T-Bone Burnett Biography
from Nonesuch: "You’re my friend, but I’m going to kill you."
Don’t fret. T Bone Burnett hasn’t gone off the deep end. At least not in that way. He’s merely explaining the tone of "Anything I Say Can and Will Be Used Against You," the put-you-on-your-heels opening track of his gripping new album, Tooth of Crime (Nonesuch). At once seductive and unsettling—from the haunting "Dope Island" (featuring alluring vocals by Sam Phillips) to oddly romantic " Kill Zone" to the brutal "The Rat Age" to the atmospheric "Telepresence" to the hill-country blues elegy that closes the tale, "Sweet Lullaby"—it’s a set of songs capturing a state of identity and cultural dislocation with an air that could be termed dramatic, even theatrical in places. Fittingly.
The album—completed fresh off Burnett’s stunning work as producer and arranger of the hugely successful Robert Plant/Allison Krauss collaboration Raising Sand—is a vibrant outgrowth of a long-running collaboration with playwright Sam Shepard that began with the 1996 musical staging in New York of his noted play Tooth of Crime (Second Dance). The songs are arresting distillations of modern conflicts and personal drama in a modern hyper-reality. The arrangements are imaginative and inventive. The performances are stunning, masterful, and unpredictable.
And that opening song sets the stage—sort of an update of Bo Diddley’s menacing macho-mythos "Who Do You Love?"
"It’s like a toast," says Burnett with a little chuckle. "Like some kind of cracked-out toast."
Following Burnett’s highly acclaimed 2006 album The True False Identity —itself a dynamic return to action after a fourteen-year hiatus as a recording artist—this new collection is itself the realization of years of work to fully capture the inspiration of Shepard’s forceful ideas.
"Tooth of Crime is a prophetic play that Sam first wrote in 1972, and it takes place in a time very much like now," Burnett explains. "It’s a time when there are zones of fame that flare up and people can become incredibly famous in their own zones and nobody outside that zone can know anything about it. When the zone completely disappears, the famous person doesn’t realize it, the only way to even find the zone being to hook up a toaster to a television to a microwave to a piano, then possibly you can tune it in. That was the initial inspiration for the album. And now that I’ve said it, I wish I’d made it ramshackle like that!"
Not that making the recordings was at all straightforward.
"These songs came together like a broken mirror—you get a lot of shards and start putting them together and create a lot of different angles," he says. "That’s this group of songs, this process."
Working with what has become a solid musical team anchored by Marc Ribot (Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, John Zorn) and drummer Jim Keltner (John Lennon, George Harrison, Eric Clapton, etc.), Burnett crafted the sound of Tooth of Crime into a unique aesthetic. It’s an approach that has evolved over decades of distinctive work for Burnett, both as a recording artist in his own right and in guiding an elite roster of artists and movie music projects: The 2000 Grammy album of the year O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack; the Oscar-nominated "The Scarlet Tide" for the film Cold Mountain (for which he also produced the soundtrack); albums by Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Los Lobos, Roy Orbison, Ralph Stanley, Tony Bennett and k.d. lang; and recent projects such as Raising Sand, the re-imagining of the Beatles catalogue in Across the Universe, and the music for the Johnny Cash biopic Walk The Line, are just highlights of a resume that stands as one of the most productive, distinctive, and lauded production careers of modern music.
"We’ve got a custom shop over here and we sort of do what they do on Monster Garage but with sound," he says of his recording studio. "‘Let’s turn this pickup truck into a golf cart or something.’ We’ve been experimenting with it for ten years, the same team of people. It’s gotten more and more interesting as everybody brings more and more to the party each time."
Tooth of Crime is not a cast album from the play—which isn’t a musical, but rather a theater piece in which characters sing. The song cycle here is a distinct entity, a presentation that works in its own right and on its merits.
"I recorded several of things for the play," he says. "Then the play kept changing. Only six or seven of the tunes ended up in the play and it didn’t seem like an album. But I kept going back and working on things and seeing what I could do. Then I found a couple of pieces, things that had come up during the production but hadn’t ended up in the play, that I had forgotten we’d recorded, and I was able to finish a couple of those tunes. Of course, I was doing a lot of other projects, so it ended up being a long process to just getting a handle on what this album was going to be."
Ultimately he was able to use the innate strengths of Tooth of Crime to form the foundation of an album that is a complete work unto itself.
"These days one of the hardest things to do is find a frame to make the songs hang together," he says. "It’s a great advantage working in this context with an incredible and soulful artist and intellect like Sam Shepard.
The first track, "Anything I Say," is an enticingly jarring entry point, the lyrics and music combining to paint a vivid picture with via some unconventional approaches. Keltner’s inventive drum playing paves the path for an offbeat amble of a rich horn chart by Darrell Leonard (heavy on the lower registers with euphonium and other "deep brass"), Burnett’s six-string bass, and Ribot’s twisted guitar approach. "I’m not even sure you’d recognize it as guitar," Burnett says. "It’s more percussion."
Next comes the duet with Phillips on "Dope Island." "It’s a disturbing place," he says. "For one thing, people talk about the apocalypse as something that’s coming. But I think it’s something we’re living in and that’s what this play and album were imagining. But not now, the future—but not in the future." Ribot and Leonard again make sterling contributions, with Los Angeles veteran Greg Leisz adding steel guitar.
"The Slowdown" wasn’t used on stage, but was written to be a "cheerful ditty" for a point "where the hero begins to be perplexed by the events that are beginning to overtake him and his team is trying to brace him." Phillips and singer-songwriter David Poe join Burnett on the vocals. "Blind Man" again spotlights Phillips on a song co-written by Burnett and Poe that also didn’t make the stage production.
"Kill Zone" has a soaring melody inspired by Roy Orbison, who in fact co-wrote it—shortly before his death—with Burnett and Bob Neuwirth. "It’s all very romantic, though comedic and tragic," Burnett says. "That’s one of the things I learned working with Shepard—something will happen on stage and the person on your left will laugh and the person on your right will gasp in horror." Musical wizard Jon Brion guests on baritone guitar, complementing Keltner, Leisz, and Leonard’s sonic painting.
"I just tried to get as murderous as possible," is how Burnett describes "The Rat Age," the song written to start the play’s second act. "I wrote this one by myself, a particularly evil little turn. And Ribot can always provide some serious threat. His guitar part has real threat in it, pretty broken down." "Swizzle Stick" ratchets up the macho to an exaggerated level Burnett calls comedic in the tradition of such R&B classics as Willie Mabon’s 1954 hit "Poison Ivy," with percussion and horns combining into a relentless cadence.
"Telepresence" takes the sonic experimentation to its own extreme, leading to the climactic "Here Come the Philistines," with its almost wistful evocation of a passed world of gangsters:" I Wish the good ol’ Cosa Nostra would make a come back. They were such a nice group compared to these thugs we have to live with now."
And then it ends on a surprisingly gentle note with "Sweet Lullaby," a peaceful if not entirely happy denouement.
"Sam was talking about how a sculptor who has been working on a piece of rock for years and is just about finished, one moment taps the chisel and the sculpture cracks in two," he says of the concluding mood. "You can sit and look at it, but there’s nothing to be done about it."
Burnett himself kind of laughs when looking back over how he got here.
"I was in two bands when I was young and was totally the worst guy in both bands. And none of the other guys are playing music anymore. There are probably millions of people who were better than I was.
Ultimately, though, it’s pretty simple. "I believed in it," he says, by way of explaining his reaching this point. "I actually believed in the power of music. That’s probably it."
That has indeed been it since Burnett started his professional music career as a Texas teenager. Moving to Los Angeles in the early 1970s, he came to national attention as a member of Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue band, out of which he formed the Alpha Band with David Mansfield and Steven Soles. The group made three acclaimed if underexposed albums before Burnett went solo with the arresting Truth Decay in 1980, followed by the Trap Door EP (1982), Proof Through the Night (1983), the Behind the Trap Door EP (1984), an acoustic collection T Bone Burnett (1986), The Talking Animals (1988), and The Criminal Under My Own Hat (1992). Highlights of these releases were collected on the 2006 two-disc set Twenty Twenty—The Essential T Bone Burnett. Through that time he became one of pop music’s most renowned producers with such work as Los Lobos’ How Will the Wolf Survive? and Costello’s King of America.
Today, in addition to releasing his own new album and touring as the musical director and guitarist with Plant and Krauss, he’s finishing production work on upcoming albums by B.B. King and John Mellencamp. All of it is marked by the same passion for the power of music.