As a teenager in Texas, T-Bone Burnett hung out at roadhouses, record stores, and his own recording studio, where he worked with the young Southern-rock acts emerging in the late ’60s, as well as the country and R&B legends touring through the state. In the early ’70s, Burnett moved to Los Angeles, recorded a solo album, and became an in-demand session musician, ultimately landing in Bob Dylan’s touring band. Later, he formed the ill-fated roots-rock outfit The Alpha Band, and by the ’80s, he’d settled into what would be his two primary careers: serving as a go-to producer for singer-songwriters, and recording his own critically acclaimed records. Then in 1998, the Coen brothers invited Burnett to assemble the soundtracks for The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the latter of which became a Grammy-winning, multi-platinum smash hit. Burnett added an Oscar to his shelf earlier this year for co-writing (with Ryan Bingham) the song “The Weary Kind” for the soundtrack to Scott Cooper’s Crazy Heart, now available on DVD. Recently, Burnett spoke with The A.V. Club about working in the movies, keeping a career afloat while the music business is in freefall, and his efforts to establish a new high-fidelity recording standard, dubbed “CODE.”
The A.V. Club: Jeff Bridges has said that the main reason he agreed to do Crazy Heart was because you were involved. What brought you on board?
T-Bone Burnett: Well, this kid Scott Cooper showed up at my door with a script he’d written, and he had a relationship with Robert Duvall, who was going to produce the movie. Now I’ve been following Robert Duvall’s work probably since To Kill A Mockingbird. [Laughs.] I certainly loved him in Tender Mercies, and knew he had a real affinity for country music. So I thought we’d have a shot at making a good low-budget movie, like a ’70s art film. We were going to do it for very little money, and really quickly. I think Scott asked me to call Jeff, because we didn’t have anybody to do it, so I called Jeff to see if he liked the script. He said he’d had the script for about a year. He asked me, “Yeah, but what do you think? Do you think we should do it?” And I said, “Well, if it was something you’d want to do, I would definitely want to do it,” and he said, “If you’ll do it, I’ll do it.” [Laughs.] We made like a schoolboy pact.
From there, I called Brian Philips at CMT, because I knew CMT had produced and released a George Strait movie that did under a million dollars at the box office, but played 150 times on CMT and sold 9 million DVDs. And those are all record-business numbers, so I don’t know what the actual numbers are. [Laughs.] So the idea was to do this movie with CMT, and we knew that if we didn’t get a good theatrical release, at least the picture would see the light of day. That was the idea. We went into it with those very low expectations, and then Jeffrey, once he got the bull by the horns, rode it all the way into the ground. He rode it right out of the state. Right out of the country. He became the leader of the gang at that point. We did do it very fast, though. We shot it in 25 days, and wrote and worked for probably five months ahead of shooting it.
AVC: When you work on the music for a movie like Crazy Heart or one of the Coen brothers’ movies, how much freedom do you have to do what you want? How much is dictated to you by the director?
TB: Well, I’ve been in the lucky position of having started with the Coen brothers, and of all filmmakers, they’re the most graceful at reaching a consensus. They’re extraordinary collaborators. I learned to work in that very collaborative way. I don’t really try to enforce my will on these things, but rather just seek what works. So the answer is, I’ve always had tremendous freedom to try to find the good thing.
AVC: Do you try to use the songs—whether you write them or just pick them—to express something about the characters that isn’t already in the script?
TB: In Crazy Heart, the songs were written for the characters to sing, so they grew right out of that. The songs were written during long conversations and writing sessions in which we’d go into who the character was, what was the first record he ever bought, what was the first song he ever loved, what was the first song he ever learned, what was the first song he ever wrote, what was the first hit he ever had… all of those questions we would ask about the character and who he was. You know that Bad Blake line, “I used to be somebody, now I am somebody else?” That came out of our conversations about the character, and especially out of Bridges working on who this guy was and where he came from.
AVC: You’ve written original music for films, but you’ve also picked older songs to use. Some musicians argue that using pre-existing songs in a movie does a disservice to the songs and to the movie. What would you say to that?
TB: You can use existing music in a good way. Marvin Hamlisch won an Academy Award for adapting Scott Joplin for The Sting, so that was obviously a very good use of Scott Joplin. And it was great because it got people to rediscover Scott Joplin. I think I know what you’re talking about; there are other ways to repurpose music that seem cheap. Exploitative. But I’d say anything can be well-done.
AVC: Have you found that working in the movie business has given you an opportunity to make the kind of records you wouldn’t be able to make if you were just in the music business?
TB: I think so. I mean, I could make them, but nobody would ever hear them. [Laughs.] There’s a tremendous amount of freedom. Y’know, the record business of the 20th century, as we knew it, is essentially over. If there’s going to be a record business at all, it’ll have to be reinvented. These days, you look for things that aren’t just a record. You look for something that’s a record and a tour and a film. Or a TV show. Or a documentary. Something so that there’s more to it than just a simple record. It’s hard to get any attention for just a record these days.
AVC: How has that affected your business as a producer? Steve Lillywhite said recently that he has a hard time getting work, because bands don’t need producers like they used to.
TB: No, that’s right. But, you know, I’m not that kind of producer, either. I’ve always written songs for people and written songs for films. I’ve been working all around. I don’t know how to describe it. I’ve been a jack-of-all-parades, I suppose. I’ve tried to make myself useful around the studio. Certainly I’m looking for different ways to have music circulate through the culture that doesn’t depend on the record business.
AVC: In the ’70s, you co-founded The Alpha Band, which was signed for a large amount of money by Clive Davis for Arista, and expected to be a lot bigger than you turned out to be. What were your expectations back then? Did you expect to be a big rock star?
DT: I never wanted to be a big rock star. My goal when I was a kid, oddly enough, was to be Burt Bacharach. I liked Burt Bacharach a lot. I admired him and studied what he did. I liked John Hammond a lot too. I think that’s what I wanted to be: Burt Bacharach and John Hammond. [Laughs.] I’ve done a horrible job of it, but at least I’ve managed to keep busy all these years.
AVC: What sparked your interest in Americana?
TB: I’ve been listening to traditional American music since I was 10 years old. Growing up in Texas, I heard a lot of it. There were a lot of really good musicians and writers coming up in Texas when I was growing up there. Janis Joplin, Townes Van Zandt. There was this place called Threadgill’s, and it had all kinds of great music. Townes Van Zandt was down there. A lot of blues. Stephen Bruton, who was my producer on Crazy Heart, his parents owned a record store, and they had exquisite taste in music. That was back in the days when a record store reflected the personality of the people who owned it. There were incredible, beautiful records in there. Off-the-beaten-path records. Blues and jazz. Stephen became interested very early on in the Folkways stuff, so we would get things from Folkways, and things from the Smithsonian that you couldn’t go into a record store and buy, but because they had the store, they did buy them. My interest in what I would call traditional American music started pretty early.
AVC: You’ve also written a lot of songs in the past about movies. Is working in Hollywood something you’ve been aiming for all along?
TB: Yeah, going back to that Burt Bacharach thing, man. [Laughs.] I thought, “What’s the greatest life in the world?” Well the greatest life in the world would be to write songs for movies and be married to Angie Dickinson. [Laughs.] Live in Coldwater Canyon.
AVC: When you first moved out to Los Angeles and started working with Bob Dylan and other major artists, was there anybody who intimidated you? Any gig when you got in the room and thought “I’m not ready for this?”
TB: Yeah—Leon Russell, actually. Everybody else was not intimidating, but Leon was incredibly intimidating. And I might’ve said the same about Ray Charles back then. I haven’t been intimidated for a really long time, but Leon was scary good. He understood Henry Mancini, he understood Little Richard, and he could travel very easily between those poles, those extremes. Still can, by the way. I’m making a record with him now. That’s a great honor and thrill, I must say, and a great record. That was 40 years ago that I found Leon imposing. Now he’s a kindly old gentleman. [Laughs.] At the time, he was a mirrored-sunglasses-wearing, super-bad motherfucker.
AVC: What was it like playing on Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder tour?
TB: I learned about 80 percent of what I’ve used to survive in show business from The Rolling Thunder Revue. Jacques Levy was the director of the Revue, and he was very generous with me, teaching me about the theater and about the way shows work. About how you sequence a show into acts and into story threads. Things that I’ve used, in like the Down From The Mountain Tour, and certainly things I’ve used in the movies, too. Later on, I went into theater, and I’ve done a few things with Sam Shepard and a few things at Steppenwolf in Chicago. All of that experience from Rolling Thunder came into play there, in learning not only how to tell a story through a song, but also to tell a story by the way you put songs together and who sings them.
AVC: There’s an old rumor from the Rolling Thunder days that you’re responsible for Bob Dylan’s conversion to Christianity.
TB: That’s completely untrue. That was written in a book, and I talked to the guy who wrote it, and in his next edition, he took it out. It’s just at that time… it was such a wild tour. Bono says that during that period, around 1976… The way Bono puts it is that the spirit of God was moving across the world. The guys from U2 were getting interested in the church, and guys from other bands were getting interested in the church. Probably about 15 people out of that Rolling Thunder tour started going to church, or going back to church. I was implicated in that Dylan thing for a while. [Laughs.] But no, there’s no substance to that rumor.
AVC: What’s the status of CODE?
TB: We’ve been releasing everything we’ve been doing under these new standards. There’s a group of engineers in town here—George Massenburg, Frank Filipetti, Al Schmitt, and they’re working on a standard, too, so I may start cooperating with them. The thing that is beyond question is that we need a new set of audio standards in the world, because all standards have broken down. People are actually being made deaf by music, which is terrible.
The last real standard we had was the RIAA standard. I know the RIAA has been dragged through the mud for the last 20 years for taking a probably unhelpful position on the digital realm, but for over 20 years, we’ve been without standards. If you listen to the CDs that were made of The Beatles in 1986 or ’87, you’ll hear how far the standards have dropped. The way The Beatles have been listened to for the last 20 years is shocking. Even the new copies, while they’re better mastered, still aren’t up to the standards of the original recordings.
So there’s a lot of work to be done. It’s not anything one person could do by himself, but we’re still fighting that fight. We’re moving into new areas of fighting it, too. I’m in discussions with a couple of companies about developing some hardware that would be the high-definition audio for the 21st century, upconverting everything, essentially, into high-definition. I think MP3s are a thing of the past already. Those will be like 8-track tapes in a couple of years. So many of these so-called lossless files… Digital is a terrible, terrible medium for storing sonic information. And by that I mean music. [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you have any plans to release some of your earlier records under this new standard at some point?
TB: Not at the moment. I mean, I have plans to release everything at a new standard eventually. That’s really the goal. The entire library has to be… If it’s going to be kept in digital format, the whole library of music that’s been recorded over the last hundred years has to be re-digitized to the highest standards, because it’s an important cultural treasure. Even though the record business was corrupt and run by people who were often unemployable in other fields, they put together an extraordinary American treasure. It has to be cared for and treated with the greatest respect, like paintings are. Those original tapes that Al Schmitt did of Ray Charles and Betty Carter singing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” are as important a national document as a Whistler painting or a John Steinbeck handwritten page. That stuff is important. The medium it was recorded on is part of the content of the piece. This is something that a lot of people aren’t interested in at the moment, but I think it is becoming more important quickly. I think it’s interesting that Nordstrom is carrying turntables, and that vinyl is the only part of the record business that’s growing.
AVC: You have a Grammy and an Oscar; are you shooting for an Emmy and a Tony?
TB: No. [Laughs.] I want The Congressional Medal Of Honor.