“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, T Bone accepted though he hadn’t written in years. It was a turning point. “Writing for plays has gotten me out of the singer-songwriter trap, where you’re always—it’s always about you,” he explains. “It’s different if you’re writing for a character.”
As they pass time backstage one night during the first week of the Henry Moss run, they nonchalantly chat about golf tee times one minute and plans for upcoming projects the next. One such idea includes an impromptu, onstage jam session with Tom Waits, a bill that would send a lot of music fans tottering off speechless.
Just relaxing in their hard-backed chairs, legs stretched out.
“You call Waits?” T Bone asks.
“I’ve got to call him. We’re doing that a week from Monday, right?”
“Yeah, I think so. You still want to do it?”
And soon I realize that T Bone considers anything intriguing to be genuinely possible. I had heard that in the fall, he would be the executive producer and the music producer for a television show called Archangels—with songs written by Elvis Costello—in which a girl band “goes on adventures.” I ask if it’s true. “Yeah,” he says with a wry smile. “I guess they announced it.” When he talks about the reasons a 78 rpm record sounds better than a CD, I ask if he’d ever release his own recordings on 78. “Yeah, I’m considering it pretty seriously.” So it’s not really a surprise that his answer to “What’s good about being T Bone Burnett?” is “Never bored,” and the answer to “What’s bad about it?” is, muttered with a deep chuckle, “Never bored.”
After the play, the cast members and their guests saunter into an Italian restaurant named Scala’s Bistro to talk about the performance and munch on calamari under the high ceilings and gilt mirrors. Groupies in hot pants pace, planning the remainder of the night on their cell phones, in a whirl of so many celebrities that I start thinking there are actually clones of each of them hovering around a long row of tables against the wall. Cheech is over there—nope, nope, he’s over there; Bonnie Raitt is visiting with Sam Shep—nope, she’s over there now. Drinks are passed. Glasses clink.When T Bone slouches sideways on a banquette and pulls his glasses off, Penn picks the plain specs up, winds the wires behind his ears, and broadcasts, “So this is what the world looks like through T Bone’s eyes.” He surveys the room with his hands on his hips. “Pretty good.”
What T Bone used to see when he was growing up in Fort Worth—back when his family lived on a hill and he could watch clouds roll in from all sides—was this: “It was gray. I remember—remember that great scene in The Last Picture Show when they show Ben Johnson just sitting there, and you can’t distinguish the water from the sky? That’s how I remember growing up.”
He was born Joseph Henry Burnett, though he says people started calling him T Bone when he was a kid (he’s not sure why). In those days he listened to a lot of Buddy Holly and Jimmy Reed records. As a teenager, he wrote and played blues and rock and roll in his bands, but it was the production studio that became his laboratory. Over the years, he found he was good at it. Very, very good at it. And true to the notion that one has to leave his home to find his identity, T Bone drove out of Fort Worth in the early seventies, when he was in his mid-twenties, and eventually settled in Los Angeles, where production work rolled in like clouds over the plains.
Seeing him in a social situation, one can appreciate why he would be an ideal helmsman for creative people: Besides having keen ears, he laughs a lot; a performer in a studio would feel at ease. Plus, he’s interested in a wide range of topics—thirties music and Arvo Pärt and Lydia Mendoza and presidential elections and the new Macintosh computer and the myth of Orpheus and the colors that compose images on a television screen. Early in the morning, when Scala’s has just about cleared out, Shepard is talking about New Orleans pianist James Booker. Shepard demonstrates on the table the way Booker would play his left hand off his right, and I glance over at T Bone, who promptly gives me the “Don’t look at me; pay attention” elbow in the ribs. These are the fascinating things—everything buzzing around him.
The next day, he’s in a bookstore looking for Stanley Bing’s satirical instruction book What Would Machiavelli Do? and James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia. As he’s poking around the tables with new releases, he picks up Nancy Reagan’s I Love You, Ronnie and makes a comment that would cause eyes to roll in most liberal artist circles: “I have a lot of respect for Reagan. He really did a lot for my parents’ generation. He wrapped up the World War’s loose ends.” No sarcasm follows. He just gives that eyebrow-raised “You know what I mean?” look and keeps strolling, brushing his long fingers on the book covers.
Later that day, when we talk about a letter he wrote in 1999 to Jerry Falwell that criticized the reverend’s teachings, he starts talking about why, in an industry not known for its fondness for religion, he has stayed an outspoken, religious man. Sometimes this has confused his admirers who may equate his marriage to former Christian-only pop singer Phillips with a right-wing stance. “Why do some of your fans think you’re ‘born again’?” I ask.
“There are so many parts to it. One is: People look for handles. It makes you safe. If they can put a handle on you, they can pick you up and move you. But there are a lot of parts to that answer. Some of it had to do with Dylan and that whole period of time when we went on the road with him in ‘75 and ‘76—probably ten or fifteen people who were on that tour started going to church again,” he says. “It’s corny to say, but religion is important to me, and as far as I’m concerned, the more organized the religion the better. When people say, ‘Well, I’m religious but I don’t like organized religion’ I think, ‘Alright, well, cool, great,’ and I put my wallet in my boot”—he laughs—“because I know what’s going to happen.”
The only subject he doesn’t seem to get excited about these days is production work. “Kids today—it’s funny, because now I’m a record producer, and I’m the one who has to make an argument for art. When I was growing up, it was the record producers who were commercial, and the musicians had this notion that we were making art—those producers thought that was ridiculous. The music must be transcendent. I still believe that.
“That’s why I’m not producing anymore. That’s why I’m going in this other direction. I’m too old to be messing around with this. At this point the records have got to be really good or else why am I doing it? I don’t mean to sound pompous. At this point, though—I don’t need to do it to figure out how to get a drum sound. I don’t need any practice getting drum sounds. I should be making my own records even if they don’t sell and I go broke.” The final night I’m in San Francisco, after the last act has finished and the audience is long gone, he bounds down the stairs from backstage and hustles out of the theater. It’s chilly outside, and he’s striding quickly in long paces down the street with his hands in his pockets, amused, giddy. It has been said that men do their best work after fifty. He has heard this and is convinced it’s true. He’s a producer to pay the bills, but a writer’s only a writer when he’s writing. If that’s what T Bone is, time’s a-wastin’. Let down the wall; this is the great mid-life rush. Never bored.It’s about two o’clock in the morning. Back at the hotel, he pulls out a small-bodied guitar and starts whisper-singing songs from The True False Identity. It’s conjuring music, slow, dark, and sad, and he rocks back and forth slightly as he picks through. “You are my darkness / I crawl through you / feeling my way / to no light.”
Before I leave, I ask what other projects I should expect him to be revealing. “There are so many things, but I don’t know what they are yet,” he says, punctuating the response with a big guffaw.
“Yeah, that’s really the straight answer to that. There are so many things that I want to do.” It seems like at this moment, in this answer, he knows every single thing about being T Bone Burnett.