Good To The Bone
(T Bone Burnett's career and legacy as a musician, instrumentalist, artist, and producer will be celebrated at The Recording Academy's Producers & Engineers Wing event, Shaken, Rattled & Rolled, which will take place in Los Angeles on Feb. 9 as part of GRAMMY Week.)
"I produce by listening."
That's how studio man extraordinaire T Bone Burnett explained his approach to the art and craft of recording in a 2008 interview with MarketWatch.com. "I think a lot of producers feel a need to justify their presence in the studio, and I don't," he explained. "A producer is a proxy for the audience. I give [the artists] my full attention…and good feedback that they can trust."
Over the last few decades, the audience for authentically American sounds couldn't have wished for a better proxy than Burnett, and the feedback offered to the artists he's worked with has resulted in a body of work that's something close to a gold standard for artistic achievement and recording excellence.
In the last year alone, Burnett lent his distinctive talents to a collection of projects that might be a career's worth of highlights for anyone else. He picked up a music Oscar for original song with Ryan Bingham for "The Weary Kind (Theme From Crazy Heart)" from the film Crazy Heart starring Jeff Bridges at the 82nd Annual Academy Awards in 2010. (Burnett was a writer and co-producer of the film's GRAMMY-nominated soundtrack.) He oversaw Willie Nelson's first foray into traditional country and bluegrass with the GRAMMY-nominated Country Music. He helped John Mellencamp create one of the deepest, rawest albums of the artist's career with No Better Than This. He produced a piano lover's fantasy-league dream album by helping Elton John and Leon Russell form The Union. And in between, Burnett had time to produce breathtaking albums for the likes of Jakob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Ryan Bingham & The Dead Horses, and Robert Randolph. Burnett kicked off 2011 with Gregg Allman's incredible return to blues on Low Country Road. And his work on Crazy Heart and on Nelson's Country Music have earned the 10-time GRAMMY winner three more nominations for the 53rd Annual GRAMMY Awards.
Burnett's career as a guitar player, songwriter, bandleader, and producer spans more than 40 years, and his production credits are broad and varied enough to include Spinal Tap, Tony Bennett and B.B. King. But there are some clear, unifying elements to the music he makes or helps others make. Above all, there's a passion and respect for American roots music, which can be traced back from Burnett's first big break in 1975 as a member of Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue band and his work with his own lauded, though under-the-radar project, Alpha Band, right on through to his work as soundtrack producer for the Coen Brothers' film O Brother, Where Art Thou? (a work that helped relaunch the career of bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley, earning him a Best Male Country Performance GRAMMY in 2001 for "O Death").
But Burnett doesn't simply work as an inspired archivist. One of his greatest abilities as a producer is to create music that celebrates the past while looking fully toward the future. Roots may be explored, but Burnett doesn't ever let them sound old. He has long embraced a quirky mix of extremely low-tech and cutting-edge high-tech approaches in the studio in order to get just the right vibe on a project. "I try to use the technology in a way that it's either absolutely transparent or it's absolutely apparent," he told Mix online magazine in 2006. "Any of the middle ground is distracting, I think."
Burnett's career has also been marked by a certain fearlessness. A guy who can coax career-capping studio performances out of such icons as Bennett, John, Roy Orbison, Nelson, and Allman is obviously no pushover. And in his role as an executive producer on film projects, Burnett has been gutsy as well, taking on the music of Johnny Cash in Walk The Line and deconstructing the music of the Beatles for Across The Universe. Burnett's distinctive history and sense of adventure led to especially stunning results in 2008 with Raising Sand, an album that teamed rock legend Robert Plant with country mega-talent Alison Krauss. That work was powerful enough to garner both Album Of The Year and Record Of The Year (for "Please Read The Letter") GRAMMYs.
If there's any aesthetic element that runs through Burnett's work, it might be in his willingness to walk on the darker side. Death, loss, heartbreak, and general spookiness seem to take the spotlight when he's running the soundboard and, whether recording mountain music or a full rock band, Burnett almost unfailingly creates an air of mystery in the performances and in the very essence of the sound. To Burnett, it would seem, the most compelling music is the music that can't be fully explained.
"There's so many beautiful musicians, and creative people in general, but what most of us get is squeezed through this tiny bottleneck of 'American Idol' and things like that," he told The Independent in 2010. "I think it's incumbent upon those of us who care about music that isn't in the mainstream to spread the word however we can. All the music I've loved the most was unfathomable to me when I first heard it."