T-Bone Burnett: Producer, Genius, Witch Doctor
On April 26, Steve Earle releases his 14th studio album, I'll Never Get Out Of This World Alive, on New West Records. Earle recorded the album in five days with producer T-Bone Burnett. If you are reading any music publication or listening to music these days it seems you can't run through your local Borders without knocking over a display of albums Burnett has produced. Who's album hasn't he produced in the last decade?
Born in St. Louis on January 14, 1948, but raised in Fort Worth Texas, Burnett puts his unique stamp on an artist's record usually in the area of an American roots rock sound infused with blues, jazz, folk, country and bluegrass. Not much is ever said about his birth in the Gateway City, but it can be surmised that his musical roots might be much different without the Texas influence.
Over the last 40 plus years Burnett has been part of the music scene, but many people who buy records may not have recognized his name until recent years. Burnett started in the music industry in the late 1960's and early 197o's. In 1975, after paying his dues as a studio musician, a big break came as he was asked to tour as a guitarist with Bob Dylan as a member of the Rolling Thunder Revue tour.
In the 1980's, Burnett produced albums by such notable artists like: Marshall Crenshaw, the Bo Deans, Tommy Keene, and two high-profile records by Elvis Costello, King Of America and Spike. He also helped the career of veteran artist Roy Orbison with production of two of his albums and the now famous A Black And White Night Live movie featuring Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Jackson Browne, James Burton, and many others backing the Hall Of Fame artist in a one-off concert.
Burnett had some very high points in the 1990's with the Counting Crows 1993 début album August And Everything After , The Wallflowers' 1996 blockbuster hit Bringing Down The Horse and the influential Gillian Welch record, Revival.
His production of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack in 2001 seemed to rocket Burnett's career to another level. On February 27, 2002, Burnett won four Grammys for his work on the soundtrack in the categories of Album of the Year, Best Traditional Folk Album and Best Compilation Soundtrack Album for Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media. He was also awarded the Grammy as Producer of the Year, Non-Classical. The success of O Brother brought more work in the film industry throughout the last decade in the role of Executive Music Producer on the Civil War based Cold Mountain, the Johnny Cash biopic Walk The Line and the Jeff Bridges film about an aging Country star, Crazy Heart, among others. In 2008, he produced five albums by other artists and released his own album to boot!
Released last Tuesday, Burnett's recent production credit is Gregg Allman's Low Country Blues, the artist's first solo album in 14 years. The album is Burnett's first production credit of 2011, but he'll have to work hard to beat his outstanding record from last year. A full 10 albums released in 2010 listed him as producer many of which were albums by veteran artists like Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, Elvis Costello and the Elton John & Leon Russell collaboration. Burnett is able to pull performances out of these artists that end up being their best work in years.
Albums produced by Burnett have a spacial quality not heard on every record. The mix is not cluttered with sound layers (e.g. numerous overdubs of guitars) allowing the instruments have enough space to breathe on the recording. This technique allows the listener to feel like they are in the room with the band as the song is recorded. That kind of experience brings the listener closer to the song.
On the 2010 John Mellencamp album No Better Than This produced by Burnett, Mellencamp recorded the songs at Sun Studios in Memphis, First Baptist in Savannah, GA and Room 414 at the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, TX where blues legend Robert Johnson recorded. They recorded the songs with one ribbon mic from the 1940's on a 55-year-old Ampex tape recorder in just a few takes; sometimes the musicians needed only one take. After the experience Mellencamp remarked to Rolling Stone, "I looked at T Bone and I said, 'What the fuck were we doing in the '80s?'" Mellencamp told the magazine. "I made a record once that took almost a year. I spent millions of dollars dicking around with songs, and in the long run it paid off because it sold millions of copies. But I go back and I listen to the record today, and it was...more of a craftsman thing."
Burnett focuses artists back to the basics and allows them to do what they do best unencumbered by all the unnecessary baggage. We can only hope that he works with more artists in the future and shows them the way.
For more - see this interview given by Burnett to A.V. Club last year.