Mad to Play
Famed Texas-based guitarist Stephen Bruton was a man who knew how to count his blessings.
Stephen Bruton was one of those musicians who was simply mad to play—and if not play, then write songs or produce albums for other people or act in movies in which he pretended to play. The sixty-year-old Austin musician, who performed with Bob Dylan, Barbra Streisand, Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, Kris Kristofferson, and many others, died early Saturday morning of throat cancer. He had been fighting the disease since early 2007, when he began radiation treatments on his esophagus at M.D. Anderson in Houston. The disease retreated and advanced over the next two years, as doctors put Bruton through various therapies. Whenever doctors gave the okay, he made the most of it, hitting the road, going into the studio, playing.
In January, a day after his regular Sunday night gig with the Resentments at the Saxon Pub in Austin, he was admitted to the hospital with high fever, pneumonia, and a blood infection. His friends thought he was near the end. But Bruton fought back again— the fever broke and the infections vanished. He had a burst of energy and resolved to continue doing what he had done for thirty five years: make more music. Childhood friend T-Bone Burnett flew to Austin with a nurse and took Bruton to LA to work on the soundtrack for Crazy Heart, a movie due out this fall. He started more treatments, but they couldn’t keep his body from shutting down after the ravages it had endured. He died in his sleep. “Stephen Bruton was the soul of Texas music,” Burnett said in a statement later that day. “This is an incalculable loss.”
Stephen Bruton was born in Fort Worth in 1948. His father, Sumter Bruton Jr., was a jazz drummer who also ran a famous record store where musicians loved to hang out. Stephen grew up hearing music all the time and he eventually learned to play the guitar and banjo. He played with buddies Delbert McClinton and Burnett, and after graduating from Texas Christian University, moved to Woodstock, New York. A few months after a drunken evening playing guitar and trading songs with Kristofferson, the older man offered the twenty-two-year-old Bruton a place in his band, playing on records when they weren’t touring. The kid played on Bob Dylan’s Billy the Kid sessions in Mexico, and that led to more session work—Gene Clark, Lowell George, Bob Neuwirth. Bruton got into movies because of his boss’s starring role in A Star is Born in 1976, and began a decade of endless touring with Kristofferson. Then came more tours and sessions with other musicians, and Bruton earned a reputation as a stellar sideman—on guitar, mandolin, banjo—for everyone from Booker T. Jones to Elvis Costello and Carly Simon. He eventually played on some ninety other albums.
All this time he was learning to write songs from some of the masters—Willie Nelson (Bruton was in the movie Songwriter with Willie), Kristofferson, Bonnie Raitt, and Billy Joe Shaver. Nelson and Raitt covered his songs and so did many others, including Johnny Cash and Patty Loveless. Bruton put all his skills as player and listener to a different use in 1991 when he began producing other people’s albums, beginning with Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s acclaimed After Awhile; he would also helm records by Alejandro Escovedo, Marcia Ball, Storyville, and Chris Smither. Bruton started making his own albums in 1993 with What It Is and made four more—his last was From the Five in 2005.
In the mid-80s he moved to Austin, becoming one of those guys—Ronnie Lane, Arthur Brown, Ian MacLagan—who moved to the established music city with already established reputations. Bruton made himself at home, playing with and producing people like Escovedo, Gilmore, and the band Loose Diamonds. He mentored young guitarists in playing but also in living. “He knew you had to struggle to hold onto your sense of wonder,” says Loose Diamonds guitarist Jud Newcomb. Maybe it was Bruton’s struggles with alcohol—he had gotten sober in 1989—but he also knew how to talk to people who were going through bad times. “He knew how to help people at the end of their rope,” says Newcomb. “He was adept at recognizing the dark hour in others.” Bruton, Newcomb, and guitarist Jon Dee Graham formed the casual super group The Resentments in 2002 and played every Sunday night at the Saxon. The decidedly handsome Bruton—with sparkling blue eyes, a wry grin, and wavy hair parted in the middle—was the elder statesman, and watching him play with these guys, always sitting all the way to the right, was revelatory. Bruton was adept at acoustic blues plonking, Dave Edmunds-like choogling, or full-blown lyrical soloing. He never overplayed; he pushed the rhythm when that was needed, he played the solos when that was called for. His years as a sideman taught him to play in service to the song.
His cancer treatments caused his body to thin and his hair to fall out; he would play gigs in a fedora, his frame gaunt. But his face was still handsome and the twinkle never left his eye. Newcomb visited Bruton in late April in LA and the two sat around in a pretty yard with a lot of trees. “This is nice,” Newcomb said. Bruton replied, “Yeah, but it’s not Texas.” The two reminisced about touring with the Resentments in Germany and talked about the soundtrack to Crazy Heart (“He was really proud of it”), and playing music. “It was just two friends talking with each other,” says Newcomb. “He was able to get out from the shadow of what he had been going through.”
Bruton was a man who knew how to count his blessings. Back before the cancer, upon the release of From the Five in 2005, he said, “I’ve got no complaints. I get to do what I love. How many people can say that? That’s worth more than anything. I’ve been very fortunate to do what I do for a long time.” By all accounts, he felt the same as he closed his eyes Friday night.
(Click here for a video of The Resentments playing in Stuttgart, Germany, December 7, 2006.)