answer that weird question: ‘Are you somebody famous?’ or ‘Should I know you?’ You’re on a plane and somebody says, ‘What do you do?’ and you say, ‘I write songs,’ and they say, ‘Have I heard any of them?’ and you say, ‘Uh, yes. You have. Yes.’ ‘Which ones?’ ‘Well—which ones have you heard?‘“Chances are you have heard him. T Bone learned his craft when he was growing up in Fort Worth, where as a teenager he bought a downtown studio underneath the KXOL radio station. Since then the 53-year-old has released seven critically acclaimed solo albums and produced more than seventy albums, including Elvis Costello’s Spike, Roy Orbison’s Mystery Girl, Gillian Welch’s Revival, and Los Lobos’ How Will the Wolf Survive? Last spring he finished producing the soundtrack to Joel and Ethan Coen’s Southern odyssey, O Brother, Where Art Thou? which promptly brought even more praise, becoming one of the most talked-about soundtracks in recent years. But a project of that magnitude isn’t unusual; he is always working on something big.
In fact, when I caught up with him this winter, he was in a room at San Francisco’s Hotel Nikko, an hour before he was supposed to perform the music for Sam Shepard’s newest play, The Late Henry Moss . The archetypal long, tall Texan claims he’s only six four, yet when he stands, the ceiling looms suddenly closer, and when he folds into the sofa, his arachnid legs and arms seem to take over the room. As he goes over the Henry Moss chords on a guitar, he explains that everything he performs in the play is tuned to D minor—it sounds eerie, gothic, like you’re being led through a tunnel to the supernatural world. He gets the motif rolling, turning over and over, then he gives a play-by-play:
“Okay, here, [James] Gammon, who plays the old man, walks onstage. The light hits his eyes, and he lets out a howl. I thought it would be a nice counterpoint to put a major chord here—the only major chord in the play.”
He hits it: Strummmm.
Then he imitates Gammon—screaming “Aaaaah!” and shielding his eyes—and doubles up in hysterics. He plucks through this section of the song a few more times, following with a scream, laughing just as hard after each round. There’s a knock at the door.
The guitar understudy enters, takes a seat, and tunes his guitar to D minor. Then T Bone starts teaching the songs.
Another knock at the door. The understudy’s redheaded female friend arrives, drunk or maybe just chatty, and impatiently takes a seat on the floor. She takes a bead on the tall man with the teenager’s face, bright blue eyes, and brown-red hair, wearing a navy blue wool suit, with a white collar and sleeves that poke out, making him look like a member of the clergy. She offers her hand to him limply and asks, “Who are you?” “T Bone,” he tells her, in the slow, happy, ultracalm, just-woke-up way he communicates most everything, and takes her hand.
“Oh”—her eyes get as big as saucers as she dramatically puts her hand over her mouth, embarrassed—“I thought you were black.”
He blinks, then responds dryly, “I am.”
Her eyes dart around the room. Squirm, squirm, squirm. Then the “Are you somebody” question arises.
“Are you … cool?” she asks.
He does not claim to be a political consultant. His eyelashes fan out with surprise, and he goes back to his guitar, amused. “Hang around and find out.”
If he didn’t know anything about being T Bone the first half of his life, he is finding out now. Never mind that as a producer he has imprinted his style on recordings of Marshall Crenshaw, Delbert McClinton, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and his wife, Sam Phillips. Because after a nine-year drought in his own work, nine years of wondering what—if anything—he was going to write again, he’s reemerging this year in a creative downpour. “It has all been practice for what’s coming up now,” he says. Here’s what’s in the flood: He is recording a new solo record, The True False Identity, his first effort since the 1992 Grammy-nominated The Criminal Under My Own Hat . He is releasing an album from his 1997 collaboration with Sam Shepard on Shepard’s play The Tooth of Crime. He is writing songs for a rockabilly CD (“I just think it’s time to do it. Just have a massive session”). He’s releasing a remixed version of his third solo record, Proof Through the Night. He’s composing music for a film by Shepard and Wim Wenders called In America. He’s writing new songs for the Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Bertolt Brecht’s play Mother Courage and Her Children. Finally, he’s putting on a few live shows this spring in Austin. Then there’s Shepard’s new play, which had been the talk of San Francisco months before its opening in the Magic Theatre’s production at Theater on the Square. Shepard directs, T Bone performs guitar next to the stage, and the cast reads like the Grauman’s Chinese Theater walk of fame: Sean Penn! Nick Nolte! Woody Harrelson! Cheech Marin! Shepard and T Bone met in 1975 in Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, a touring act composed of singers and songwriters including Ronnie Hawkins, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. Shepard wrote a great story about one of his first encounters with T Bone backstage in his Rolling Thunder Logbook: T Bone pivoted on the heels of his Tony Lama cowboy boots, bent over, and jabbed his chin into Shepard’s neck, whereupon T Bone’s Texas drawl “cuts into my earbones.” They became friends, and four years ago, when Shepard asked him to write some music for The Tooth of Crime ,