20/20 Hindsight

The Musical Journey of T Bone Burnett

by Brett Leigh Dicks

Fourteen years between albums goes a long way in explaining why some in the general public might not instantly recognize the name T Bone Burnett. But while his own releases have been sparse, his remarkable musical empathy has guided an impressive array of undertakings, from producing for the likes of Elvis Costello and Roy Orbison, composing music for Sam Shepard plays, scoring the soundtrack for O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and guiding the vocals of Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon in Walk the Line, the biopic on the life of Johnny Cash.

Burnett’s incredible work ethic explains the gap between 1992’s The Criminal Under My Own Hat and the recently released The True False Identity, which came out simultaneously with a double-disc retrospective of Burnett’s work, Twenty Twenty: The Essential T Bone Burnett. Amidst the recent spotlights, Burnett’s nationwide tour with his former band mate’s son, Jakob Dylan, makes a deserving stop at the Lobero Theatre on Saturday, June 17.

It’s been 14 years since your last album and the last time you’ve run the press gauntlet as purposefully as you are now. What’s changed? When I was a kid, I looked at everything as a potential threat and now I am just grateful that people are taking an interest in what I do! And these days, they also let me go on the radio and talk to people! But I am having a wonderful time doing it all and it’s a great privilege.

Fourteen years is a long time. Have the embers for this album been burning for a while? I have been writing this album for probably 10 years now. One thing led to another and eventually everything that was stopping me from recording it went away, so there was nothing left to do but to make it. But the things that were stopping you were some very impressive undertakings — album production, film scores, even music for plays. Was it a case of sacrificing your own work for these outside projects? That probably makes it a little more generous and gracious than it actually was. There was just one irresistible thing after another placed in front of me. I have been working with incredible people in all the different arts — painters and playwrights and filmmakers and poets and musicians and singers. For the past 10 or 15 years, I feel that I have been through the most extraordinary master’s class in art.

One of the more interesting projects must have been working with Sam Shepard on his play Tooth of Crime. How’d that happen? When Sam called and asked me to work in New York on the Tooth of Crime, I was in a place where I was ready to start completely over. I was in a beginner’s mind. I have known Sam for years and I have read and seen his plays and I know him to be one of the most brilliant cats in the world. So the chance to collaborate and work with him — and to write with him and talk about art and life and all those things — was something I said yes to in the blink of an eye.

What did that experience afford your own approach to music? The requirement of the theater, where the music has to be powerful and compelling but not overwhelm the spoken word with volume, led me into an exploration of sound. I had to find ways to set sound off in a room that would then leave space for the spoken word, but still be moving. And that search — which is something of course I was always on in a more vague, less focused way — led me into many other universes of sound and music. I think that has been the best time of my life.

How differently do you approach writing a song for a character as opposed to writing for yourself? It is very different because you are not a singer/songwriter, you are being a composer. When you are writing the character’s libretto it has to be right and has to ring true for that character. And that is incredibly freeing from the typical narcissism of the singer/songwriter.

As well as The True False Identity you also have a retrospective, Twenty Twenty: The Essential T Bone Burnett, coming out. How is having the hindsight of a career permanently preserved on a single recording currently sitting with you? I hadn’t listened to anything for years, so it was daunting and rewarding to go back and listen to it all again. And I was very pleasantly surprised by how many of those recordings I could still feel close to. I feel close to all my songs, but some of the recording got away from me and I was concerned that I wouldn’t even be able to find 10 songs that I still liked. As it turned out, I found much more than 10.

Given the explosion of recorded music thanks to the digital revolution, does it make the live performance all the more precious? I think it makes it more valuable and important, but I also think it always has been both of those things. Now that we have gone beyond the age of mechanical reproduction and the way we are able to distribute music is wildly different from the way we did it years ago, I think it brings a lot more people to the party. In doing that, the leverage has swung toward the artist. I am sensing and seeing and hearing a coming explosion of new music like we haven’t seen for years. And I have been waiting patiently for this to happen!

411: T Bone Burnett plays the Lobero Theatre on Saturday, June 17, 8 p.m., with opener Jakob Dylan. Call 963-0761 or visit

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