Looking Back To Get Ahead:
How T Bone Burnett Continues To Make Records That Are Better Than Par

(published July 2002, Album Network Magazine)

Part 3 in a series about the art of producing records, becoming a record producer, and the effect of changing technology!
By Rick Boggs

From St. Louis to Fort Worth to Los Angeles, T Bone Burnett has found himself in every sort of rough, sand trap, and water hazard that the music business has to offer. He has continually tried to perfect his approach, stay on course and eventually get to the green. The man who watched with amazement and admiration as Ben Hogan achieved greatness in the game of golf has himself become a man who provides hope and inspiration to onlookers in the music industry. Burnett has had the enviable good fortune of touring live with Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, producing records with icons like Elvis Costello and creating Grammy award-winning soundtracks for films like O Brother, Where Art Thou?.

Across a noisy, unreliable phone line in a hotel not far from Los Angeles, the amiable voice of Mr. T Bone Burnett recalls the eagles and bogies on the course of his dream career. Some of his worst experiences have been of his own making. ³I feel I have made every mistake you could possibly make in the record business,² he admits. Somehow, those mistakes became part of a journey that led him to success in every aspect of his professional music endeavors. Despite a grueling schedule with little time for sleep, T Bone graciously and generously answered our questions about making quality records, becoming a successful producer and how changing technology affects his efforts to do both.

T Bone Burnett started writing songs in kindergarten, so perhaps it is no surprise that he eventually sold a lot of records of his original music. ³I started out writing songs. That's my first love,² he says. ³As part of writing songs, all of the rest of it came with it, like playing guitar, exploring music in general and exploring the studio and all you can do in an environment like that.² The key turned out to be never giving up on his passionate pursuit of excellence and quality.

Considering his reluctance to play live, Burnett has made the most of his opportunities to do so. ³I have always been reticent to play live,² he admits. ³I can get into it if I work really, really hard. You have to work out and get into it to be able to do it well. If you do it sporadically, it's hard.² He established himself as a superior performer when he played on Bob Dylan¹s Rolling Thunder tour during the 1970s. ³I learned a tremendous amount about show business from Bob Dylan, Bob Neuwirth and John Levy, who was directing the show. That was a predecessor in many ways, and the Grand Ole Opry, to this Down From The Mountain Tour we are doing now with the idea of performers coming off and onstage and doing a tune or two; that is how that tour was.²

As a record producer, Burnett started young with a studio of his own. ³Back then, studios were not as expensive as they are today,² he recalls. ³We had a four-track, a three-track, a mono machine and a lathe. So we recorded a lot of stuff direct-to-lathe. And we would make acetates for people frequently.² His persistence in this area paid off as well, and he earned the privilege of producing Elvis Costello's King Of America record. ³Elvis is one of our very, very best record makers. Working with him was a constant inspiration. He was never willing to accept the thing that was acceptable at the time. He always wanted to find some new combination of sounds or words or thoughts that would trigger something or explode things into life.²

Producing records for artists has been a mutually beneficial experience for T Bone and his clients. He compares working with experts to developing new talent. ³There is a tendency in producers to try to control things. And a lot of times the best production you can do is to take your hands off. With The Wallflowers, I sort of cast and made that record. It was more of a case of bringing people in, shaping the sound, selecting songs and helping with everything in general. With Elvis, it was much more support, encouragement, listening and knowing what he was going for and helping him when he needed it and challenging him. In that case, you bring your experience and expertise.²

As a producer, Burnett has managed to embrace changes in the industry--blending the old with the new--while preserving his original approach to making great records. The way the radio industry used to be is always fresh in his mind. ³Back in those days, a band would cut a record, take it into the radio station, and they would play it on the air as they were driving away,² he says. ³It was very different in those days. A disk jockey would determine what he would play. They would play a Hank Williams song, a Peggy Lee song, a Beatles song, a Jimmy Reed song and a Little Tommy Tucker song, all right in a row. It was all just based on what a great record was and what a great song was. We are so far from that now. As people got more and more fluent in rock & roll, a lot more music was cranked out. There was less and less of the personal, individual touch.²

Radio is not the only aspect of the music industry that has transformed itself during Burnett's career. The introduction of digital distribution poses the probability of even greater changes ahead. ³There are two or three generations of kids now who have never bought music, who have only downloaded it,² he reflects. ³If people can just burn off mp3s all day long and it is just as good as anything else they can get, then why bother? Why go spend 20 bucks for something that is the same as what you can get for free? Well, first of all, it's not! Part of the problem is that the technology business, the record business and the media business had to sell digital in order to wire it up, in order to be able to produce it, just like they are selling wireless cell phone stuff even though it doesn't work at least half the time. They sell it to you so that they can build the infrastructure that is going to be necessary to actually have it work some day. The same has been true with CDs. The digital world has been far inferior to the analog world that came before it, but the labels and the media companies were telling us that it was this vast improvement and people bought it. They opened this Pandora's box. The only way out is through a notion of quality, that things have to have a certain quality that you cannot get anywhere else. Record companies are throwing in DVDs with CDs to try to sell the CDs. Man, that's like throwing in a Mercedes with a Ford Escort to try to sell the Escort. Ultimately, there will be some technology that will prevail, that will satisfy the needs of both the consumers and the people who should be the owners of the intellectual property. It will all be realigned.²

As T Bone's career continues to broaden to producing records and film scores, his thoughts on the current topic of intellectual property are especially poignant. ³For years, if media companies hired you to do one thing, they would own everything else you did during the time you were in their hire,² he explains. ³It would all be called Œwork for hire.¹ So, if you were directing a movie and you produced a song, they would own your authorship of that record. You see, when you produce a record, you are one of the authors of that record until you sign away your authorship to a record company. There are all of these involved and important issues that have to be thought about and talked about.²

While Burnett utilizes the new digital tools of his trade, he purposely injects as much of the older analog sound into his projects as he can. ³Analog recording still sounds way better than digital recording,² he believes. ³There is much more depth, much more detail in the sound and it holds the sound together much better. Digital sound, because it is samples, is tricking your ear into hearing something it's not hearing, in the same way television tricks your eye into seeing something that it is not really seeing. All it is really seeing is a bunch of points of light. It is the same with digital. All you are really hearing is a bunch of points of music. Where, with analog, there is a continual flow to the thing. A lot of sound, a lot of ambiance, a lot of atmosphere is lost in the digital world. Yeah, I use it all the time, but I always use other things, too. When I do record digitally, I saturate a lot of buzz and hiss into all kinds of stuff in the mix. I did a record back in 1985 called T Bone Burnett that was a DDD record. We recorded it on a three-quarter-inch video machine. I have always used primarily analog tape stuff, but, eventually, it all goes into the digital world. So, at some point, you are making the conversion. I am very careful about the conversions. I try to keep as much analog stuff in the chain as I can.²

Burnett does more than just talk about issues facing his profession; he tees up and takes a swing at solving some of the problems. Forming a partnership with his favorite filmmakers, Joel & Ethan Cohen, a new record label called DMZ has emerged. DMZ aims to lead the way toward establishing a notion of quality with a personal touch in a way that is not currently being done anywhere else. ³Absolutely, that's what we want to do,² he explains. ³We want to have a personal touch. The A&R is sort of my part of it. So, this is a chance, if I find something that strikes my imagination in a certain way--maybe I'll be able to get behind them and help them. I feel I have made every mistake you could possibly make in the record business, and maybe I can help other people not to make the same ones.²

The first artist to release a record under the new label is the honorable and deserving Ralph Stanley. Burnett explains why Stanley was offered the opportunity: ³There are not very many people like Ralph Stanley. He is in a category by himself. He is a master. He has been doing this for 55 years and he has been doing it not for fame or fortune, but because that is what he does. He has ridden a hard road for a long time. You just don't have many chances to work with people of this stature and caliber. It sets a very high standard for what we want to do as a label.² The material for the record is the result of a joint effort by Burnett and Stanley. ³Ralph brought several songs and I brought several. As I have been doing this research into traditional American music, I have found more and more songs that I think are really interesting, good songs. I started taking them to Ralph and we reworked them and rewrote them a little bit. He makes them his own. He does his own melody or vibe.²

Once again, Burnett has succeeded by using an old-school approach to bring out the richness of some great songs performed by a truly talented artist. True to T Bone¹s laid-back style, the process was not a lengthy, grueling one and the production wasn¹t flashy or glitzy. ³We did about 10 days, and then we came back and did four or five days, and then four or five days more. We used a 24-track machine and had about five mics. All we really needed were about five tracks.²

While some producers make their mark in the record business by developing the latest sound that might incorporate some new technical advantage, Burnett will leave as his legacy the art of reviving recording methods and traditional songs from an earlier era. His latest soundtrack for the film Divine Secrets Of The Ya Ya Sisterhood, as well as his Grammy Award-winning soundtrack for the Cohen brothers film, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, enable us to take a heartfelt, meaningful listen to quality songs from previous decades, some of which could be declared historical landmarks. Of the O Brother soundtrack, Burnett says, ³I thought it was a good bunch of tunes, a great bunch of performances and a wonderful bunch of musicians and singers. I just thought, ŒThis is a record, a group of musicians, and a type of music that has never had this sort of light shown on it that is going to come from this movie.¹ I never thought of a Grammy at the time, but the thing that totally surprised me was that it went to No. 1 on the Billboard chart. That floored me. That flabbergasted me.²

T Bone Burnett can look back on 30 years of accomplishments as a songwriter, guitarist, singer and record producer. His background in musical styles that incorporate storytelling seems to serve him well in his approach to producing soundtracks. In the end, T Bone Burnett is a man who gives life everything he has and consequently has received much in return. He seems to be truly grateful for both his talents and his opportunities. ³I definitely have tried to make the most of my talents and opportunities, too. Take my word for it."

The End.

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